In the last decade, we've all heard horror stories of Chinese vehicles.
They had “designs” that would make Dr. Frankenstein proud: what with the front end of Car A, paired with the taillights of Car B, but stuck onto the body of Car C. We've seen footage of Chinese cars being crash tested and crumpling in a manner that looked painful, even for the dummies. Heck, we've even driven Chinese-made cars that had inside panels that literally fell when we opened the doors or tailgate.
But after spending a few hours behind the wheel of a Chinese-made Hyundai, the Reina sedan, I have to say it's a lot better now.
A Hyundai that's produced in the People's Republic certainly sounded odd to us at first given the historical differences between South Korea and China (the latter did side with the Kims of the North almost seventy years ago), but there is a lot of potential by getting cars from across the West Philippine Sea. Or is it South China Sea?
Actually, the Philippines is the first export market for the China-made Reina. The reason for that is because some political and diplomatic issues between Beijing and Seoul have affected sales of Korean-branded cars. Don't worry, the situation isn't too serious; it's not dissimilar from what happened when Beijing had some issues with Tokyo, and that affected China sales of Japanese-branded models.
So is the Reina a case of us getting the leftovers of the world's biggest auto market, or is it a matter of their loss being our gain?
Regardless, the Reina is here. Assessing the car based on looks, I can tell that it fits in the Hyundai line-up very well. The Reina uses a similar platform to the Accent (AKA Verna), hence the almost identical impression the Reina gives off terms of visual size, but the design is quite different. The front end and the sides look quite alright, though I'm not a fan of the back end; it just doesn't seem as well thought out as Hyundai's other models.
Now this is an economy car that's meant to be more basic than an Accent, and you can tell by the subtleties of the exterior. The un-garnished (apart from the H logo), one-piece pressed steel trunklid is one indicator. The grille and door handles aren't of the polished chrome variety. There are no foglamps available. Heck, even the 14-inch wheels are steelies, though they did put in a full-size cap for good measure. If that wasn't an indicator enough, then pop the hood or the trunk and you'll see that the paint on the undersides are pretty much of the primer gray variety. That doesn't matter much though, as you won't be looking at it anyway.
Without question, this is an economy model, but not that you can tell once you sit inside. The Reina's interior looks quite proper and modern. No, there's no leather, but that's expected. I particularly liked some of the details they incorporated such as the A/C vents, the clean and cohesive dashboard. Yes, it's plastic all around, but the texturing is neat and finish is somewhat satin rather than that cheap-ish gloss expected on entry models.
Hyundai has been known for “creativity” regarding the specifications of their vehicles, particularly in the way they omit certain features we take to be necessary. With the Reina, thankfully they didn't have to. Dual airbags and anti-lock brakes are standard. The power steering is the motor-driven kind. The mirrors are power-adjustable, and you even get headlamp levelers; that's a neat touch. The basic audio system may not have Bluetooth or steering wheel controls, but there's a USB port; Hyundai is also offering a neat OE-style touchscreen unit as an option.
Perhaps the most clever bit about the Reina are the window controls. All four windows are powered, though they put the master window switch in the center stack under the A/C, while the rear occupants have individual switches on the door panels. It's cheaper to produce one master panel with two individual switches rather than a master panel on the driver side, followed by three individual switches. Also, that means the front door panels are devoid of buttons, and it allowed the Reina's interior designers to shape the inner door handles to be so big as to be a useful pocket for your smart phone.
The examples that Hyundai had on hand for us to try out were the automatic variants that were priced at PhP 648,000 (introductory price); I actually wanted to try out the base model manual version at PhP 598,000 (introductory price), but I guess we'll have to wait.
I guess the next question is easy enough: How does a 648k Hyundai sedan feel to drive?
Here's the answer in a nutshell: the Reina is pleasantly surprising.
You get all these ideas in your head about cheap Chinese-made vehicles being so shoddily made that they're horrible to drive, but I didn't get any of that in the Hyundai Reina.
Around urban roads, the suspension is quite balanced and well tuned for comfort. Brakes seemed good for the size and responded well to my inputs on the pedal. Even the A/C proved powerful for the searing heat. But what stuck to me the most was the overall feel of quality; there are some rattles that you expect from a rather rough rumble strip, but beyond that in everyday driving, this Reina is OK.
Powering it is a 1.4-liter Hyundai Kappa engine with 95 PS and 132 Nm of torque, and it's not bad at all. And the 4-speed that many are so quick to dismiss as archaic and old actually performed rather well too; no gear hunting or shift shock. And it's eager to shift down if you prod the throttle a little harder for more acceleration.
Even the handling was surprisingly good. I've driven cheap, sub-600k and sub-500k Chinese vehicles before, and I know how a handful the handling can be. I've felt what it's like to hear and feel the body structure squeak and twist when cornering at even slow speeds. I've felt what it's like to have four shock absorbers and springs that don't seem to agree in terms of damping and spring rates. I've even felt what it's like to have the anti-lock brakes be delayed in its reaction and tires so cheap that they make more noise than grip under hard braking.
In the Reina, there's none of that. It felt even to drive, the brakes are good, the power is alright, and the torsional rigidity seems to be there. This appears to be a proper and good quality vehicle from Hyundai's factory in China. We'll have to do more tests in the near future with regards to fuel economy (we were on a speed run, not an eco run) to find more nuances, but for now, we only have one real gripe: the rear seats, specifically the backrests. They could be a bit softer for better comfort. That's about it.
I honestly thought I'd have to lower expectations (or worse, check my insurance) with regards to driving a very affordable China-made vehicle. Treat it with kids' gloves, so to speak. But we didn't have to do that. The Hyundai Reina can hold its own as a properly-made, entry-grade sedan based on merit. The low price is just a happy bonus.