On the first Saturday of March, with the season heading seriously into summer but with the air still cool and dry in the hours before the sun came out, I rolled off with a van full of teaching volunteers intent on bringing early literacy to a community in need. With the assistance of BAIC Philippines, I had the chance to test drive their MZ40 WeVan while helping bring volunteers 180 kilometers north to the municipal hall of San Clemente town in Tarlac. There we switched to a 6×6 surplus military truck that is the municipality’s sole means of heavy transport to our final destination: the Dueg resettlement area on the mountain ridge west of the town proper and right on the border with Pangasinan.
The volunteers were out on their latest mission under the Barangay Early Literacy Program (BELP) of Adarna Group Foundation, Inc. (AGFI). This one was to the Aeta resettlement community at Sitio Dueg, Barangay Maasin, Municipality of San Clemente, Tarlac. Back in 1991, the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in Zambales forced the relocation of hundreds of thousands of Aeta tribesmen that had lived near the volcano. Some of them were brought to Dueg. Of the 2,000 families originally resettled at the mountaintop location, just around 200 families now remain.
The Dueg Resettlement Elementary and High Schools have a combined population of some 300 students, with teachers who trek up weekly from San Clemente’s seat of government, 9 kilometers as the crow flies though twice that distance on a winding road going up the mountain with about half its length already paved. The mountaintop can be tough on its residents. The days are hot and arid, the nights chill if not freezing, and the surrounding foliage is sparse in comparison to the lush jungle that the hunting-gathering Aetas had once had down in Zambales.
The volunteers brought to the community a morning of storytelling, arts and crafts, and nutritional training for 80 children and their mothers. In the words of Ruth Martin, AGFI Executive Director: “We carry out BELP as a one-day activity in small and deserving communities … we distribute age-appropriate books to children and engage their parents in learning sessions. We also involve volunteers mostly from college organizations and institutions to facilitate storytelling, music and movement, and art activities for the children of the community. We have done BELP in communities like Payatas in Quezon City and Bayan ni Juan in Calauan, Laguna … and we are set to do more in Barangays Sacred Heart and Sangandaan in Quezon City.”
A singular transport
I joined the drive to Dueg to transport 18 volunteers, that’s 19 including me, turning it into it into a convoy of two vans, one the usual people mover provided by a charter service, a big current-model Toyota HiAce, and the second, my ride, BAIC’s new and unusual MZ40 WeVan. Appropriately, the vehicle we we’re lent for this mission, this worthy cause, is itself an award winner. Introduced just last year by Bayan Automotive Industries Corporation (yes, with the initials BAIC), an affiliate of Nissan distributor Universal Motors Corporation, the MZ40 WeVan is a sub-compact passenger van that’s already garnered industry recognition both here and in China, its country of manufacture.
Last November, the MZ40 was named the 2014-2015 Sub-Compact Van of the Year by the country’s Car Awards Group. In the same month, J.D. Power Asia Pacific released its 2014 China Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study which showed that while Chinese customers now expect more in terms of design and technology, the MZ40 (badged the Weiwang 306 internationally) came as the highest ranked in the face of such expectations and was thus named the winner of the APEAL’s mini-van segment.
Not a micro-van but maybe one for old Europe
The WeVan’s proportions fit those of what some have called “bread vans,” those compact though oddly proportioned people movers that look unusually tall and thin, like a loaf of bread you’d find bundled with a second one on the grocery shelf. In obvious deference to tight city spaces, on the WeVan’s larger size and heft, the proportions speak of something else.
Seen in images without passengers to put it in scale, it’s easy to mistake the WeVan to be as small as the Suzuki SuperCarrry and the Daihatsu HiJet, both popular micro-vans characterized by small wheels and just a second seating row, no third. The WeVan might look to have the same proportions but is significantly larger, though with curiously narrow shoulders.
With LxWxH dimensions of 4030x1636x1907mm, the WeVan is slightly shorter and narrower but also taller than vehicles of similar role such as the Toyota Avanza compact MPV with its 4140x1660x1695mm measurements, and the Suzuki APV compact van with its 4155x1655x1860mm. But, while the Avanza and APV both project a distinct Asian lineage, the WeVan seems to ironically fit a European ethos instead.
With its generously proportioned interior, the WeVan is the sort of cargo and people carrier I’d expect to see in Europe where old world roads in towns and the countryside are just wide enough for horse carriages and very, very polite motorists going in opposite directions. Not that I’ve been on any of these roads. I’ve just seen the small tracks on the big screen, often times with big-boned masterless spies and furtive fugitives behind the wheel of small getaway cars.
A full-blown people carrier
Weighing just over a ton, the WeVan is a sub-compact, a smaller interpretation of the conventional passenger van that could weigh twice as much, but with proportions and ingenious space touches that let it take on a respectable load of passengers with its three seating rows. On our trip, with eight reasonably fit individuals (that’s on a bell curve average with me on the wrong end, of course) each with light day-trip baggage, we had tipped the scales at just over half a ton, leaving a large part of the WeVan’s impressive 700kg carrying capacity for several more persons to squeeze in if needed, or for all of us to bring overnight bags if it had been a longer trip.
The seating layout, though on thin but adequate padding, is generously spaced with deep leg areas as well as expansive seat cushions deeper than the average person’s thighbone is long. These dimensions made for a comfortable slouch if and when the drone of the road lulls you to sleep, as it did for my passenger volunteers both on the trip out and the one back.
Because the seats are generously spaced, the last couch nearly touches the tailgate, yes, but with the floor laid flat atop the running gear, there’s a lot of under-seat space to complement the shrunken rear cargo area. Have your passengers pack duffels instead of rigid carry-ons and everyone will have enough nooks and crannies for stuffing in their, well, stuff.
The floor covering is of vinyl, cheesy to some but a real plus for charter service operators and harried heads of families who have to give in to their passengers wanting to take meals on the road. And, of course, there’s always the option of throwing in some rugs for that cozy touch, and for improving the acoustics.
Spartan but comfortable
I mention acoustics because the variant we had was big on utilitarian elegance—lots of exposed body metal on the inside that could reverberate with road noise as well as the engine’s throaty exclamations. This said, the interior noise, though noticeable, was not oppressive, at least not in the rear passenger cabin where, as I mentioned, each one of them had managed to doze off during the trip, and twice too.
And, on the hot day that the Saturday had turned out to be, the air-conditioning also made it easy to nod off. The WeVan’s relatively small engine was matched with an A/C compressor impressively strong enough to cool down the large cabin space, particularly with air being circulated through ducted vents with their own blower and controls for the rear.
There’re no repeater controls up front for the rear blower but a stretch up and back to iron out the kinks in tired shoulders put those in back within easy reach of the driver. But I’d have to say that the cooling capacity on that A/C seemed to come at the price of a rather noisy compressor. Still, the rhythmic thumping whenever the compressor engaged could’ve been due to excessive refrigerant charging. Just a balancing issue, is what I’m saying.
A svelte, stable platform
Somewhat unique in chassis layout, the compact WeVan seems engineered to be a stable bulk carrier (with significant people and cargo carrying capacity) capable of long haul intercity drives. Although the WeVan is shorter than either an Avanza or an APV, its 1,150kg curb weight makes it slightly heavier than the former with its 1,090kg, and almost as heavy as the latter with its 1,165kg. And that grounding weight is set on a wheelbase that’s longest among the group with the WeVan’s 2,700mm versus the Toyota MPV’s 2,655mm and the Suzuki van’s 2,625mm.
With the WeVan’s front wheels almost flush up against the fascia, the front engine, rear wheel drive vehicle benefits from an engine mounting that’s actually more of a mid-front arrangement. Instead of sitting atop both, the driver rides behind the front wheels and on top of the engine compartment. While this explains the higher than usual engine noise heard up front, with the driver’s bum weighing down the engine cover, it makes for excellent steering with significant rear weight bias (a front-rear weight distribution of 44:56 judging by recommended tire pressure variances) to keep the drive wheels well planted even if the driver makes the mistake of braking in a curve and foolishly flirting with lift-off oversteer.
Put together, the long wheelbase and the mid-front engine location puts the compact, city-friendly WeVan on a stable platform that steadfastly refuses to seesaw left and right, that stays rigidly upright when weaving through city traffic or even when going out and quickly back into lane when overtaking on the highway. The unusually long wheelbase with full-sized sedan-grade 170/70R14 tires on a sub-compact van chassis, puts passengers on a long span bed that packs enough leverage to dampen road shocks at speed, and atop large high profile tires that have the diameter to glide over small potholes.
Although the long wheelbase does make for a slightly bigger turning radius (5.2m versus the Avanza’s 4.7m and the APV’s 4.9m), it’s still tight enough to negotiate u-turns on main roads. And, frankly, the marginally less sensitive steering, makes for a heavier feel that doesn’t tie the driver’s shoulder muscles into tight knots on a long drive … it didn’t stiffen up my upper back on the hours-long drive to San Clemente, and that was mighty nice.
An efficient engine at the right speed
After the drive to ferry the MZ40 WeVan north from BAIC’s Makati office to Quezon City in off-hours traffic on a Friday, then to the assembly point near Tomas Morato for a before-dawn roll-out on Saturday, and finally to the Petron station on NLEX at Marilao Bulacan to top off, the van’s tank took all of 2.66liters of petrol to refill. I was dumbfounded. That’s a total of 61km in light to moderate traffic at a consumption rate of just 22.9km/l (definitely worth an exclamation point)!
A remarkable number and one that’s explained by the WeVan’s 1.2L multipoint-injected inline-four engine having Continuous Variable Valve Timing (CVVT) technology with solenoid actuators constantly adjusting engine tune through changes in load and commanded revolutions. There’s a caveat though. The fuel-saving settings appear to compensate only while the engine is revving at or below 3000rpm.
And, with those turns pushing a full passenger load, the WeVan can cruise only at 80km/h, maybe 85, tops. Good enough for a relaxed, diligently steady drive at your own pace. Not so when you need to stay in trail position behind a big diesel Toyota HiAce that cruises efficiently at or even above 100km/h. Pushed up to a 100km/h cruise in fifth gear, the WeVan’s engine has to spool up to around 3,500rpm bringing it closer to its peak 85hp at 6,000rpm and making fuel consumption shoot up dramatically to a typical 13km/l on the highway.
Fast enough if you can spare the fuel
It didn’t help when, on a particular stretch of multi-lane highway, an overtake attempt put me abreast with another HiAce (not the one I was in convoy with) that chose to speed up and prevent me from pulling ahead and tucking back into the outer lane. The road ahead was open with my convoy lead nowhere in sight so I floored the accelerator to see if we can pull ahead of our curious neighbour.
And we did! Even with eight people on board, the WeVan gradually accelerated to its published top speed of 130km/h, the engine revving to just over 4,000rpm, sounding throaty but not strained. The fully loaded van remained firm on pavement, no shimmies to alarm or even indicate that we were topped out, and with the wind noise from the outside not at all becoming intrusive.
The WeVan can definitely speed up in a pinch, with a power curve that has substantial reserve at the top end, though it sure throws your fuel plan out the door.
A drivetrain meant for full loads
When we were several car lengths ahead of the challenging HiAce, I put the WeVan into neutral to get a feel for how well its transmission was matched to the engine. Lo and behold, putting the van in a coast didn’t result in a feeling of letting up but rather caused this sensation of being released into momentary, momentum-charged acceleration. It seemed like the top gear wasn’t even getting the most out of the engine’s peak torque of 80lb-ft at 4,000rpm.
It turns out that this is par for the course given the WeVan’s specs. Its 5-speed manual transmission has gears that are all shorter than on typical petrol engines with reduction ratios that average 15% more across all speeds, and a fifth gear that’s not an overdrive but instead has a 1:1 direct drive ratio. With the shorter gears and relatively high rev shiftpoints at around 3,000rpm, up-shifts are typical at 10, 30, 50 and then at 65km/h to finally hit fifth gear–shift points more typical of small to medium diesels than on small petrol-fuelled fours, albeit at twice the rpm’s.
Obviously, the WeVan is conservatively geared to be a full-time hauler with some engineering choices deliberately made to keep a constant power reserve for carrying its full rated capacity. My advice is to keep things steady and middlin’ fast with any load and at any gear. The WeVan is more of a little van that could, not something to be hot-rodded into a low-riding hipster.
All in all
The compact WeVan was an ideal transport even for that semi-long drive out to San Clemente. It felt like it could handle even more in terms of load and distance. It can be miserly with the petrol if your timetable allows it. And, though its appointments aren’t plush, it’s comfortable enough for my passengers who surely needed to save their energy, and then regain it, on that hot excellent day when us city slickers visited the no longer nomadic but still noble Aeta of Dueg.
A field note
From the wikipedia entry on the Aeta people: “The life expectancy at birth of the Aeta is just 16.5 years, with only a third of children surviving to adulthood at 15 years at which point life expectancy is still only 27.3 years. Young women reach full adult height (average 140 cm (4 ft 7 in)) at age 12 or 13. The most thorough longitudinal study done of any Aeta group (or any ethnic community) is available on the Web.”
A final note
This time the Adarna Group Foundation helped 80 kids and their folks, would that it had been more with the simplest of items—a book, some cookies, maybe some pencils and paper to help out—making an immeasurable difference for each and every child.