Six hundred eighty-six thousand pesos doesn’t get you much car these days. A second-hand car is possible, but for those who want something new, the choices are limited.

You can’t even get an entry-level Kia Rio or Hyundai Accent at those prices, much less something like a Honda City. But, lo and behold, there’s one new entry that’s pretty much shaken the subcompact genre and it comes from an unlikely source: Volkswagen. Specifically the 2018 Volkswagen Santana.

At these rock-bottom prices, understandably you can’t expect lofty things. And trueenough, the Santana is a no-nonsense, basic commuter car. There’s no Bluetooth, no trip computer, no variable intermittent wipers, no steering wheel controls; heck, it doesn’t even come with vanity mirrors or a trunk light. Yet, strip it to its most basic elements—the drivetrain, the body—and it’s clearly a commuter car done right—German engineering at its finest.

Solidity where it counts. You’d feel it the moment you open the Santana’s door. The price may be cheap, but the door’s still got telltale Volkswagen heft. It opens and closes with a resounding thud—a common barometer for build quality. Drive off and it’s pretty clear that the engineers have done their chassis homework, too.

It feels solid with none of the floaty, hollow feel that commonly plagues subcompact sedans. The ride is decidedly firm, but never uncomfortable. Solidity is baked in whatever the obstacle is—bumps, cracks, potholes—everything is absorbed before it reaches the driver’s seat. The steering is light, perhaps a bit lifeless, but it’s precise and quick. And as the speeds build up, so does the confidence. That light steering turns weighty and together with the planted laser-welded chassis, it makes highway driving actually enjoyable in such a small car.

Basic but bulletproof. The Santana’s strength continues with its drivetrain. With its 1.4-liter 4-cylinder engine, it’s down 100cc compared to its Japanese rivals, but what’s so great about it is how it maximizes all 90 hp and 132 Nm of torque. The secret perhaps has something to do with the 5-speed manual’s impeccable gearing.

It feels lithe, making short work of accelerating between intersections or traffic lights. It’s also a generally quiet and refined motor; only slightly becoming raspy beyond 4,300rpm. And even then, it’s smooth with no unwanted vibration or harshness. The gearbox itself is also surprisingly precise. There’s always a slight hesitation getting it into gear from neutral, but after that, the shift action is crisp. Admittedly though, the clutch engagement is high and together with the engine’s propensity to drop revs eagerly means a bit of a learning curve when it comes to operating this three-pedal setup. Still, it’s a rewarding experience down to its 8.72km/L fuel economy figures.

Simple and minimalist. Moving on from the solid underpinnings, the rest of the Santana package is safe, if a bit unremarkable both inside and out. The exterior design is predictably corporate with its horizontal face, angular contours, and sharply creased body. It’s handsome in a conservative sort of way, although the 14-inch hubcaps are a bit of a letdown in this day and age of standard alloys. Still, the overall quality, including the paint job, exudes a Teutonic feel despite its Shanghai-based origins.

The same can be said about the cabin. Predictably, the Santana uses materials which are all hard to the touch, but at least they’re solid and well-wearing. Some chrome could have brightened up the cabin; as it stands, it looks rather gloomy. Still kudos has to be extended to its ergonomic simplicity with well-marked, well-placed controls. It also must be said that for its class, the driver is treated like a king thanks to a seat that moves six
ways and a steering wheel that adjusts for tilt. The seats themselves are firm and supportive, but the pedal’s off-center placement does limit its comfort, especially during long stints behind the wheel.

V is for value. The sub-700,000 price tag means that the Santana is competing with the Kia Picanto and Honda Brio, but in terms of size, it’s clearly a class up. It sits right smack in the middle of the B-segment providing ample (but not class-leading) levels of head, shoulder, and most importantly, legroom be it at the front or back. There’s no surprise that the front seats are pretty inviting, but what is surprising is that the rear seats are well-thought of (almost). The only gripe? The obtrusive center tunnel that’s aggravated by the fixed cupholder/cubby hole. Still, there are actually three adjustable headrests at the back together with three 3-point seatbelts; something not found in every subcompact sedan nowadays. The electrically actuated trunk reveals a deep, square- cut cargo hold that can swallow two full-sized suitcases plus a carry-on spinner or two.

Obviously, because the Santana’s engineered to a price, something’s got to give and that “give” is found in its rather short list of standard equipment. As previously mentioned, there’s no Bluetooth, trip computer, variable intermittent wipers, steering wheel controls, vanity mirrors, or even a trunk light; even the speakers blurt out the tunes through just two speakers. Having said that, it does counter these shortcomings with all power amenities (including a one-touch driver’s window), an audio system with a built-in Aux jack, SD card slot, and USB port, dual SRS airbags, ABS with EBD, and even ISOFIX child seat anchors. It may have skimped on the luxury trimmings, but where it counts, it comes across as a solid value.


VERDICT

And that logic, the one where it builds itself around a rock-solid foundation pretty much summarizes the whole Volkswagen Santana experience. Its list of luxury and convenience features may not be as long, but it delivers on the things that matter.

It doesn’t cut corners on the amenities that matter—comfort, safety, and most importantly, the driving experience. The Santana may be a commuter car, but it’s also one that finally encapsulates what Volkswagen stands for: the people’s car.


SPECIFICATIONS

Engine: 90ps/132Nm 1.4-liter gasoline MPI inline-4

Transmission: 5-speed manual

Drive: Front

Suspension (F/R): MacPherson struts/Composite torsion beam axle

Tires: 175/70R-14

Brakes: (F/R) Vented discs/Drums with ABS and EBD

L x W x H: 4,475 x 1,706 x 1,469mm

Wheelbase: 2,603mm

Other features: Dual SRS airbags, ABS, EBD, ISOFIX seats, 2-speaker audio
system with Aux/USB/SD card slot

Test: Volkswagen Santana
FORM FACTOR8.8
BUILD QUALITY9
EASE OF USE9.3
PERFORMANCE8.8
VALUE FOR MONEY9.3
9Overall Score

About The Author

Ulysses Ang is a multimedia motoring journalist who has a regular column in The Philippine Star's Motoring section and runs his own automotive blog, CarGuide.ph. He hopes to one day have a garage similar to his virtual one in Gran Turismo.