Thursday, January 25, 2007

By now, the essential details have pretty much made the rounds of the automotive publications. Volkswagen has introduced a new convertible, the Eos, which features a folding hardtop and has a surprisingly low base price of less than $30,000. That alone has to be good news for anyone who wants driving fun in the sun and comfort and safety in wet, cold and wintry weather.

But it is hardly the whole story.

I recently spent some serious quality time with an Eos in the sunny Southwest, one of the few places in the United States where a motorist can enjoy top-down motoring in early December.

My wife and I toured in and around Phoenix and Scottsdale, Ariz. We made a dash across the desert to Malibu, Calif. We cruised along the Pacific Coast Highway. In all, we covered 900 miles in three days and nearly 1,100 miles over the course of a week.

That much driving (and riding) in such a short time can tell you a lot about whether you would enjoy the Eos as a long-term companion.

The answer in our case was “yes,” but let me set the stage before sharing a few details.

The Eos I drove was powered by Volkswagen’s turbocharged 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine that generates 200 horsepower and 207 foot-pounds of torque. It features direct fuel injection and four valves per cylinder.

It was mated to a slick-shifting, short-throw, six-speed manual transmission with gears well matched to the engine’s output.

Clutch take-up was smooth and the pedal resistance so light that driving in stop-and-go traffic caused no left-leg fatigue.

For those interested in performance statistics, the four-cylinder Eos will dash from a stop to 60 mph in about seven seconds and, according to the EPA, return between 23 and 32 miles per gallon of the recommended premium fuel.

Volkswagen’s lightning-fast Direct Shift Gearbox is a $1,070 option. It can shift more quickly than a person, and is quite entertaining to use in manual mode, but in the Eos I still prefer the manual shifter.

One of the first things a driver will learn is that the Eos is quite possibly the most accommodating convertible on the road.

Hold the right button and the top disappears into the trunk in 27 seconds. Weather a bit chilly? Turn on the seat heaters or the climate control, or both. Too windy? Install the standard wind blocker or raise the power windows, or both. Still not happy? Take another 27 seconds to put the top back where it came from. Then, open the standard tilt-and-glide power sunroof. No other car on the road offers that feature. But it does make one wonder. Could that sunroof actually be the answer to a question nobody has asked? Could it be overkill? Whatever, it might just come in handy in places where the weather is unpredictably changeable.

If the wizardry of its top were the Eos’s only special virtue, the temptation would be to write off the cute little runabout as just another convenience car for the uninspired motorist. It might, as were previous VW convertibles, be classified strictly as a “chick car.” After all, Eos is the Greek goddess of dawn.

But there’s a lot more substance to this car and that is what I learned from all that driving.

Top up or down, the body structure is surprisingly rigid, with almost no cowl shake. With the top up, the passenger cabin is tightly sealed and quiet. No air leaks, no squeaks, no rattles.

Put the front-wheel-drive Eos through its paces and you will find the engine strong and responsive with almost no turbo lag and almost imperceptible torque steer. The brakes are strong. Steering response is quick and accurate. The independent suspension offers a comfortable ride, but not at the expense of sloppy handling. The Eos may not be bred for the racetrack, but it sure knows its way around real-world roads.

Perhaps most revealing was the back-to-back trips across the desert. Cruising, even in a desert crosswind, is so effortless that my wife sat relaxed and unruffled at speeds that normally turn her into a nag. A reservoir of sixth-gear passing power remains even as the speedometer needle is edging toward triple digits. And, at a nearly constant 80 mph, the car averaged 28 mpg.

The optional sport seats in the test car were so supportive and comfortable that the only really noticeable effect of a six-hour, 400-mile sprint was a bit of eye fatigue.

You can put four adults inside the Eos but the back-seat residents will not enjoy getting in and out.

The Eos has 10.5 cubic feet of cargo space with the steel roof up and that was enough to hold a couple of suitcases for us long-distance travelers. Only 6.6 cubic feet remain with steel roof down.

Base price of the Eos I drove is $29,995 and that includes a full complement of safety equipment and a generous amount of comfort and convenience features. A sport package and navigation system upped the ante to $36,110, but I’m not sure I would insist on either one of them.

The retractable hardtop, once the exclusive province of the high rollers, is now available to fans of open-air motoring with a lot less disposable income. That Volkswagen has included it in a package that offers so much more makes the Eos a particularly enticing proposition.

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