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VW ditches air-cooled kombis

2006-01-03 08:48

Instead of heading on long, strange trips across Latin America's largest country, these minivans go straight to work on the streets of Brazil's largest cities for deliveries of all kinds, as ambulances, mobile convenience stores and even troop transports for soldiers.

But this Friday, a long chapter in the history of Volkswagen AG ends when the last air-cooled engine will be hoisted into a vehicle seen as a museum piece almost everywhere else across the planet.

VW is being forced to change the minivan's historic rear-mounted engine because of a new Brazilian emissions law to reduce pollution that goes into effect in 2006. Production will continue next year, but the van known here as the "Kombi" will get a new water-cooled engine and a radiator for the first time.

The switch marks the last hurrah for the simple engine developed in the 1930s by famed German engineer Ferdinand Porsche, his key element of a 'Volkswagen', or 'People's Car' that anyone could afford.

"It's the end of a very long era," said Ivan McCutcheon, editor of Britain's VolksWorld magazine for fans of the vans and now-out-of production VW traditional beetles. "The VW air-cooled engine has been perhaps the greatest produced engine in numbers the world has seen."

The move comes three years after Volkswagen's Mexican division stopped production of the minivan, and churned out its last two-door bug sedan with an air-cooled engine. All told, about 6 million of the minivans were built with the air-cooled engine worldwide, adding to the more than 20 million beetles manufactured.

Volkswagen Brasil says Kombi production is actually expected to increase next year from about 10 000 minivans annually to 12 000, because the new engine can run on either gasoline or pure alcohol - widely used as fuel in Brazil, where it costs about half the price of gas.

The body of the minivan won't change, however, and Volkswagen's Sao Paulo factory will churn out Kombis in keeping with tradition, minus the high-tech robots that do most of the work in modern car factories.

The Kombi, by contrast, is made by workers who shove the windows into place by hand, use mallets to tap out imperfections in the vehicle's body and do a final quality check on the doors by slamming them shut while listening to make sure they sound right.

Volkswagen isn't concerned about losing market share with the new engine because executives believe the vehicle still has several advantages the competition can't match: A list price of about $15,400 (R97 328) and capacity to carry a metric ton of goods.

Although the liquid-cooled engine could technically handle air conditioning, there are no plans to list it as an option. Brazilian Kombi buyers, market research shows, wouldn't pay the extra cost. It will have a little more power, with a top speed of 130 km/h, as opposed to the 120 km/h maximum with the air-cooled engine.

"There's just no cheaper way to transport a ton of cargo," said Hans-Cristian Maergner, president of VW's Brazilian division.

To mark the engine changeover, VW is churning out about 200 Kombi "Silver Edition" models for collectors. They are outfitted with the old engine, but painted silver, instead of the classic Brazilian white - so owners can then paint them with brightly coloured logos advertising their businesses.

"I never thought about getting one before because I thought they'd be around forever," said Lucio Calixto, a photo services store owner who already has a 1994 Brazilian-made VW bug.

With his wife snapping pictures of him picking up the Silver Edition minivan at a VW dealership and receiving the keys from a manager, Calixto explained that he loves the engine because it's easy to work on, can be rebuilt cheaply and lasts for decades if cared for properly.

"Ever since I was a kid I was fascinated with it," Calixto said.

Unlike most Brazilian Kombi owners, Calixto will use the minivan for weekend outings - easily fitting his family of five into a vehicle that can take seven passengers.

Although VW produces the minivan for sale only in Brazil, about 30 of the special editions are expected to make their way across the Atlantic Ocean via British importers, said McCutcheon, the editor of VolksWorld.

After being shipped and modified to meet British vehicle standards, the minivans end up costing $23,300 (R147 256) for a basic model to $30,400 (R163 110) for a version decked with special extras for camping trips.

"Here, you would only buy one as a luxury item," McCutcheon said. "This would be bought by somebody who has done quite well for themselves and wants the retro '70s look for the weekend."


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