That’s all, Volks!
It has come and gone here in the Philippines, but now that it is under the highly capable and very professional Ayala Automotive Group, part of the Ayala umbrella organization, Volkswagen looks like it is here to stay.
The brand has had a very rocky start under the Ayalas, and even today, things don’t look easy.
The lineup in the early years showed promise, with interesting cars like the reimagined new Beetle, the iconic seventh generation Golf GTi (an enthusiast’s favorite), and even a proper people’s car, the Polo.
Yet, since many of these cars were being imported directly from Europe, rising foreign exchange rates was always a stumbling block for the fledgling local distributorship.
But now that’s set to change. In what is hailed as a truly revolutionary landmark deal, Volkswagen Philippines is now able to source vehicles made from the German conglomerate’s Chinese factories, which ultimately helped bring prices down to what is truly “people’s car” levels.
Still, the other side of that double-edged knife were questions of reliability, build quality, true German engineering, refinement and impressive driving dynamics: Would it still feel and drive like a German car?
To address this concern, Volkswagen Philippines recently organized a media drive up north on some of the most beautiful driving roads leading to truly breathtaking vistas, and a trip to the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PRRI).
Over the course of three days, we would be driving through all sorts of roads: city roads, provincial roads, super highways, winding mountain passes, and even unfinished dirt/fire/farm-to-market roads to experience Volkswagen’s truly world class engineering and impressive driving dynamics, regardless of their point of origin and manufacture.
We visited Chef Claude and Marry-Ann Tayag’s famous Bale Datung restaurant in Pampangga, and were served the famous Anthony Bourdain 10-course all-Filipino degustation menu.
At the PRRI, we saw how this government agency is working hard to secure the country’s food source, and hopefully, wean the country from imports.
We went to the historic Barasoain Church in Malolos, which served as the first Philippine Republic’s seat of government during the dying years of Spanish colonial rule.
Three cars were highlighted on this trip: the sub-compact Volkswagen Santana, aimed squarely at the Toyota Vios, Honda City, Nissan Almera, and Hyundai Accent; the Lavida, which has its sights on the Toyota Altis, Honda Civic and Hyundai Elantra; and the Tiguan compact crossover SUV, joining the hotly contested segment against the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, Nissan X-Trail, Mazda CX-5 and Subaru Forester.
The Santana is Volkswagen’s new nameplate for the Asian market, replacing the Polo. It’s been around longer in other markets, particularly in China, but it just recently made its appearance locally.
The Santana is a basic, no-frills sedan with a 1.4-liter 16-valve engine that delivers a modest 90 horsepower and 132 Newton meters of torque to the front wheels via a 5-speed manual transmission.
The electrically-assisted power steering is light, but offers very good feel in this segment, yet has decent heft and feedback to keep it stable, composed and confident on the highway.
It has a Macpherson strut front suspension and twist-beam rear axle, just like its competitors.
Dual airbags, ABS brakes, and an immobilizer round out the rest of its major features, along with Isofix mounts for child seats.
It also mimics the larger Jetta compact sedan, with similarities particularly on the front fascia tying it into its more premium sibling.
Fortunately, the 90 “German” horsepower feels underrated, feeling just as grunty, muscular and responsive as its Japanese competitors which have even more power as advertised.
On bad roads, the Santana’s chassis feels very solid, and the suspension, though soft, has excellent body control that can easily carve up the twisties despite carrying four adults plus cargo.
The infotainment system is basic, but has surprisingly good multimedia device connectivity via USD, SD card, and a 3.5-mm aux in jack.
Ultimately, the Santana feels solid and stable, and is very composed, refined and reassuring to drive, something no marketing spiel or advertising campaign can fully explain. It has to be experienced to be understood.
In short, it’s a properly designed and engineered German car, with that premium solid feel despite being made in China.
Over the course of the 400-plus kilometers of driving through difficult roads, it gave us no problems. At P686,000, the Santana represents great value for money.
The next vehicle was the Lavida. On its spec sheet alone, it is impressive: a 1.4-liter turbocharged engine delivering 130 hp, and crucially, 225 Nm of torque from 1,400-3,500 rpm, right smack in the middle of normal driving conditions.
The Lavida comes with traction/stability control, ABS, brake-assist, an electronic differential lock to help you out of sticky, slippery situations (as it did us when we had to cross a very heavily eroded, and very rain-drenched and muddy dirt road), and hill-hold assist.
The turbocharged grunt delivers power almost instantly, channeling power seamlessly to the front wheels via a dual-clutch 7-speed transmission that behaves very smoothly even in stop-and-go driving conditions.
On the highway, the Lavida behaved like a far bigger, far more premium luxury sedan, while cornering with gusto on the winding roads leading up to Pantabangan Lake and the Bali Highlands Resort, which was our base camp for the next three days.
But what will win you over is the space and interior accoutrements: as a driver or passenger, there is oodles of space inside the well-built, leather-lined interior.
Add the panoramic glass roof, and you might mistake yourself in an Audi.
At P1.171 million, the Lavida—with really solid feel, refinement and the pedigree of being German engineered—is truly the most value-packed offering in the compact sedan segment.
The last vehicle in this trip is the Tiguan compact crossover SUV.
Interestingly, the Tiguan is actually a previous model, but in a long-wheelbase variant, specifically made for the Chinese market.
There’s oodles of space, and a panoramic glass roof gives a true air of luxury.
Power comes from the same 1.4-liter turbocharged engine, and delivered to the front wheels via a sturdier 6-speed dual-clutch transmission that can handle the added power, torque and weight.
For the Tiguan, power is hiked to 150 hp and 250 Nm of torque.
Ride is made more comfortable with all the electronic driving and safety aids. I actually have a more extensive review of the Tiguan, so best to wait for my driving impressions on this soon.
Safe to say, at P1.648 million, the Tiguan undercuts many FWD entry-level Japanese crossover SUVs.
Shell V-Power was the official fuel, but we barely needed refueling, as all cars averaged from 13-15 kilometers per liter on safe, legal and careful driving while filled to the brim with occupants and cargo.
From a personal standpoint, I’m happy that Volkswagen finally has vehicles that can take the fight to the more established Japanese, Korean and American brands.
Not once did we feel that these cars were inferior because they were made in China. We were right away impressed by their driving dynamics, refinement, road-holding confidence, and stability.
Despite a struggling automotive industry this 2018, the consumer is still spoilt with great choices. Test drive one today to experience true German engineering, refinement and driving dynamics at people’s car prices.