Jude Morte / EPS, Jude Morte | July 17, 2008 00:00
Big trouble from little ChinaWhen the Chana brand and its Benni subcompact car were introduced not too long ago at the 2008 Manila International Auto Show, this writer overheard a lot of remarks about the Chana logo resembling the Star Trek logo. Piqued by curiosity over the manufacturer and what it had to offer motorists, this writer decided to try out its Benni brand. And discern if the Benni had much better to give than their main competition at the Oppen Building along Sen. Gil Puyat (read: Buendia) Avenue.
Outside, the front end resembles a squashed 2004 Peugeot 307, with a lopped-off derrière reminiscent of a 2003 Daihatsu Mira. A tinge of sportiness is seen in the 14-inch five-solid spoke rims, and helping the car attract onlookers is the test unit's energizer yellow paint.
Inside, plastic silver inserts on the center dashboard, the aircon (a/c) vents nearest the manually adjustable side mirrors, the door armrests and on the five-speed m/t stick break an otherwise matte black colorway. The cloth seats are a bit hard on the back, and plugging anything into the lighter socket is a bit risky. Inserting anything into the said socket doesn't have a snug fit, popping loose after a while. The body paneling parallel to the driver's left knee is a bit dislodged, and the foglamp buttons are located four o'clock aft of the a/c vent direction knobs, an unusual location for an exterior lighting switch. Speaking of the a/c, the number fonts on the a/c blower knob are hard to see, with potential to move the knob to a higher blower speed than what you originally intended. Then again, that drawback can be good for dates should the interior get a little colder, especially on rainy nights.
Storage, on the other hand, is relatively decent given the interior dimensions (3520 mm length, 1650 mm width, 1550 mm height, 2365 mm wheelbase). The glovebox is small and the door storage bins are narrow, but the front cupholders can fit a large McDonalds soda cup and the sole cupholder behind the parking brake swallows a two-liter Absolute mineral water bottle. The trunk area can handle three large duffel bags and has two storage bins (with netting) that can fit a small ladies' handbag. Also, the rear backrests fold flat to fit a large maleta plus the aforementioned three large duffel bags. The latches that make the fold-flat feature are hard to find, though, since they're painted flat black and near the rear wheel arches.
Surprisingly, the Suzuki-sourced 1.3L is peppy, helped a lot by low powerband entry (2500-2750 rpm) and small steps between gears. At 2500 rpm on fifth gear, there's a whine from the fuel pump that turns into a drone by 3500 rpm, making it sound like a beat-up AE 101 (1993-1997 Toyota Corolla) taxi. The results are pleasing - a 179 kph top speed, 9.20 km/l (two days mixed driving), 6.73 km/l (two days city driving).
The tranny has a lot of niggles, too. The clutch has a stiction that makes gentle inputs tricky; a lot of gas pedal effort is required to get the car forward from rest. First and second gear throws are notchy, and there's a lot of shift shock.
The handling and braking are decent, but also have their share of major quirks. Traction from the Kumho Solus KH 17 165/60R14s hold up to 90 kph and there's little body roll, but the ride is a tad firm but not harsh. The steering wanders a lot to the left, highly unusual for a unit that saw 1200 kilometers before this writer going behind the wheel. The side mirrors are wide, but need a little more height. It's disconcerting to only see (in full) passenger cars coming up to you, but not utility vehicles. There's ABS, but it takes a long time to wake up, and the brake pedal travel is a tad long. The good news is that there's an airbag, but it's nestled within the steering wheel. It's a wonder how the Benni passed the Chinese equivalent of the Euro NCAP safety tests.
With the P438,000 Benni, it can proudly say that it has built a car that can rival other subcompact brands. It may have some serious issues with transmission, handling and braking, but that can be resolved by the time the second generation Benni gets to local shores. But for now, the Benni can arguably be the subcompact car that can provide big trouble (to the local manufacturers) from little China, er, Chana.