Small, B-segment vehicles represent a market segment that are usually first-time car buyers. At this price point, it’s not necessarily the most high tech, nor the most stylish that wins the hearts of customers. What a B-segment car has to primarily offer is loads of value. Although the nameplate is not well known in the western world, the Volkswagen Santana was actually the first mass produced modern passenger car built in China, and has since become one of the best-selling nameplates in the country with almost four million units sold since domestic production began in 1983. A nameplate that used to be exclusive to the Chinese market, it was interesting enough for Volkswagen to select the Philippines as the first ASEAN country to receive the Santana outside China, thanks to the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement. As it pushes to finally become a mainstream marque in the Philippines, has Volkswagen got a chance with the Santana? Let’s find out.
From the outside, the Volkswagen Santana looks nondescript, but it doesn’t mean that it’s a boring design, either. Without a line that’s out of place, the Santana carries a design that’s conservative, but will surely age well and will do it favors after many years of ownership. The trademark horizontal grille are nicely flanked by multi-reflector halogen headlights, while the sides carry a character line that runs from the headlights all the way to the tail lights. The dimensions do a good job of making the Santana look longer and wider than it actually is, and this is all thanks to a mainly horizontal theme going across the vehicle. Everything just falls into place nicely, and in the end, a design that people will find elegant even after many years is what matter most.
That “stretched” look does translate to the interior. Complying with China’s demand for maximum rear-seat space, the new Santana offers significantly more rear-seat legroom compared to most of its rivals. This is exactly the reason why many car manufacturers release long wheelbase versions of their cars exclusive to the Chinese market. The rest of the interior is straightforward and well designed. Sure, it’s not as plush as one would find in a Mazda 2, but all the buttons and switches have a nice, hefty feel, making it feel much more premium than the P686,000 price suggests. Even at this bargain basement price, the infotainment screen looks much more cohesive than most of its rivals, thanks to the radio screen that blends well with the rest of the interior. It includes USB and AUX input, which is more than enough in this class of car.
There’s also a generous 480-liter boot, which is among the class leaders in terms of size, should you wish to carry me around inside the boot.
Safety and convenience hasn’t been skimped, either. All four of its windows offer power operation unlike all of its key rivals in its segment, while ISOFIX child seat anchors, three-point seatbelts for all rear occupants, and dual SRS airbags are offered as standard. While not as comprehensive as the recently launched Vios with its seven airbags, stability control, and hill start assist, the Santana still offers more safety features at its sub-P700k price than most of its rivals.
Under the hood of the Volkswagen Santana is a 1.4-liter inline-4 petrol engine that produces 90 hp @ 5,500 rpm and 132 Nm of torque @ 3,800 rpm. This is then sent through a 5-speed manual transmission. Underpinning the Santana is the Volkswagen Group’s PQ25 platform, which underpins the outgoing Volkswagen Polo and Audi A1. As a result, the Santana offers the best driving experience in its class. Let me elaborate further.
It all begins with nice steering and the sporty shifts you get from the 5-speed manual transmission. Whereas all of its competitors feel like an appliance when it comes to the drive, the Santana offers much more than that. It’s easily the most solid and stable, a far cry from all of its competition that feels hallow and tinny. From the way the chassis, the doors, and just how well built the body is, the Santana still offers that typical Volkswagen solidity that you expect from a German brand, even if this car is built in China. As a result, the Santana is one of the most exciting cars to drive at its price when on a highway, providing all the solidity and stability you expect from cars a class higher.
The 1.4 MPI engine pulls the Santana’s weight nicely, mainly due to the 5-speed manual’s excellent gearing. It never feels struggled, though load it up fully and the engine starts to feel strained, which is typical with all of its competitors anyway. The steering, meanwhile, is light and offers not a lot of feel, but weights up nicely as you get up to speed. It responds quickly and eagerly to your inputs, making the Santana quite a fun vehicle to hustle through corners. It’s no Golf GTI, that’s for sure, but it stays planted and stable without a hiccup.
And that’s where the Volkswagen Santana impresses. It’s a car that at P686,000, won’t be the most high tech, nor the most stylish, but what it excels at is in the fundamentals of what makes a car so good to drive in the first place. The Volkswagen Santana 1.4 MPI Trendline MT is a car that’s perfect for those who treat their cars as something more than an appliance to get from A to B. It’s a car that’s fundamentally outstanding, nailing the aspects of what a great driving car is.
Exterior Design: ★★★★☆
Interior Design: ★★★★☆
Space and Practicality: ★★★★★
Fuel Efficiency: ★★★★☆
Value For Money: ★★★★★
Overall: 4.4 out of 5