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Volkswagen T2 Kombi Microbus driven
The Volkswagen Type 2 is an automotive icon. We know it best as the Camper, but it’s also served time as a Microbus, Transporter and Kombi – and amazingly, despite a design that dates back to 1950, the last is still currently produced in Brazil. In fact, over 200 are built every day, and will be until at least 1 January 2014. At which point that country’s new safety legislation kicks in, demanding airbags and ABS and – effectively – the Kombi’s extinction.
All the more reason to drive one now, then. Especially since I happen to be in Brazil for the 2012 Sao Paulo Motor Show. Thank you Volkswagen.
The original invite only mentioned the opportunity to test drive modern Brazilian market VWs, and even with a new water-cooled engine it’s hard to place the T2 in that category. But as soon as we started seeing them around Sao Paulo – and they are everywhere over here – a kind of wistful glow began emanating from the assembled international press. So dense you’d swear it really was rose-tinted.
And almost as if they were waiting for this moment, the personnel at Volkswagen do Brazil then revealed they had a pair stashed back at the hotel. This just about made my year.
The old, made new
If you don’t get the appeal of driving a freshly minted example of a 60-year-old design, there’s probably not much point in trying to explain it to you. But the very existence of this vehicle is so contrary to the cutting-edge automotive world we routinely experience in Europe that it stands out in shocking relief. Not in a bad way – necessarily – but because it’s a unique clash of the old and the new. An amazing chance to try and figure out what makes this machine great.
So what does the equivalent of about £14,750 get you from a T2 these days?
"it’s only when you glance in the rear view mirror that you appreciate just how long it is"
Well, not a radio. Nor a heater – though why would you need one in Brazil? The ventilation system consists of a slide to open some flaps in the front. And of course the windows. Only available in white on the outside, to say it’s basic inside is like suggesting a Bugatti Veyron is fast: there are literally three buttons on the dash, plus a cigarette lighter; the handbrake is a push-me-pull-me affair that sprouts straight out of what passes for the centre console, and the gear lever isn’t so much like a wand as a walking stick.
It will therefore come as no surprise that the steering wheel is approximately the diameter of a bass drum and the pedals stick up out of the floor on either side of the column. Regarding how spaced out they are for the first time, you also can’t fail to spot the indentation down by your ankle containing the headlight. Which is when you realise the cabin itself is the Kombi’s equivalent of a crumple zone. Do not crash this car.
Still, the seats are nicely trimmed. In contrast to the other areas of the interior that don’t have any kind of cladding at all. And when you take your first glance in the rear view mirror you start to appreciate just how long it is, too – the beautiful simplicity of the design is that here you have a singular, unadorned space with you the driver right at the front of it and the engine all the way at the back, under the boot floor.
Try the ethanol, man
That engine is now a modern 1.4-litre Flex Fuel unit rather than the wheezy old air-cooled character of the original. The Flex Fuel part means it will happily run on everything from regular petrol to full E100 ethanol, an ecologically friendly biofuel refined from sugar cane and long-established in Brazil. On this more potent cocktail, the Kombi produces a heady 78hp while reducing its CO2 impact. Hippies of the world rejoice.
The rest of us would be right in thinking that doesn’t sound a lot. While the T2 weighs a modest 1,259kg, it has a maximum payload of 1,000kg – an impressive combo for any type of van. The Kombi bus version here will seat nine and has a remarkable amount of room left over for their luggage, with space under the seats as well as over the engine cover. But it also takes over 16 seconds to reach 62mph.
"it aquaplanes like a speedboat with a stuck rudder"
Worrying about performance is probably missing the point, but actually driving the Kombi is still is a decidedly unusual experience. There is absolutely no escaping the age of the design – in this respect it reminded me of the Trabant I drove in January – but the impression of otherness is increased by the driving position, which places you directly over the front wheels. Like a truck.
It means you have to turn a little later than normal. Though to be honest, this isn’t really an issue given how much you have to spin that enormous wheel to get any kind of reaction. There’s also an enormous amount of play in the steering before something happens – just be careful waggling it around too much, because the eventual response tends to come in suddenly.
Bearing in mind it’s also rear-engined and rear-wheel drive, I wouldn’t fancy trying to catch any kind of slide – especially given the narrow track and the driving position. Chances are it would just fall over. And apparently the relative lack of weight over the front means it aquaplanes like a speedboat with a stuck rudder if you’re over-enthusiastic in the wet. Just so you know.
The hippy, hippy shake
All these minor (ahem) issues aside, the engine turns out to be rather willing – thrumming away behind you in a pleasantly retro fashion – so it’s more likely to be the four-speed gearbox that holds you back. With a lever that long it was always going to require patience, but engaging the gears also requires firm precision.
"it starts with that classic shape and ends with its classic simplicity"
The ride quality is perhaps best described as rudimentary, shaking away over some seriously gnarly surfaces here. But the total absence of a front overhang means you can tackle the Brazilian speed mountains – 'bumps' is too slight a word – with impunity. Coming down the other side the Kombi does feel unnervingly as if it’s going to faceplant, however, so on second thoughts, maybe keep an eye on the velocity.
Further strangeness includes the lack of buffeting when the windows are open – seriously, I’ve never driven a vehicle less bothered by this, but perhaps that’s down to the relaxed progress the van encourages. It’s also a little odd to be cruising around in something that represents the very definition of cool in certain circles in Europe, yet is essentially invisible to Brazilians. Like I said, T2 vans everywhere, and the general populace just looks right through you.
All of which makes it sound like the T2’s enduring appeal is difficult to understand. But it starts with that classic shape and ends with its classic simplicity – the very reason it’s been so easy for Volkswagen of Brazil to keep on building it all these years. That said, it’s only because the very idea of the Type 2 was so well executed originally that it’s carried on making sense all the way up to today.
Executed is possibly an unfortunate choice of word – it will be sad when the T2 finally goes for good. Not that VWB is entirely prepared to confirm that’s definitely going to happen yet. But given the impending new regs, I can’t help thinking 2013 is going to be a bumper year for the old bus. All the current European importers – Danbury being the main source in the UK – are going to want to start building up their stocks…
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