Auto-Biography 27: Squaring the Circle

auto biography 27 squaring the circle

Readers who’ve accompanied me on this long, strange trip– from my automotive awakening to this, the final installment of my Auto-Biography– may recall my earliest childhood memory: riding in a 1950’s VW Beetle in Austria. The bug was the automotive womb from which I sprang. I’ve carried the Volkswagen DNA ever since. Even as a freewheeling young adult, I was a loyal Volkswagonista. Eventually I strayed, looking for more space, speed, comfort and even prestige. But I’ve finally returned to my automotive happy place, reunited with my one true love.

Of course, I wasn’t the only one who wandered away from my roots. Volkswagen abandoned the original “People’s Car” decades ago; the New Beetle was/is nothing more than a pretender to the throne. But the Volkswagen formula– an innovative, thrifty, well-built, practical, distinctive and fun automobile– is immortal.

Like the hunt for a successor Dalai Lama, it took me a while to recognize the Beetle’s latest incarnation. (Of course, there were others even before the VW.) One look at the xB’s design and I got it: the Beetle had metamorphosed (and disguised itself) as… a box.

Like many enthusiasts of a certain age, I was thrown off-scent by Scion’s self-conscious youth marketing and hype. I avoid fads like the plague; the harder someone tries to tell me something’s cool, the less I believe them. But one day I cleared my mind of all thoughts and saw the xBox for the remarkably creative, compelling and timeless Volkswagen it really is.

There was a time when the word “cool” stood for something. For going against the grain. For being truly different and authentic. The Volkswagen Beetle had it; it was an extended middle finger at everything the Big Three stood for. And it single-handedly started a revolution that brought Detroit to its knees.

Toyota also had captured lightning in a jar. The original xBox went against the grain of today’s super-sized, overwrought, flamed and fake-side-air-vented automotive fashion parade every bit as much as the Beetle did against the fins, chrome and vinyl roofs of its time.

The brave little Japanese toaster was just hitting its stride. With a little updating (like VW’s), the xB could have been built for decades. It would have made the perfect low-CO2 era NYC taxi cab: half the price of a hybrid Escape, bigger interior, nimbler and better mileage. Don’t get me started, I can spit out other applications and variants (sedan delivery, El Camino-pickup, etc.) all day long.

In fact, if I had serious money, I’d replicate a whole family of xB’s in China and sell them for $10k by the millions. And I’d can the youth marketing thing; the gen one Xb’s qualities (like the VW’s) are universal. They appeal to the young at heart of all ages.

But Toyota threw it all away. In a misguided attempt to give Japanese youth appeal an American mien, it killed the coolest car since the Beetle. When I tested the new xB, urgency followed horror. I fully saw the light of truth, and found myself an immaculate low-mileage five-speed ’05 xB.

I am enraptured. The Scion xBox works perfectly for my middle-aged needs. It’s my urban errand-mobile that keeps me young carving back-road twisties– yet pampers my 6’4” frame with Tahoe-sized stretch-out room. The upright seating position, vast headroom, vertically-flat windows and, especially, the round instrument pod, all invoke (and improve upon) the VW Beetle experience.

I can shuttle my gangly teenage son and his friends without feeling their knees in my backside, or flip down the rear seats and haul bags of insulation or a range.

The little 1.5-liter engine’s torque curve isn’t a curve at all; it’s flat as a board. Also very Beetle like, except that instead of petering out at 3600 rpm, it just keeps on winding with lusty eagerness. The 108hp on tap is triple of what my slug-bugs had. Yet no matter how I flog it, fuel economy is exactly what I got back then: 32mpg. Almost fifty years in profligate America haven’t wiped out my Austrian appreciation for thrift.

My wife used to suggest that I indulge my nostalgia and buy an old Beetle. But this is the best of both worlds. It’s youthful nostalgia reincarnated with real progress: twice the interior room, three times the power, same mileage, modern amenities and all for pretty much the same (inflation-adjusted) 1960’s VW price. And the Scion’s much higher fun-to-drive quotient is the icing on the cake.

In the end, that’s what Volkswagens (and I) are all about: the sheer joy of communion with honest, simple and fun-to-drive mechanized locomotion. As I look back on my automotive life, I do so with absolute clarity. These plain virtues spoke to me as a toddler. The recipe has never lost its magic. And it never will.

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  • Ed niedermeyer Ed niedermeyer on Jul 31, 2007

    Congrats on wrapping her up! Talk about one of those “never-saw-it-coming-but-damn-if-it-didn’t-make-sense-when-it-came” things that keeps life so interesting. Your words really have illuminated our relationships with these hunks of metal. That state of childlike calm I get when hearing and feeling the old truck work through its gears, the wave of nostalgia I get playing with the oh-so familiar window controls in the backseat of an old Cherokee, the way my neck snaps around when I hear a Caravan V6 being used in anger… Your writing reminds me of where these small thrills come from. As a matter of fact, I wondered how the series would hold up starting around, oh, the time I was born. Wild youth and cars are a crowd-pleasing combo, but your writing was about much more than that, and it held up well even through the less wild and crazy middle-age years. I think what kept it fresh was how it cut through all of the “Buy-this-car, be-this-person” marketingspeak that surrounds car culture. You really showed that if you get a car that really fits your lifestyle (not just your Madison Avenue dream lifestyle) it will be present for (or make possible) many of your most meaningful memories. Like backfiring all the way back from the dump in the pickup, or plowing through a small lake in the jeep, or, well... that's a whole auto-biography on it's own. Great work, Dad!

  • David C. Holzman David C. Holzman on Aug 06, 2007

    Love the comparison of the Old Beetle and the xB. And I agree that Toyota utterly blew it by changing the personality. I must admit though, after driving the Element recently for the first time, I far prefer that car's refinement. Although I think the xB is as aesthetically pleasing as the Old Beetle (which has amazing artistic integrity) though in a very different way, while I think the Element is ugly (terrible face, and that cladding just looks like junk), I would much rather drive the Element. If only Toyota had kept making the xB, they could have improved it.

  • Islander800 That is the best 20-year-on update of the Honda Element that I've ever seen. Strip out the extraneous modern electronic crap that adds tens of thousands to the price and the completely unnecessary 400 pd/ft torque and horse power, and you have a 2022 Honda Element - right down to the neoprene interior "elements" of the Element - minus the very useful rear-hinged rear doors. The proportions and dimensions are identical.Call me biased, but I still drive my west coast 2004 Element, at 65K miles. Properly maintained, it will last another 20 years....Great job, Range Rover!
  • Dennis Howerton Nice article, Corey. Makes me wish I had bought Festivas when they were being produced. Kia made them until the line was discontinued, but Kia evidently used some of the technology to make the Rio. Pictures of the interior look a lot like my Rio's interior, and the 1.5 liter engine is from Mazda while Ford made the automatic transmission in the used 2002 Rio I've been driving since 2006. I might add the Rio is also an excellent subcompact people mover.
  • Sgeffe Bronco looks with JLR “reliability!”What’s not to like?!
  • FreedMike Back in the '70s, the one thing keeping consumers from buying more Datsuns was styling - these guys were bringing over some of the ugliest product imaginable. Remember the F10? As hard as I try to blot that rolling aberration from my memory, it comes back. So the name change to Nissan made sense, and happened right as they started bringing over good-looking product (like the Maxima that will be featured in this series). They made a pretty clean break.
  • Flowerplough Liability - Autonomous vehicles must be programmed to make life-ending decisions, and who wants to risk that? Hit the moose or dive into the steep grassy ditch? Ram the sudden pile up that is occurring mere feet in front of the bumper or scan the oncoming lane and swing left? Ram the rogue machine that suddenly swung into my lane, head on, or hop up onto the sidewalk and maybe bump a pedestrian? With no driver involved, Ford/Volkswagen or GM or whomever will bear full responsibility and, in America, be ambulance-chaser sued into bankruptcy and extinction in well under a decade. Or maybe the yuge corporations will get special, good-faith, immunity laws, nation-wide? Yeah, that's the ticket.