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Is the Santana a subcompact contender?

Volkswagen Santana 1.5 MPI A/T SE

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The Santana is a Chinese-built subcompact (although it is classified as a compact globally) that takes the place of the Jetta in Volkswagen’s domestic lineup. It’s positioned as a subcompact because it can be priced a lot cheaper than models made in Germany due to the ASEAN-China Free Trade Area that puts lower tariffs on Chinese imports to the Philippines. I take out the trim’s top-of-the-line to see what’s up.

At first glance, it appears a little bigger, to the point where you’d think twice if it was a subcompact. The wheelbase is at 2,603 mm, which makes it the longest in the segment, but not by much.

Its exterior is more modest than competitors and gets by on a few character lines to capture the eye and give its body somewhat of a figure. With its almost upright orientation, the grille and logo design feels like a throwback of the fourth-generation Jetta, but it counters that with sharper looking headlamps with auto function, plus a feature that turn the lights on when you unlock and/or keeps it on a few seconds after you lock it, which makes it easy to find at night.

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It is pretty plain around the rear as well with just the logo, the badge, and the round parking sensors along the rear bumper. The trunk can be opened manually via the latch or remotely using the key fob.

Inside, the cabin feels spacious mainly because of the high ceiling. This has also managed to affect the cabin’s layout as everything seems positioned higher than the average subcompact. I had to knock the seat lever several times to lift the seat so that I could be level with the dashboard and the instrument panel. It feels like it sits higher on the ground than other subcompacts with the 15s because of the commanding view from the cockpit.

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The seven-inch Blaupunkt touchscreen system doesn’t feel large enough to be stunning but it is highlighted by metallic accents and framed in glossy black material, which immediately makes it feel well-appointed. It comes with Bluetooth connectivity, USB ports, an SD card slot, and a six-speaker system.

Access to the interface is easy with clearly marked buttons along the side or via the icons on the screen. The touch system is accurate and very responsive, which makes it fun to use.

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Dashboard and the panels are plastic but they sport faux leather graining which is better than being plain, plus it gives the interior a bit of an upscale feel.

Seats have a synthetic leather and fabric combo and the seatback is tall, which puts the top of the headrest almost above my head. Despite it feeling big, the setup is snug and comfortable.

While other countries get either the 1.4L or 1.6L turbocharged gasoline engine, the Philippines gets only the naturally-aspirated versions and this unit has the 1.5L with BlueMotion Technology (revised engine mapping for higher fuel efficiency and lower emissions).

Acceleration is very snappy from standstill, even with a modest 110 PS and 150 Nm of torque. It feels very responsive and quick, even with the RPM hovering at just below 2,000. The six-speed automatic transmission feels smooth and intuitive to the point where it engine-brakes to help you slow down when approaching traffic. Overtaking won’t be a problem in the city for sure, but you may need more than the average throttle pressure on the highway.

The suspension is a nice mix of firmness and comfort. It’s able to take potholes and speed bumps without so much as a thud, but what it needs to improve on is reducing noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) levels.

When it comes to handling, its limits are about as high as a newbie driver and its body will communicate it to you immediately. Turning is ok, but cornering (with some speed) is for a future update.

At Php 993,000, it is slightly more expensive than its counterparts with similar trim and features, but VW gives it added value by cutting down periodic maintenance to just once a year (or after 10,000 kilometers), gave it a three-year warranty (or 100,000 kilometers), and threw in a one-year 24/7 free roadside assistance.

Is the Volkswagen Santana 1.5 MPI A/T SE a subcompact contender? It’s certainly tuned for city driving; Volkswagen has never claimed otherwise.

When it comes to cabin features, it is loaded enough for the segment and it has enough drive to make it fun on the road. It won’t take the market by storm, yet, but it’s a contender for sure.

Text and photos by Eric Tipan

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