The new age limousine

Go to Las Vegas, and chances are you'll see a stretch limo. That's just part and parcel of being in Sin City. If you head over to the gaming hub known as Entertainment City in Manila Bay, chances are you won't see any stretched vehicles. What you will see are luxury vans around every corner. 

Personally, I was never into limos. I’ve always found these to be quite pretentious. And because most 80s movies showed it at proms and parties (including one at Nakatomi), the stretch limo had a delinquent vibe that looked out of place in corporate events and formal occasions whether the guest riding was high profile or not.

Still, a limo -be it stretched or just a full-size luxury saloon- was the status symbol and the only choice if you wanted a pomp ride. Sure, you can get a pimped-out SUV, but it was only about a decade or two ago that the SUV really emerged from its ruggedly utilitarian origins to becoming a status symbol itself.

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Here in the Philippines, however, there is a relatively new symbol of luxury mobility, and that is the luxury van. Be it a premium MPV that has been kitted out that way from the factory or a retrofit and upgrade of a standard van model, the luxury van has largely supplanted low-riding limousines and saloon cars as symbols of success.

Of course, the Philippines has been a van country for a long time. Families like to travel together, and bigger families need more seats and space. In the eighties, there was the L300; heck, they even revived it. But a lot of L300 Versa Vans were converted to have nicer seats back in the day. Then the nineties came along and a lot of smaller vans also became popular like LiteAce and Vanette.

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Remember when the first batches of the Hiace Grandia (and later Super Grandia) came out? It became a staple sight in gated communities all around. Actually, we’re the second biggest Hiace market in the world right after Japan. The story is the same with the Starex. Remember how the Starex became so popular in the late nineties? That was also the case for the MB100 van; yes it was a Ssangyong, but a lot of those vehicles were sold.

Today, it’s pretty much the same. Vans and minivans are still highly sought-after vehicles. Try getting a regular Hiace, NV350, high-grade Staria, Super Grandia, Alphard, or LM at any dealership and you’ll get a puzzled look from the staff. That’s because there are none available. There’s supposedly a queue to get one, but they don’t honor that. The unit goes to the highest bidder… or in-house financing.

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And it’s always the high-grade models that are out of stock. Why the demand? It’s easy: vans can give you the same level of comfort and luxury (if not more) as a premium saloon or limo but with additional headroom. After hours of sitting inside the tight confines of a plane, even if you are in business (or first) class, there is nothing like the high ceiling of a van to relax you after a long flight. Not having to crouch too low to get in is a bonus. That already gives vans a leg up over the competition, but wait till you see what its luxury siblings have brought to the game.

Let us take one of the most popular models in the market as an example - the Lexus LM. Its body uses an adaptive suspension that focuses on rear comfort and has a 3-step noise reduction system. The cabin has seats (2nd row) with seven massage functions, ottoman leg rests, a screen for the rear passenger, a refrigerator, a rear climate concierge, and more. And it’s always sold out. We’re talking about an PHP 11 million vehicle.

My friend, who wishes to remain anonymous, bought an LM from Lexus PH in 2021 for PHP 5.3 million. This next part is in his own words (or SMS, to be exact), “A buyer asked if he can buy it at 7.9M. I agreed.” The unit already had 7,000 kilometers on it. My friend made money off his used, two-year-old LM. LOL. Like you, it is my first time to witness a truly second-hand vehicle that isn't a hot collector's item (e.g. classic Ferrari) "appreciate" over time.

Why is it such a hot commodity? Simple: there is a lot of money floating around in the Philippines. The most visible market is the many wealthy families, many moneyed foreigners, and many wealthy individuals who prefer to stay anonymous… not that such vehicles look anonymous anyway. Price is not even a concern for these individuals, even those outside the one percent of the country. For them, it is not even a status symbol: buying a van is a rational choice. I know a doctor who bought a second-hand L300, removed OEM (original equipment manufacturer) second-row seats, and installed a sofa bench so he could rest and relax during drives in between clinics.

Arguably the largest market for luxury vehicles is fleet owners using it for recreational and business purposes. Industries like tourism, transportation, entertainment, film, hotel, and gambling use luxury vans. Swing around Entertainment City and see various models driving to and from the airport with the big hotel name plastered on the side. And with the continuous industrial expansion in the Philippines, expect to see more models and brands come in to satisfy the demand.

Rental businesses see the travel and tourism business booming, even 36 months after the pandemic. Maybe people are still in revenge travel mode, but regardless, people are leasing luxury vans. A few even choose the chauffeured option.

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These high-end, luxury vans have (almost) everything your traveling heart desires – power sliding doors, second-row first-class seating (with power ottomans), a drop-down screen for movies (so you can distract yourself from the travails of traffic), airliner-type mood lighting, and a premium sound system. Some variants even have massage seats, which lets you loosen that tight back on the road.

Also, the size belies the performance. Do not get fooled because most of these models pack quite the punch. Some have V6s, while others sport turbocharged diesel engines. Either way, vans at this level are no slouches.

Even mass-market nameplates like the Hiace and the Urvan still get a lot of love from the private sector because no sedan, hatchback, or SUV can match its size and customizability. There’s an emerging industry where shops take a base van and upgrade anything and everything they can. There are even larger options like the H350, Sprinter, and Toano which, despite the boxy appearances, are the go-to of the affluent crowd. These buyers seek a mode of transportation that can meet their highly eclectic demands through customization, whether a soft-as-a-cloud ride or plush La-Z-Boy-type captain’s seats.

The van is a veritable living room on wheels. And in a country where traffic is -and will always be- a problem, bringing the comforts of home to your mobility is a very appealing idea. Just food for thought while lining up at the local lotto outlet in hopes of winning the 6/55 so you can buy an LM.