Having a European car is a nice breather from all the Asian offerings in the country. Speaking from experience, cars from the Continent always had something different about them. There are more quirks and surprising features for instance. In some ways, cars coming from Europe have something that represents their country of origin, be it Germany, France, or England.
So when Volkswagen Philippines decided to bring in the Chinese lineup to the Philippines, I was admittedly skeptical. Will the German side of the car be lost in translation as it hails from China? Will it have the same robust feel and quality? Will it have that satisfying thud when you close the doors? As a German car owner, I felt the need to poke around, which brings me neatly to the Lavida.
Pardon my skepticism here but the Lavida is based on the first-generation Audi A3 and its derivatives. While it sounds neat that it's based on a luxury car, that chassis is practically old enough to go to college. Having driven the recently discontinued Jetta TDI in the past, a car I rather enjoyed, the skepticism turned into pessimism. Still, if there's some reassurance, the A3/fourth-gen Golf/fourth-gen Jetta is a rather sturdy (and proven) platform.
And then, there's the styling. Whereas the Jetta was understated and handsome, the Lavida is subtle to a fault. Mind you, I was getting glances from people, not because the Lavida stands out, but it's more because of curiosity. They did try to emulate some modern VW design touches. The slim grill and rectangular headlight arrangement is a page off the previous-generation Passat. So too are the tail lights.
The redeeming part of the Lavida's styling is that it looks bigger than it really is. Plus, those elongated rear doors add to the effect. Plus, it doesn't help that the test unit came in plain white, nor the fact that it rode on 16-inch alloy wheels. It blends a little too well in the background if you ask me. Perhaps the sandy brown or red color option would make it look that bit more upmarket.
Like the exterior, the cabin doesn't have any design characteristic that pops out. Almost everything you see is either rectangular, angled, or, in the case of the dials, round. But you could argue that VW interiors were never the most stylish or dynamic. If anything, the interior arrangement is the textbook definition of logical. You've got your radio set high (non-touchscreen by the way), climate control buttons just below it, headlight switches are in a dial, and everything is clearly marked. It's still as German as it can be.
On the plus side, there's loads of room inside the Lavida, especially at the back. Seats on the other hand are on the right side of firm although a lever for back rest adjustment would be preferred. While we're at it, a telescopic wheel adjuster would be nice too. The sunroof is a nice addition to the Lavida, bringing in some extra light into the cabin. While the interior is trimmed in hard plastic, it feels solid and hard-wearing, as if it would last decades, not years. So while it's lacking in style, it makes up for it in feel. Also, the trunk is huge compared to most of its rivals and I'm glad to report that, yes, the doors have a heavy, satisfying thud when you close them.
So the exterior and interior aren't going to set the world alight, but the engine is rather impressive. It may only be a 1.4-liter unit but it's a good one. 130 PS may not sound huge by the torque figure of 225 Nm is meaty thanks to the turbo. The engine is then paired to a seven-speed dual clutch transmission. The Lavida also comes packed with stability control, front and rear parking sensors, cornering lights, and a stop-start system.
The nondescript styling hides a lot of the Lavida's powertrain prowess. Again, the horsepower specs don't look stellar but, on the road, it sure felt more like the 130 PS figure stated in the brochure. It pulls strong just below 1,500 rpm, can can carry you to highway cruising speeds with ease. Overtaking is no problem either, simply wait for the turbo to spool up and it shoots forward. If anything, the power delivery is somewhat diesel-like when it surges ahead. I'd even say that the Lavida is a bit of a sleeper, and would actually make an effective unmarked highway patrol vehicle.
And it doesn't sacrifice fuel economy for the sake of performance. Averaging just 18 km/h around the city, the Lavida managed 10.3 kilometers per liter, according to the trip meter at least. It's even more impressive on the highway, managing 17.7 kilometers per liter at 87 km/h. Those fuel economy figures would make you think that you're in a diesel, but sans the clatter and noise. Safe to say that performance and economy are my top highlights of the Lavida, offering a healthy dose of both.
Then there's the suspension. In terms of ride, the Lavida is on the soft side, making it a relaxing cruiser. Deep cracks on the road are dealt with ease and it's reasonably comfortable on rougher roads. Also, it feels sturdy on bad pavement. I drove over a lot of bad roads over the course of the week and it can take quite the pounding. Perhaps a little more lumbar support on the seats would make it a lot more comfortable. But nevertheless, it feels rock solid no matter what kind of road you're on. It feels like it can take on rather punishing abuse and just shake it off. Think of it as a heavy-duty sedan.
Handling on the other hand isn't its strongest suit. Now, I'm not saying it feels wayward to drive but it won't exactly be a thrill. Steering is light and there's a fair amount of body sway in the bends. Nonetheless, it keeps you on the road and won't alarm you in an event of an emergency maneuver. On the daily drive, the light steering means it's easy to maneuver around parking areas and tight spots.
If the Lavida's looks inside and out won't do it for you, then the performance, economy, and robust feel will. Skeptics may point out the Chinese DNA of the car but the expectations of solidity are there. However, at Php 1,171,000, the Lavida has a tough hurdle ahead of it. The competition offers more flair, more style, and more pizzazz at that price range. Still, it manages to undercut some rivals.
Perhaps it it were offered at Php 1,000,000 flat (or less), I'd actually consider the Lavida as a daily driver. Sure, it's not exciting in any way, shape, or form, but it has no major vices, spacious inside, has a huge trunk, feels like it's made for tough road conditions, and has great fuel economy. And what's not to like about that?