Space for days
Let's face it: The Hiace is the king of the people movers here.
It's always been like that since perhaps the L300 versa van bowed out. Given the number of Hiace Commuters, GL Grandias, and Super Grandias out on the road, we simply don't see it being dethroned anytime soon.
However, that doesn't mean other manufacturers in the people mover class have simply bowed down to the Hiace over the years. There's one that dared to be different. And it was Hyundai with the Starex.
Whereas the Hiace and Urvans of the late 90s had economy class bench seats and stiff-riding leaf springs, Hyundai offered much more comfortable seats, plus coil springs in the rear with the Starex. And while the Hiace had its engine placed under the driver's seat, Hyundai gave the most SUV-like driving position for a van with the Starex as its engine was placed in front.
Now we all know the Starex name is no more; in its place is the Staria. But despite the name change, the Staria still has the elements that made the Starex a popular choice for those who want something different for a people mover.
Eric was able to review the top-of-the-line Staria Premium 7-seater AWD earlier. This time, Hyundai gave me the keys to the 11-seater Staria GLS+. While the Premium proved to be the first-class people mover, the GLS+ is like the premium economy class version, and it's a very good one at that.
Looks-wise, the Staria GLS+ loses things like the bronze bits for the grille, side mirrors, and the badges for more conventional body-colored trims. The wheels are also smaller – 17 inches compared to the Premium's 18-inch two-tone alloys, but it doesn't make it any less striking on the road.
It's still quite an interesting sight once you see it on the road. It has full-width LED in front that looks like Ironman when it lights up at night, and the pixel-like pattern on the taillights goes along well with that bullet train-like silhouette.
Honestly, if the dealer offers window tinting as a freebie once you buy one of these, I suggest you better take it. Considering how huge the windows are, I reckon it will be very expensive to have the Staria tinted outside the “casa”.
There are no automatic sliding doors here for the GLS+ variant, so you do have to open it by yourself to get inside the van. And when you do, you're welcomed with a beige and black interior motif. As I've said with this being the premium economy class version, the cabin is far from being in any way an economy class with exposed metal panels and thin bench-type seats.
What you still get are thick and soft seats on all four rows, plus nice quality plastics. You do lose the power-adjustable seats of the Premium AWD variant, but still, you can sit more people inside, and the last three rows can be slid fore and aft, plus reclined and folded in many different ways.
Passengers will appreciate the fact that the Staria GLS+ has USB charging ports from the second to the fourth row, so there's no problem keeping your devices charged on long road trips. Furthermore, it's nice to see the Staria GLS+ comes with Quiet mode – a neat feature that only activates the speakers in the first row when the occupants in the back are sleeping. So when driving long distances, the driver can activate it via the touchscreen to keep himself entertained with music while the others are sleeping soundly.
In terms of the cabin amenities in front, the driver gets a full-digital instrument display, plus an 8-inch touchscreen unit with wireless Apple Carplay and Android Auto. There's also a wireless charging pad in the middle, and despite having manual A/C controls instead of auto climate, the Staria GLS+ has a strong A/C unit to keep you cool.
What I found a bit odd though is the placing of the electronic parking brake. In other vehicles I've tested with EPBs, they were usually placed near the shifter. But with the Staria GLS+, it's placed at the left side panel behind the steering wheel. It takes a while to get used to the EPB position, so expect some moments where you'll find yourself searching for it.
But when you do start to drive, you'll find that being designated as the driver is not such a daunting ordeal with the Staria. It's given that the van is about 5.2 meters long, 1.9 meters wide, and 1.9 meters tall so you do have to mind its size when navigating in tight spaces, but Hyundai added some nifty features to help you drive the big van out on the road.
For starters, the Staria GLS+ has an electric power steering unit, so it's easy to go from lock to lock when maneuvering. Also when you activate the turn signals, the tachometer/speedometer turns into a camera that shows the van's blind spots. It also has a 360-degree camera with lines that show where the wheels are pointing.
The Staria GLS+ has a 2.2-liter, four-cylinder CRDi 16-valve VGT engine that has 177 PS and 430 Nm of torque. Instead of giving one big lump of power that's common in modern diesel engines, the Staria delivers power smoothly. The 8-speed automatic likewise operates smoothly when changing gears, but it does have quite the tendency to hunt for the right cog at around 80 to 100 km/h.
Fuel economy-wise, we got around 8.4 km/l in the city and 13.5 km/l on the highway. But honestly, the most striking aspect about the Staria is its road manners – it's very refined whether you're all alone inside or full of passengers.
It's not in the Lexus levels of quietness inside, but it's enough to give you such a pleasant time riding it. That applies both ways, whether you're the designated driver or the passenger princess. It rides very well for a people mover, and a big factor of that is because the Staria rides on a unibody platform with a four-wheel independent suspension.
That's how Hyundai did it differently for the Staria. Compared to the current-gen Hiace that sits on a ladder frame chassis with live axles at the rear, the Staria's setup simply does a better job at absorbing bumps and giving a comfortable ride.
As good as it is, I still have some misgivings about the Staria GLS+. We've noticed that the seats have a tendency to rattle when it's unoccupied – that's basically what happens when the seats can be moved compared to fixed benches. Also, the unit we tested had this damage at the right side sliding door, which may have been causing those squeaking noises in the door's rubber moldings. It's a good thing I spent most of my time driving the Staria alone, but I imagine how annoying it could be for occupants sitting in the passenger rows.
But overall my experience with the Staria has been a good one. I've had it as a daily driver in the city, and on the weekend I took it for a road trip in the South. It's one of those vehicles I thoroughly enjoyed both as a driver and a passenger, and I look forward to having it again another time.
At PHP 2,320,000, the Staria GLS+ has a price tag that puts it squarely against the Hiace GL Grandia. While they won't admit it, Hyundai knows the Staria won't beat the Hiace as the de-facto choice for a people mover. But for those who don't stick to the status quo and want something unique, something different, something that's very comfortable, the Staria GLS+ may be the one for you.