PORTLAND, Oregon - Early in 2006, Volvo launched a brand-new retractable-hardtop coupe, taking its C70 model designation from a previous fabric-roof model. Now, Volkswagen is entering the retractable-hardtop arena with a new coupe that provides many of the same bonuses - but with a price tag more than $10,000 lower.
Seating four and named for the Greek goddess of dawn, the Eos holds Volkswagen's turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. If the four-cylinder's 200 horsepower won't suffice, a V-6 alternative will be offered later.
Touch a button and in 25 seconds, the steel roof runs through a series of clever maneuvers, to wind up hidden away for true sun-drenched motoring. With the top up, it's a tightly built all-weather coupe. In what Volkswagen calls an "industry first," a glass sunroof is incorporated into the steel top. Styling might not break much fresh ground, yet the Eos attracts the eye with its simple and smoothly curved lines.
Eos buyers get an "authentic European driving experience," said Dave Wicks, director of sales administration. With the CSC roof, they also get the advantages of a Coupe, a Sunroof, and a full-fledged Convertible. Vehicle weight isn't affected dramatically by the roof installation, as the top structure weighs a reasonable 187 pounds. Trunk space is a modest 6.6 cubic feet with the top down, growing to 10.5 feet as the roof raises out of its trunk location. A pop-up windblocker is available as an option.
Produced in Portugal, the Eos comes with a choice of two transmissions: six-speed manual or Volkswagen's Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG). Tuned for a "European driving experience" according to Bret Scott, general manager for midsize vehicles, the Eos rides a 101.5-inch wheelbase and has a track width (distance between left and right wheels) of 70.5 inches.
Volkswagen's turbo four (2.0T) engine develops 200 horsepower at 5100-6000 rpm, and 207 pound-feet of torque at 1800 to 5000 rpm. As estimated by the Environmental Protection Agency, gas mileage should run 23 mpg in city driving and 31-32 mpg on the highway. Naturally, real-world driving may produce considerably different results, but the difference between manual shift and the DSG setup should be minimal.
Affordability is an issue, which the German automaker has addressed recently by promoting a pattern of "Volks-pricing." The new Rabbit, for instance, is priced markedly below the Golf model that it replaced. With the four-cylinder engine, the Eos starts at $27,990, which is close to $11,000 below the cost of a Volvo C70 retractable hardtop.
Later in 2006, Volkswagen will make the new 250-horsepower V-6 engine available, starting at $36,850 - significantly closer to the price of Volvo's C70. With V-6 power, the EPA estimates gas mileage at 22/29 mpg.
Some prospective buyers might believe a V-6 engine is essential for a car of this caliber, but others will say they're mistaken. On the highway, even up mountain grades, abundant power is available, without notable turbo lag to impede performance.
Volkswagen's manual gearbox shifts fairly easily, seldom balking and working effectively with the well-behaved clutch. Still, the extra-cost clutchless Direct Shift Gearbox is hard to pass up, delivering the benefits of both a stick shift and an automatic. It's smooth as can be in Automatic mode, and exceptionally prompt in Manual position. Why, one wonders, can't other manufacturers' sequential-manual gearboxes be this easygoing and effective? Paddle shifters for the DSG unit are included in an optional sport package.
More surefooted than expected the Eos is also reasonably confident in curves. Steering operates with a rather light overall feel, but that's no demerit. In fact, the lightness doesn't detract much at all from a solid sensation and tenacious roadholding through twisting two-lane roads. Steering responses are quite quick and positive, too.
Visibility is limited with top up, which is no surprise. It's not the worst, but not so good either.
Inside, the driver's right leg is likely to bump against the wide console; but curiously, the front passenger's leg has a bit more free space, suggesting an asymmetrical layout. Large white-on-black gauges are easy enough to read most of the time, and the red-lit gear indicator in the instrument panel is most helpful.
Though luggage space is minimal with the top down, when the roof is up the driver can raise the storage hump in the trunk, to allow more space for cargo. Inside, the glovebox is immense by today's standards.
"Quality has been an Achilles heel for us in the past," Wicks admitted, but Volkswagen claims significant improvement lately. Volkswagen anticipates a 50/50 male/female mix of likely buyers, and believes the Eos will appeal to "educated and successful" shoppers. About 3,000 are expected to reach customers in the final months of 2006, and 12,000 during 2007. Sales began officially on September 9.
Convertibles are nothing new for Volkswagen, which offered its first soft-top to American customers way back in 1949. Rabbit convertibles drew considerable sales during the 1980s and early '90s. So did the Cabrio that debuted for 1995 and departed after 2002. Current New Beetles can be equipped with a fabric top.
Retractable hardtops are another story - rare items from any manufacturer. Until recently, only a handful have been marketed to U.S. buyers. Ford was first with a mainstream retractable, in 1957-59. The front edge of Ford's roof folded down below the rear section, and the whole unit squeezed into the trunk - leaving little room for luggage. That system was also complex and prone to water leakage.
Over the years, some attractive retractable hardtops have appeared on the European market, including several appealing entrants from Peugeot soon after the turn of the 21st century. But except for a handful of speciality models, over the past half-century few have reached U.S. shores.
Mercedes-Benz turned its SL-Class two-seat sports car into a retractable for the 2003 model year. Volvo launched its C70 metal-roofed convertible as a mid-2006 model. Pontiac has one too, as part of its G6 lineup, though not many have reached buyers.
Mazda has even developed a retractable-hardtop version of its MX-5 (Miata), though the Miata's fabric top has always been one of the easier ones to put up and down. Though retractables will always be a niche market, it's likely that at least a few other automakers will launch such models before long.