What is it?
You already know: it’s the Kombi, the classic camper van from Volkswagen that’s been around since 1950. And it’s still in production in 2012 in Brazil at a rate of 251 units per day and on sale in South America markets. In Brazil, it’ll cost you 48,150 Real, which works out at around £14,800.
The Kombi hasn’t really changed a lot over the years: it’s still rear-engined and rear-drive, has a sliding side door to enter the nine-seat cabin in three rows of three, and the looks haven’t been messed with, the exception being a large black grille at the front.
What has changed is the engine, which is a 1.4-litre water-cooled unit adapted to run on both petrol and ethanol, or a combination of both, something that’s crucial in the Brazilian market. The engine is a version of the normally aspirated 1.4-litre petrol VW sells in the UK in the Polo. The engine is hooked up to a four-speed manual gearbox.
What is it like?
If you want to view it objectively, it is terrible to drive: the steering feels completed disconnected from the wheels, the gearbox is more a random number generator than a precise mechanical link you feel in control of, and when driven without any weight in the back it feels inherently unstable when confronted with the tiniest of bends.
But then, the Kombi isn’t the kind of car you can look at objectively. Few cars capture your heart in the way it does; climb the step into the cabin and it’s instantly got you under its spell.
The front bench offers a commanding view of the road, and front visibility is excellent. The whole cabin feels light and airy, and its simplicity and ease of use is refreshing.
A steering wheel, hazard light switch, cigarette lighter, indicator and headlight stalks, a single lever to open or close all the air vents, a handbrake and a gearlever are all the things the driver can control. There’s not a radio, airbag, air-conditioning system, a switch to turn the ESP off (there’s not even ABS, let alone ESP) or fancy infotainment system in sight. But although there’s a glovebox for your biscuits, there are no cup holders in the door skins for your Thermos full of tea. And you can have it in any colour, as long as it’s white.
Although the less said about the gearbox the better, the engine is remarkably good. It’s strong and tractable, and feels more than zesty enough to transport the Kombi should it be fully loaded up with your Brazilian extended family. Fill up the tank with pure ethanol rather than petrol or a blend of the two and you’ll be rewarded with an extra 2bhp and 2lb ft from the 1.4, and you will cut the 0-62mph time by half a second in the process.
The ride is also surprisingly compliant. There’s plenty of suspension travel and there is never really a tendency to send shockwaves through the cabin. Brazilian roads also have speed bumps the size of Ben Nevis, and not even these could knock the Kombi off course.
Should I buy one?
Well, unless you live in Brazil or elsewhere in South America you won’t be able to buy a new one from a Volkswagen dealer. There are firms importing them into Greece and sending them elsewhere in the EU from there, or you can import one yourself and try for single type approval. But be prepared to pay far more than the £14,800 a Brazilian dealer would sell you for.
Still, if you do decide to take the plunge, act soon: the Kombi is set to finally go out of production on 31 December 2013 due to incoming legislation that will prevent cars with no driver or passenger airbags or ABS from being sold in Brazil. And to do this for the Kombi would require essentially an “entirely new car”, according to one of VW’s Brazilian bosses.
The Kombi is perhaps the last one of the true classics you can buy new. When it’s finally driven off to the museum, it’ll be sorely missed.
Volkswagen Kombi Standard 1.4 (running on E100 ethanol fuel)
Price £14,800; 0-62mph 16.1sec; Top speed 80mph; Economy na; CO2 na; Kerb weight 1259kg; Engine 4 cyls, 1390cc, Total Flex (petrol and ethanol compatible); Power 79bhp at 4800rpm; Torque 92lb ft at 3500rpm; Gearbox 4spd manual