A lesson in legacies that deserve to last

Warren Brown
Columnist October 21, 2011

The Volkswagen Beetle entered the world in 1938 under the rule of a man who would enslave the world. It is appropriate that I am driving one of its successors today in celebration of a man who died to free it.

The two men — Adolf Hitler and Martin Luther King Jr. — could not have been more different. But they shared something in common. Both understood the importance of mobility.

Warren Brown is a columnist who writes about autos for The Washington Post. View Archive

Ironically, Hitler, who ordered the development of the Volkswagen, literally “the people’s car,” sought to restrict where those people would go and who among them would go anywhere, except to a mass grave.

King, whose memorial is about to be dedicated in the District of Columbia, used cars to help free people from the cruel bondage of Jim Crow, strict American racial segregation.

The success of the Montgomery bus boycott (Dec. 1, 1955, to Dec. 21, 1956), the seminal action in the modern civil rights movement, was due in large measure to the operation of a “private taxi” system — sedans and trucks privately owned by blacks who volunteered to give rides to their neighbors to keep those neighbors off of segregated city buses.

In Alabama, very few black people had heard of the Volkswagen, only a few copies of which were beginning to filter into the United States at that time. Their “people’s cars” were Chevrolet, Ford and Chrysler products. That being the case, it might seem more appropriate that I, a black child of the civil rights movement, should be driving something from Detroit as the MLK dedication approaches.

But product test-drive schedules don’t work that way. They have their own rhythm. Besides, I couldn’t resist the wonderful cheekiness of driving a Volkswagen Beetle this weekend — a car born under a man who would have consigned me and mine to slavery and gas chambers, but reshaped and reissued at a time when we are celebrating the memory of a man who fought for us all to have space on the high road on our journey to the table of plenty.

Some of you are wondering what any of this has to do with a car review. It’s simple. Cars, be they from Volkswagen or Chevrolet, can be used for their intended purpose — auto-mobility — only in the context of freedom.

Volkswagen understands that, which is why it is sending forth 11 redesigned cars, wagons and sport-utility vehicles for the 2012 model year. Of that lot, I chose the 2012 Beetle, the longest-running and most manufactured car on a single design platform, for this week’s review.

I am fascinated by the Beetle’s longevity. I expected it to be relegated to museum space after its second-generation New Beetle phase. The car was cute but not terribly substantial. Even women dismissed it as a “girly car,” as close as a kiss of death as you can get in the automotive retail marketplace.

But here is the third-generation Beetle — wider, lower to the ground, with a flatter roof and more power than any of its predecessors. It is not the least bit girly. But performance-driving enthusiasts might argue that it does not yet approach manly. My take is that it is very much a car of the times — enjoyably unisex.

There are several iterations of the 2012 Beetle — base, Beetle 2.5 and Beetle Turbo, the latter chosen for this week’s review. They are a sporty, front-wheel-drive bunch, amenable to all kinds of customization. They are all now more car than curio. There is now more interior space, thanks to the new model being stretched 3.3 inches wider and six inches longer than previous versions. There is substantially improved cargo space — 15.4 cubic feet in the new car, compared with a stingy 12 cubic feet in the old.

With an available 2.5-liter in-line five-cylinder engine (170 horsepower, 177 foot-pounds of torque) and a turbocharged 2-liter in-line four-cylinder package (200 horsepower, 207 foot-pounds of torque), there is lots of “fun to drive.”

I drove all versions but spent most of my time in the Beetle Turbo, enjoying the whoosh of its forced-air-fed engine and the decidedly better handling of its multi-link rear suspension. (Non-turbo 2012 Beetles have a torsion-beam rear suspension with coil springs and telescopic damping. That works okay but lacks the pronounce agility of a multi-link setup.)

I enjoyed the Beetle Turbo. But mostly I enjoyed the freedom of driving in a country that still understands a thing or two about freedom.

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