If you recall the time when Ayala Corporation’s Fernando Zobel became the elegant and surprisingly hip model for those Swiss-made but cheap Swatch wristwatches, then the sight of him driving Volkswagen’s newly introduced Santana sedan serves as swift reminder of how that German marque’s direct translation asserts them to be the People’s Car champion.

Last Friday, at an elegant evening event auspiciously attended by leaders of global engineering giant Robert Bosch GmbH as well as those of Ayala Corporation’s other automotive brands such as Isuzu and Honda, Volkswagen Philippines launched five new models that, as they put it, “redefine how the world-renowned German marque in the Philippines will develop and expand its local presence.”

Now, five years after Volkswagen AG had appointed Ayala Corporation as sole distributor to the Philippines in May 2013, after half a decade of marketing models that both brandished and seemed burdened with premium, up-market prices, the country is receiving models designed for and manufactured in Asia, and that are finally priced for emerging markets. The Ayala group’s Arthur Tan (president and CEO of their AC Industrials subsidiary) says that now, five years later, these five new models make them “faithful to the original intent of Volkswagen to offer cars that are accessible to the people.”

Introduced last Friday were Shanghai Volkswagen’s Santana, Lavida and Lamando sedans, and the Santana GTS hatchback–all designed initially for the China market and built on globally standardized Volkswagen platforms. The fifth model introduced was the face-lifted first-generation Tiguan which they continue to manufacture in the China market despite the second generation model having already been introduced here as well as other markets globally. First to become available at all Volkswagen dealers starting last weekend were the Santana sub-compact and Lavida compact sedans, and the Tiguan crossover SUV. The Santana’s GTS sub-compact hatchback version and the large Lamando sedan will be on offer come November.

According to Shanghai Volkswagen first vice president David Powels, the Philippines is the first country ever to receive models from their production lines in China. The timing is understandable with the China market’s unparalleled economies of scale finally being complemented with preferential tariff rates this year under the completed implementation of the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement.

Tiguan 1.4L TSI compact crossover SUV, already available at P1,648,000

The ironic new Tiguan’s first generation origin (hidden as it is behind its current-theme facelift) is easily overshadowed by its P1,648,000 price tag that makes it over P600,000 cheaper than the P2,259,000 second-generation Tiguan they had on offer before (and until now, actually, with both models still being featured at the volkswagen.com.ph online showroom). At that price, the new Tiguan which features the same Euro 5 compliant 1.4 liter turbocharged gasoline engine as on the previous, more expensive Tiguan, now squares off firmly against premium compact crossover SUVs such as the Honda HR-V and Mazda CX-3.

Lavida 1.4L TSI compact sedan, already available at P1,171,000

On the other hand, the new Lavida compact sedan’s P1,171,000 price pits it squarely against the Altis of global leader Toyota with its P941,000 to P1,451,000 price range. This while the Lavida features a sportier powertrain, its 1.4 liter turbocharged gasoline engine with stratified injection mated to a Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG, their brand of dual clutch transmission) trumping the Altis’ naturally aspirated 1.6 or 2.0 liter engines being mated to less rugged continuous variable transmissions or CVTs.

Santana 1.4L MPI MT sub-compact sedan, already available at P686,000

The new base-model Santana sub-compact sedan is the actual gem, the very point of this new spear that Volkswagen Philippines is bringing to the fight. Built on the Volkswagen Group’s A05+ platform (the same underpinnings as that of the popular Polo), the Santana brandishes a spartan configuration behind trademark Volkswagen and generally European touches. The Santana with a 1.4 liter naturally aspirated gasoline engine mated to a 5-speed manual gearbox is slightly larger than the market-leading Vios while listing at an astounding P686,000 that lances right through the P629,000 to P791,000 price range of the 1.3 liter manual gearbox variants of Toyota’s popular sub-compact sedan.

Santana GTS sub-compact hatchback, available in November

Volkswagen Philippines’ sudden and extensive competitiveness could have clay feet because of the China connection, but any skepticism about build quality, fair or otherwise, is directly addressed by their unprecedented claim of 10,000km (twice the industry standard) between PMS visits. Ruggedness is presumed and even further guaranteed with the options for a 3-year paint warranty and a 3-year warranty against corrosion of main steel structures, these over and above the standard 3-year or 100,000km general warranty.

Lamando compact sedan, available in November

What about Volkswagen’s other vulnerability, about their reserved design language that’s kept intact among the China-sourced models? This design that’s criticized as not being young enough by them, the young? At the launch, when Fernando Zobel drove in and unveiled the all-important Santana, he matter-of-factly and wordlessly underscored how critics are missing the point entirely, underscored how it takes an iconic and deeply storied brand like Volkswagen to pull off a design like Volskwagen’s.

It takes a brand like Volkswagen to offer up a design that’s bare of frivolous flourishes, that doesn’t stoop to pandering pantomimes of jet-fueled or fire-breathing things, and turns this simplicity into ageless elegance. Remember? It was the Volkswagen Beetle in the 1960s that bucked the trend and pulled the rug out from under those huge land-yachts with their ironic tail fins and gas-guzzling V8s.

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