Candidate pool

Transformation of a passenger car into a ute requires — obviously — cutting the entire body of the car somewhere behind the front door. A two-door configuration, other factors aside, provides more practical chassis cut points because the rear door and window opening complexities are absent. Rear engine vehicles clearly are not candidates while front wheel drive (FWD) presents an advantage because there is no rear drive shaft and differential to work around.

Most two-door cars today focus on performance and, as a result, typically use rear wheel drive more suitable to the sports sedan category. Front wheel drive four-door cars tend to fill the “family” car niche. Finding a suitable two-door FWD vehicle limits the options considerably.

Economic depreciation flattens out around 10 years

Optimal vehicle age begins around 10 years old, the point when the “flat” part of the economic depreciation curve becomes evident; cutting up a more recent model clearly isn’t cost-effective.

Since average annual mileage is about 13,500 according to the Federal Highway Administration, a 10-year-old car would be expected to have odometer readings in excess of 120,000 miles. Low mileage premiums — half the expected rate — add perhaps 50% to the vehicle’s value.

Here are practical compact candidates using 2010 as the starting target model year:

  • Mini Cooper
  • Honda Civic
  • Fiat 500
  • VW New Beetle

Of these four possibilities, the Mini Cooper and Fiat 500 have profiles that effectively limit the length of a rear cargo box to less than five feet. High head room, around 20″, permits good visibility out the back window; the low roof line of the Civic places constraints on this parameter. So the Volkswagen New Beetle looks like the most practical choice.

Volkswagen Beetle

Few cars are as iconic as the common Volkswagen Beetle. Created by engineer Ferdinand Porsche with designer Béla Barényi between 1925 and 1938, the Beetle’s early launch is unfortunately associated with Adolf Hitler who wanted an inexpensive “people’s car”. While the Beetle has undergone several redesigns and face lifts, its essential form is easily recognizable.

The Beetle’s invasion of the North American market peaked in the 1960s. Powered by a noisy air-cooled rear engine, these vintage Beetles had difficulty keeping up on the newly built interstate highways. Implementation of 1970s safety and clean air regulations further reduced demand. The last original Beetle rolled off the assembly line in 1979.

Following a two decade hiatus, VW significantly redesigned the Beetle with a front engine and front wheel drive that heavily borrowed from the original exterior form. Known as the New Beetle, production began in 1998 and ended in 2019 after undergoing several body refreshes.

Engine variations

Over the course of the twenty year New Beetle manufacturing era, VW introduced nine engine blocks (8 gasoline and 1 diesel) with 38 variations, all mounted in the front and ranging from 75 to 225 horsepower (and deployed on various Audi and VW models). Due to poor fuel availability and high pollution, diesel engines are not an attractive option.

A target horsepower of at least 150 allows for a cargo load of about 650 lbs based on a curb weight of 2,965 lbs subtracted from the gross weight rating of 3,828 lbs and allowing 400 lbs for a driver and right seat passenger (the ute transformation saves 150-200 lbs of rear chassis weight that can effectively be added to the cargo load capacity).

Four basic gasoline engine blocks produce 150HP or better.

Block nameEngine typeCodeYearsHorsepower
1.8 T1781cc I4 turboAPH1999-2000150 @ 5800 rpm
1.8 T1781cc I4 turboAWV2001-2004150 @ 5500 rpm
1.8 T1781cc I4 turboAWP2002-2004180 @ 5500 rpm
2.3 V52324cc VR5AQN2000-2005170 @ 6200 rpm
2.52480cc I5BGP BPR BPS2006-2010150 @ 5000 rpm
3.2 V63189cc VR6SXJ2000-2003225 @ 5700 rpm

While the 3.2 V6 engine is the most powerful at 225HP, only 250 of the RSi Limited Edition Beetles were manufactured between 2001-03 and their high MSRP (resale prices typically exceed $50,000) puts this outside the range for a transformation project.

The Turbo S model (2002-04), equipped with the 1.8 T tuned to 180HP, included a sport suspension with a 6-speed manual transmission. In a similar model, the Turbo GLX, the 1.8 T outputs 150HP. The 1.8 T is a popular performance enhancement platform; for example, the APR ECU upgrade can boost 1.8 T power above 200 HP and many high performance aftermarket parts are available.

The 2.5 I5 engine (fitted to all post-2005 Beetles) enjoys the best OEM spare part availability and mechanical repair profile, but there are limited aftermarket enhancements; most 2.5 models have automatic transmissions (see transmission discussion below).

Transmissions

The Beetle is nearly synonymous with manual shifting due to its low cost, practical DIY repair, and general robustness. In the late 1980s VW experimented with three-speed automatic transmissions and began to offer 4-speed automatic options in 1995. These early transmissions generally get poor marks for performance and durability.

A 6-speed automatic became the preferred transmission for the 2008-10 model years receiving acceptable overall reviews but sensitive to deferred maintenance breakdowns (like not changing the transmission fluid as recommended). Automatics are easier to handle in urban traffic and provides “any driver access” for those who may not be familiar with manual shifting and clutch pedals. However, manual VWs still offer the best reliability and, given the right road conditions, the most enjoyable drive. The majority of 2008-10 models have automatic transmissions.

Body variations

Apart from fender, lighting, and interior trim options, the 1998-2010 New Beetle frame remains identical enough for our ute transformation purposes. There is no 2011 model year. For 2012, the Beetle underwent a chassis modification that puts these later model years out of contention.

VW marketing tangles up option package names to such an extent that a precise description often requires a VIN number and physical inspection. Between 2006 and 2010, hatchback (that is, not a convertible) option packages basically covered the optional sunroof, transmission choice, wheel size (16″ or 17″), and front fog lights. A premium Monsoon sound system together with special seats, fabrics and exterior paint treatment was also offered during various promotions.

Fender profile

The 1998-05 fenders, both front and rear, are fully curved, while the 2006-10 “face lift” version added a hard crease.

Front fender design changes

The pre-2006 design is more suggestive of the vintage Beetle and more suitable for the ute conversion. However, all pre-2006 Beetles have less desirable engines (apart from the Turbo S model with the 1.8 T). In addition, the Smyth kit fender profile on the rear fiberglass panels echoes the pre-2006 shape. To get everything sorted with a post-2005 model, some kind of front fender treatment would be desirable.

Sunroof

Only hardtop coupe models can be considered (although a convertible ute might be an interesting challenge). Most hatchback New Beetles were produced with a retractable sunroof. Unfortunately, a ute transformation cuts the roof at a point that limits full movement. Furthermore, the interior cover can’t retract fully given the ute roof cut. Thus any sunroof model would need to limit the extent of sunroof retraction to between 8″ and 10″ (a set screw in the mechanism channel can be used as a torque alert for the sunroof motor) in order to avoid the mechanism from hitting the fiberglass shell of the back cab wall.

The majority of all New Beetles have sunroofs, but if a non-sunroof model can be located, all other things being equal, it would be preferable.

Market prices

Combined with the engine parameters previously discussed, the best candidates are post-2005 models with the 2.5 I5 engine or the 2002-04 Turbo S with the 1.8 turbocharged engine. Given that newer cars experience less overall wear and tear, the last two years of the 2.5 I5 production range is preferred versus earlier models. See also the comparison of the Turbo S and 2.5 I5 models.

The choice basically comes down to this: an “everyday easy-to-drive economy” (the 2.5 models) or a “fun high performance” (the Turbo S) ute conversion.

The average actual market price of the 2010 base trim New Beetle was about $17,500 based on a dealer invoice of $17,300 dealer invoice plus a $200 dealer profit (before destination charges). Applying the expected 75% depreciation (see chart above), current resale prices for an average condition 2010 base coupe New Beetle should be about $4,375. The chart below displays some representative dealer prices for a 2009-10 base model automatic transmission without a sunroof as of early 2020.

Note that very low mileage excellent condition cars may command as much as a 100% premium; asking prices are typically 10-20% above actual transaction price.

Turbo S prices cluster in a similar range with higher mileage given the older age of this model. Turbo S resales also tend to have various owner modifications and repairs, often not well documented.