A mini bus with massive possibilities


A rosy future for the owner, given the 3-year or 200,000 km warranty of this van

Natural light can come in through this red-tinted roof window, which also serves as escape hatch.

My preference for big vans started when my “animal instincts” kicked in sometime in the late 1990s: that is, when I and a small group of friends from the office started rescuing injured and abandoned animals we found helpless on the streets while on our way to or from a weekend trip or outreach mission.

We figured, if we cared for our less fortunate human beings, then why not extend that compassionate heart to even more helpless members of our immediate environment?

And so, what began as a random act of kindness became an even more regular habit.

My personal pet ambulance then was an eight-seater Mazda 2000 PowerVan, replaced after by a Mitsubishi L300 FB van, and then an L200 pickup. We loaded the poor animals in, and brought them to our trusted veterinarians.

We needed the space accorded by these haulers not just for the animals, but for their cages (a lot of these rescues were terrified, and exhibited unpredictable behavior, thus the need for enclosures for our—and their—safety).

Though nowadays, those animal rescues have come far and few in between for me (thank goodness for numerous kindhearted souls who’ve taken up the cause), I’ve grown quite accustomed to driving big vans.

In the process, I had grown confident enough to be behind the wheel of Western-sized vans such as a Ford E-150, the Toyota Super Grandia, the original Nissan Urvan Estate, the recent Nissan Urvan Premium, the Hyundai Starex Limousine, and even a 10-wheeler Isuzu truck (albeit in the safe confines of the Batangas Racing Circuit).

When Hyundai Asia Resources Inc. (Hari) offered me to test drive its hulking H350 van a couple of weeks ago, I was only a wee bit intimidated. My biggest concern was not if I could drive it, but if our garage was wide and tall enough to take this rolling mini-house in.

Truth be told, the H350 is unlike any other big van I have ever driven. It’s actually a mini-bus if you consider the height, but with a limousine feel to it.

By outside appearances, you could call it a mini-yacht on four wheels. When I stepped inside, I could stand straight up, and I still had a good two feet of head clearance from the van’s ceiling.

It’s so spacious, it needs its own ceiling-mounted aircon motor for the passenger cabin.

Inside, there’s a feeling that you’ve stepped inside the cabin of a small passenger plane, albeit on economy class, what with the overhead luggage bins on either side, but not much on seat amenities.

Multiple 12V power outlets do suggest that customizable electrical fixtures are possible (perhaps a mini-bar or videoke system for those who would wish to travel in song or style?).

LED daytime running lights (DRL) and front airbags for driver and passenger are also standard, good for safety in a nearly flat-nosed vehicle.

It’s good to know that the H350 also considers the convenience of senior members and PWDs, with the mid-door electrical step.

The variant I drove was in elegant creamy white, base model DLS, and goes for P2.688 million (the DLX variant costs P2.728 million).

A buyer with this dimension of a van in mind would more likely go for the VIP limousine, celebrity or mobile executive office conversion packages that Hari is offering, and that customization will set him or her back an additional P1 million.

Loose change for the VIP who’s gonna sit back and view the lesser world of mortals from the comfort of the captain’s seat.

But the H350 isn’t the only high-roof vehicle that’s available in the market today. There’s also the Volkswagen Crafter, the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, and the Foton Touano, which all look eerily similar on the outside.

No wonder, the H350 is described as European-designed (like the Crafter and Sprinter).

The powerplant is a diesel-fed DLS 2.5L Dsl-CRDi 6-speed manual transmission rated with a Euro5 emission standard.

The relatively small engine seems to ably handle a 14-passenger capacity, thanks to a monocoque body with 75 percent of the chassis made from high-strength tensile steel.

Ride stability is achieved via a rear wheel drive, and vehicle dynamic control.

Aside from airbags, safety features include antilock braking system (ABS), keyless entry with alarm and rear parking sensors.

HARI president and CEO Ma. Fe Perez Agudo was quoted by Inquirer columnist Aida Sevilla-Mendoza as saying: “After the Starex, the H350 could be an opportunity for those who want more space and more height in a commercial vehicle (CV).”

This light commercial vehicle is already classified as Class 2 by toll road standards. I had to ready myself—and my pockets—for the doubled fee every time I used the expressways, the Skyway and the coastal toll roads.

I did the math. If more people packed themselves in these kinds of vehicles, there would be less cars on the road.

A 14-seater mini bus that will hog any scenic view

Imagine, three families, with four members each family, can fit in. There would be three less cars on the road.

If those three families shared the doubled toll fee, in effect, they would be paying less on toll fees. It computes.

Once you get over the intimidation-factor, driving a big vehicle is actually quite easy. I myself felt right at home as soon as I sat myself on the driver’s seat, and saw all that was in front of me in my heightened position.

The simple, no-clutter dashboard controls made it easy to check on driving inputs and feedback.

The manual gear shifted smooth, while the wide and tall side view mirrors uncovered a wide swath of otherwise unseen driving territory.

Still, there’s no denying that the H350 is one big and tall vehicle. And parking will remain as one of the biggest challenges of owning one in the Philippines.

It makes me think twice about my destinations’ available parking slots. And if you’re mall-bound, forget about driving inside. The H350 is good only in open parking lots.

The overhead clearances in some narrow roads of the city and provinces should also be considered. You can’t just decide to park on the side without considering if there’s a overhanging roof of a waiting shed or a residential structure, or if there are low-hanging tree branches or buntings or loose electrical wires. The list of potential hazards goes on.

Perhaps Hari can factor this in by placing vertical rear sensors, as well.

Thankfully, I encountered no such problems on my way to Tagaytay City, then down to Talisay, Batangas, and to the Pacific beaches of Infanta, Quezon for a joyride with 13 vegan passengers.

We were loaded to the rafters (figuratively, that is). Vegan passengers have the tendency to bring more stuff than ordinary road-trippers as they bring more ingredients, more seasonings, their own cookware, utensils, mats (for meditation), and books.

No problem whatsoever for the H350. We could have invited in 6-foot 10-inch PBA player JuneMar Fajardo, and he could still jump an inch or two without bumping his head on the ceiling.

There was plenty of legroom for all 13 passengers, even if their luggage was packed in below their seats.

A basketball center can stand straight up or comfortably stretch his legs.

The small but turbo-powered engine proved it packed enough punch to carry all of us when a damaged bridge on the Sierra Madre mountains forced us to go on a difficult detour requiring the vehicle to go down, then up, a steep and slippery embankment.

The H350 didn’t even seem to break a sweat with the effort, and I took all the credit, waving my hand proudly as my passengers clapped their hands for the vehicle’s monumental feat. Well, the captain goes either up or down with his or her ship.

Out in the provinces, the H350 is a head-turner, and even traffic officers stopped and stared at this behemoth as it passed by.

They either thought, “Who could be the winning politician, or the popular celebrity, going off on a weekend sojourn in Infanta?” or “Why is the little lady driving a mini bus?” My answer to the latter: “Because I can.”

My answer to the former: “The real celebrities inside this mini bus are the ones with the big hearts, who could take in those who are in need, and put to good use all of the open spaces and golden opportunities he or she was privileged enough to be given in this life. I thank you!”

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