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TG drives the Kombi in Brazil

  1. The Rio police began ‘pacifying’ the Vidigal favela on 18th January last year. The Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora (UPP) programme is currently cleaning up 30 favelas - shanty towns or slums - in line with an initiative set up in 2008 by Rio de Janeiro’s embattled governor Sérgio Cabral Filho. Organised crime is a huge problem in Rio, and with the football World Cup rolling into town in 2014 and the next Olympics following in 2016, the gloves are off.

    Photography: Darren Heath

    This feature was originally published in the March issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. The biggest favelas, like Rocinha and the famous Cidade de Deus (City of God), have upwards of 70,000 inhabitants, and the sprawling alleyways, housing density and anarchic infrastructure have long held a grim fascination for outsiders. But they have also historically been controlled by some of the world’s most unscrupulous crime lords, and Cabral Filho and his security secretary José Mariano Beltrame haven’t been shy in dealing with it. They’ve used the special BOPE battalion of Rio’s military police to rout the crime bosses, before sending in the UPP as a permanent peace-keeping presence. BOPE, it’s fair to say, is a unit so well tooled up it could wage a war, which is exactly what the likes of Amnesty International claim the authorities are doing. BOPE’s logo makes a Norwegian death metal band look like LittleMix, and one of its armoured vehicles is called ‘Caveirão’ (Big Skull). Unsurprisingly, violent crime is down.

  3. We’ve just arrived at the entrance to Vidigal in a Volkswagen Type 2 Kombi, a charming tin can of a thing you could dent with your little finger. It also doesn’t have air-conditioning or power steering, so its driver - me - is perspiring freely in the humidity of what was once rainforest. Children are running around merrily, and there’s a huddle of shops, including a fruit and veg one and a general store. The road ahead spirals off up the mountainside, the improvised dwellings on either side of it magically failing to collapse into each other. There isn’t a flicker on the face of the UPP officer leaning against the whitewashed wall opposite, but he lets his rifle drop slightly as he sees us. No threat here.

  4. Amazingly, the Kombi has been in continuous production in VW’s São Bernardo do Campo factory since 1957, which is a world record. Stranger still, sales in Brazil last year rose by four per cent, to around 30,000 units per year, and this despite a non-bargain showroom price equivalent to about £17,000, all in. In total, more than 1.5m VW Kombis have been made since ‘57, most of which still seem to be running. Originally conceived by a Dutch businessman called Ben Pon (he’d seen Volkwagen’s post-war Plattenwagen shuttling about Wolfsburg and ran the idea of a Beetle-based utility vehicle past the British armed forces that had taken charge), the Type 2 Kombi’s longevity, particularly in Brazil, is down to two factors: it remains almost comically simple in design, and there’s no cheaper way of hauling a tonne of covered cargo.

  5. Rio definitely has baggage. I’ve been here once before, back in 1997, and on arrival we were warned in no uncertain terms not to wander about after nightfall. At that time, there were dark tales of tourists nodding off on the beach after a few sherbets and waking up in a bathtub of ice 48 hours later minus a couple of vital organs. Drug trafficking in the favelas is one thing, but stuff like that isn’t going to do much for your image.

  6. Thankfully, things have improved dramatically, without buffing the edges off what remains an enjoyably edgy city. Even when there is no carnival, Rio still vibrates like the top of a giant bongo drum, a city clearly dedicated to the idea of having a good time. It has a Sambadrome, for heaven’s sake, and the Maracanã football stadium is more of a cathedral than Rio’s actual cathedral. The rest of its architecture is a wonderfully grand mix of colonial palaces and buildings that date from its time as the Brazilian capital (1763 to 1960), and the genuinely iconic modernism of that Rio-born maestro of concrete, Oscar Niemeyer.

  7. Frame all that with 55 miles of amazing beaches - Ipanema, Copacabana, Leblon - and the lushly vertiginous surrounding mountains, including Corcovado, on top of which sits Christ the Redeemer (Cristo Redentor), and you have the most visually impressive city in the world. Cidade maravilhosa, in fact.

  8. We have no marvellous plan today, other than seeing as much of Rio as we can, checking out the indigenous cars, and finessing our way into a favela. To which end, we have the inestimable Fabiano from VW’s São Paulo Brazilian HQ with us, and two burly bodyguards. These are former cops now employed by VW as ‘enforcers’. I’m not sure their equivalents are on the payroll back in VW’s Wolfsburg global base, but I could be wrong.

  9. Today, we will spend a lot of time looking at their twitching moustaches and VW Passat in our mirrors. Though not as bad as São Paulo, Rio’s main motorways are generally glued solid with less-than-maravilhosa traffic. Rustic charm aside, the VW’s ability to distract doesn’t last long. For a £17k vehicle, there’s precious little surprise and delight in the Kombi. Let me rephrase that: there are quite a lot of surprises, fewer delights.

  10. As with the Mini, the original Fiat 500 and indeed the VW Beetle, the T2 is a vehicle so enmeshed in the automotive fabric that it’s impossible not to love it. But let’s be clear, things have moved on since 1957. For example, at some point in the intervening 56 years, somebody invented crumple zones, thus preventing impalation by steering column, a bloody fate the Kombi would cheerfully visit upon you in the event of a frontal impact. I detest over-light power steering, but in this VW the simple act of leaving the hotel car park is a major physical activity. And you know those blank bits cheap cars have where the buttons should be? That’s the Kombi’s entire dashboard. There’s a measly bit of felt above the driver and front passenger, a forbidding expanse of bare metal above the rest of the interior. Still, 30,000 Brazilian masochists can’t be wrong.

  11. It’s unquestionably fun to drive, though, once the physics of forward motion have reduced the effort needed to turn the wheel from Herculean to merely muscular. We head to Urca, a wealthy bit of Rio in the Zona Sul, dominated by a military base. That doesn’t prevent it from being awash with stunning street art. When not fighting evil drug lords, Rio’s legislators found time to pass a law decriminalising street art, assuming the owner of the affected building is happy. It’s that kind of city. (Take note, Boris.) Urca is tucked away in a bay, the tree-lined streets and lush vegetation another clue to its sub-tropical location, and even the rocks here have graffiti. It’s not so much a neighbourhood as a giant canvas.

  12. Lapa is even earthier. All human life is here, including a TV crew shooting scenes for Brazil’s most popular soap opera. They’re in one archway; right next door, a homeless man pulls a red blanket over his head and grunts Portuguese profanities. His snoozing is further disrupted by the sound of my Kombi spinning its wheels fruitlessly as we attempt to round a tight and slippery cobbled uphill hairpin. Now we’re starring in Brazil’s biggest comedy show. There’s a distinct lack of traction, despite the Vee-Dub’s layout and Porsche 911 doorhandles.

  13. The latest Kombi is powered by a water-cooled 1.4-litre Total Flex engine, which can run on gasohol (a petrol-ethanol blend) or pure ethanol. It’s actually half a second quicker to 60mph gurgling ethanol (16.1 seconds), and, once you’re up there, the lack of mass - and interior - means it feels genuinely spirited. And a little scary when the heavens open and unleash a downpour that is definitively tropical. A man with no teeth or shoes tries to take shelter in the Kombi. There’s no central locking, and I can’t reach the sliding side door from my seat. Luckily, he doesn’t bother trying that one, and just gurns disapprovingly instead.

  14. The road to Vidigal is rather busy. Cristo Redentor’s arms appear to be upturned as if to say, “I know, I know, I genuinely am a miracle worker, but even I have my limits.” Still, it gives us time to admire the incredible tunnels, reinforcing the idea that virtually all of Rio is an engineering marvel of some sort. The local cars are less impressive in those terms, but still curious, and Brazil - the fourth biggest new car market in the world after China, US and Japan - is a furious automotive melting pot. Part of the BRIC contingent of emerging markets - along with Russia, India and China - the once corruption-riddled Brazilian economy is on the move, but poverty persists, which means that, bluntly put, lots of appealing old rubbish is still in regular use.

  15. Fiat is the biggest brand in Brazil, and sold close to 800,000 cars there in 2012 (they celebrated the fact with a typically bizarre TV ad). But Volkswagen is more visible, and even most Brazilians think VW is the big fish. In 1973, it launched the Brasilia, the first car developed specifically for Brazil. By 1983, a million units had been sold. 1980’s Gol - it means goal - was a cute Scirocco-lite, and has gone on to be VW Brazil’s biggest-seller, topping the charts for an unbroken 25 years. The latest version is better-looking than the current Polo, if not quite as attractive as Gisele Bündchen, who starred in the 2008 advert.

  16. Other highlights, and we have plenty of time to enjoy them, include a MkIV Golf restyled with Tex Avery-style new lights front and rear, a useless crossover called the Saveiro (you can keep that one, guys), while Ford will still sell you a version of the original Euro Ka, only with a gormless face and even fatter arse than we got. There are countless hopeless-looking GM cars, too, like the Chevy Celta or Montana. Not worth Googling.

  17. Dig deeper, though, and you will enter a land of utter weirdness, in which Ford and VW once consorted together in a joint venture called Autolatina that blessed the world with the Ford Verona (née VW Apollo) and Versailles (a VW Santana), while a previous Ford, the almost entirely and correctly forgotten Corcel and Corcel II, was basically a reheated Renault 12. God help them.

  18. There’s the carcass of some unspeakable old car at the entrance to Vidigal. But as we pick our way gingerly through the town, flanked by UPP escort and our personal bodyguards, it’s apparent that the crime crackdown, heavy-handed or not, is allowing a vibrant community to emerge into what are, quite literally, sunlit uplands. This is a cool place, full of cool, smiling people, who will hopefully be allowed to enjoy their town before it’s taken over by the property speculators who are rumoured to be moving in (the view across the Atlantic is an absolute corker).

  19. At the summit, we watch a small group of street kids kicking a ball about, and they’re happy to use our Kombi to hone their skills. Above us, there’s an identical white VW, parked on a vantage point overlooking the pitch. You can’t help smiling when you see one. The beauty of the Kombi is that it’s a vehicle that smiles right back.

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