The words affordable, German, and car aren't usually affixed with each other. But Volkswagen is keen to change that perception.
In a bid to make their cars more reachable for the masses, Volkswagen Philippines is bringing in German cars...by the way of China. Yes, this has been news for quite some time already. When it first broke out, let's just say there was a wide range of opinions ranging from scathing to complimentary. But, as we always believed, it's better to reserve judgment until the product has been tested. The proof is in the pudding.
So now I just finished driving the Volkswagen Santana in top-spec MPI SE, with the Blaupunkt audio system to be exact. It's a decent day to day driver, yes. But is it 'German' enough?
For the skeptics, the Volkswagen Santana isn't some rehashed old platform. It actually sits on a chassis newer than the car it replaced locally, the Polo Notch. Speaking of which, the Polo Notch wasn't purely German either as it was built in India, but I digress. Back to the Santana, it is related to its lesser known cousins in this part of the world, the Skoda Rapid and SEAT Toledo. Coincidentally, the Toledo from the 90's also wore a VW badge in the Philippines. Those familiar with it know it as the Volkswagen Polo Classic.
The platform is relatively new but the design isn't what one would call eye-catching. Not helped by the white paint on this particular tester, the Santana quietly sits in the background. Straight lines, upright flanks, and an overall conventional look are just some of the hallmarks of VW design. The only thing that really pop out are the big VW logos at the front and rear. You could mistake it for a Polo Notch, even if it is riding on a newer platform. The nicest way to put the Santana's styling is 'inoffensive'. It won't draw attention, but it's not ugly either.
The same goes for the interior. Again, it's all straight lines that scream (or rather, whispers) conventional. There's not much in the way of flair either but the dash is well laid-out nonetheless. It's all about functionality inside and, as a result, it's quite ergonomic. Buttons, switches, and dials are where you expect them, save for the dial to control the headlights. Here is an odd quirk though: when the armrest is in place, you'll have to reach around it to get to the handbrake, making me think that the armrest itself was a bit of an afterthought.
As for space, it's good at the front and on par with its competitors at the back. The Santana isn't the most commodious, but it's good for most. It does make up for it by having one of the biggest trunks in its segment.
The Santana could use a bit more flair inside. Yes, it's a small sedan but a bit more zest would liven things up a bit. However, the Blaupunkt infotainment does more than make up for it. Speaking of which, the touchscreen is one of the most comprehensive I've seen in a small car. It tells you the amount of fuel you have in figures, which is much more helpful than a digital display I say. Also, it has something I haven't seen in a car in a long time, a voltmeter. It even tells you how much washer fluid you have left. How's that for German OC-ness?
But just because it's a subcompact German car (albeit made in China), Volkswagen didn't scrimp on equipment. The top of the line Santana comes equipped with a sunroof, cornering foglights, cruise control, synthetic leather trimmings, and even side airbags. It feels solid too, with the doors closing with a satisfying whump. It's also nice to know that the Santana's Spanish cousin, the SEAT Toledo, got a five-star safety rating in the tough EuroNCAP tests.
Pop the hood and it's as conventional as it can be. Like most cars in its class, the Santana has a 1.5-liter engine. Power is on par in its segment, producing 110 PS and 150 Nm of torque. It also has a six-speed automatic, which should be good for fuel economy. One thing that makes the Santana rather unique is its fuel tank capacity. Whereas most hover in the 40 liter range, the VW has a sizable 50 liter tank, giving you more range and, therefore, less fuel stops.
I'll be blunt in saying that the Santana won't stir the soul when you're out on the road. It's a perfectly fine point A to B runabout that won't give you headaches or discomfort.
Let's start with the ride: it is commendable thanks to the tall tires and even taller ride height. It takes punishment pretty well too, absorbing bad potholes with not much impact harshness and with just the thump of the suspension letting you know its doing its job. It does wallow a bit after running over bumps and undulations, although it gives the impression that you're riding in a bigger car, albeit a soft-riding one.
The soft suspension does come with a minor drawback: middle-of-the-road handling. The car dips to one side when corners are taken with exuberance, and the nose dives even under moderate braking. You can actually feel the rubber flex even at moderate speeds, which sort of reminds me of a car from the 90's. I reckon the Santana could do better with wider, lower profile tires. Volkswagen, do fix that pronto. That being said, the Santana offers something most new cars don't, which is heft in the steering... just like a car from the 90's.
As for performance, it's about average. It's no GTI at all but the Santana can get to cruising speeds without much effort. The transmission is eager to upshift, which is good for fuel economy. However, it is a bit reluctant to downshift, which makes overtaking a bit more of a challenge. A stomp on the accelerator makes it kick down a cog, but it takes a while. Perhaps it's the mileage of the car (we got it with barely over 300 kilometers), but it's like the computerized brain of the six-speed automatic still needed more miles to get the hang of an ideal pattern that's more responsive.
But one doesn't buy a small sedan for its cornering ability or doing pulls on a drag strip. A subcompact should deliver good fuel economy, and the Santana holds that promise. At an average speed of 17 km/h, the Santana still managed 9.2 kilometers per liter without any assistance from the stop-start system. On the steep, hilly roads of Tanay, it managed 11.3 kilometers per liter with four on board, a trunk filled up with camera gear, and air-conditioning on a relatively high setting. With those figures, along with its 50-liter fuel tank, range can easily go beyond 400 kilometers, even over 500 if your right foot is more gentle than mine.
Interested? This top-spec Santana is at Php 993,000. It sounds like a lot of money for a subcompact sedan but when you look at it, it's about on par or even undercuts similarly equipped rivals. That's something rarely heard of in a European-badged car.
All in all, it's a decent car, but does it feel German? Not quite. Yes, the doors close with a satisfying thud but it's not quite enough. For me, a German car should not only feel solid, but also feel planted around the bends. However, if you're the kind of person who puts comfort, economy, and safety equipment (and ratings) above everything else, then it's worth considering.
Personally though, I'd go for the more basic model but with the Blaupunkt system for Php 929,000. Granted, you don't get the sunroof, leather seats, and cornering foglights, but the basics that you need are there. And the low cost of ownership, thanks to a once a year/10,000 km service interval.