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    Auto: Two Fun Off-Season Car Stars

    By Philip Ruth

    The holiday season brings thoughts of giving gifts, both to your loved ones and to yourself. The commercials encouraging impulse purchases of big ticket items are coming, and it won’t be long before your TV screen is filled with images of new cars draped with red bows.

    Those deals can make sense if you’ve been looking for a vehicle that’s suddenly featured in the promotions. There can also be opportunities at dealers looking to clear inventory before the end of the year. What you want to be careful of is being pulled into a long-term commitment based on the euphoria of seasonal cheer.

    December is also a fine time to buy a convertible, as snow and Tahoe are usually on Northern California’s buyer’s minds. That brings us to this week’s Fiat 500C Abarth and Volkswagen Beetle 1.8T Dune Convertible, which are two appealing droptops with very different personalities.

    It’s the rare new car that enervates you when you twist the key, and the rorty Abarth version of the Fiat 500 will inspire that. Add the convertible aspect—it’s really a panoramic sunroof, since the side rails have not been cut out—and the 500C Abarth can bring sunniness to even the foggiest of our days.

    ruthWith the Abarth emphasizing acceleration and road-holding, the Dune heads in an off-road direction as it evokes the dune buggies based on Beetles of the 60s and 70s. Reaction to it from onlookers was almost universally positive. Some liked the references to the Beetles they grew up with, and some just liked the unique Sandstorm Yellow paint job. In a sea of white and silver sedans, it’s easy to find the Dune in a parking lot.

    Both the Fiat and Volkswagen were strong performers. Both had automatic transmissions, and I would have preferred a manual in each, but both acquitted themselves well in hilly San Francisco. The Dune had the usual Volkswagen initial turbo lag, where there’s just a dash of hesitation when you step into the throttle. The Fiat also needed a beat for its turbo to spool up. But once they got going, both these convertibles had no problem sloughing off the traffic around them.

    While the six-speed automatics in each didn’t appreciably slow these cars down, the Fiat’s changed the dynamic of driving this pipsqueak sportster. The toy-car shifter in the manual version is no prize, but at least it provides a more active role in deciding when the turbo will dispense its boost. The automatic places you in a more passive role, because you’re waiting for it to decide on a gear before you can really kick it. The Volkswagen’s slushbox, on the other hand, was more on-point.

    The usual reliability caveat applies to both these brands, so you’d be prepared for maintenance that could be more involved than what you’d find in others. But as an off-season purchase in the thick of year-end discounting, you might be able to swing a deal that’s as freeing as these cars can feel.

    Philip Ruth is a Castro-based automotive photojournalist and consultant at Check out his automotive staging service at