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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