Cars > Driven

Volkswagen Santana 180 MPI AT SE: A class act on a budget

It is an interesting mix of European flair and Asian pricing

Can the Volkswagen Santana truly deliver on its promise of a European ride? PHOTO BY HANS BOSSHARD

Euro-spec styling, a sunroof, and an economical package. These are 3 things that, when describing a vehicle, don’t often go together in the same sentence. Surely, something that sparks elegance and class into someone’s mind doesn’t come cheap, right? Well, there’s a car that does just that, and it seems to have been hiding under our noses all this time.

The exterior design is clean, if a bit dated. PHOTOS BY HANS BOSSHARD

Volkswagen relaunched the Santana for 2021, and honestly, it’s not that much different from the last model year with the biggest change being the dropping of the 1.4 MPI MT from the lineup. The 180 MPI AT S gets some much-needed upgrades with dual front airbags, stability control, antilock brakes, and electronic wheel-slip reduction now coming as standard, while the top-of-the-line 180 MPI AT SE now has additional side airbags for both the driver and passenger, alongside an improved ranging parking sensor.

A head unit with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto is available as a dealer option, although having such functionality in the stock infotainment system is becoming more of an expectation rather than an option nowadays.

The cabin looks European, but it feels more like an Asian econobox. PHOTOS BY HANS BOSSHARD

The Santana drives well, but it’s nothing to write home about. You can feel it wants to cruise, and both its planted handling and cruise control mean you won’t be as fatigued eating up the miles down the expressway. Going up the hills of Tagaytay, you can see where Volkswagen tried to keep it fuel-efficient. The gearing of the six-speed automatic transmission feels apt for both city and highway driving, and the engine rarely felt labored. The 1.5-liter unit’s 109hp and 145Nm tackled every situation we threw at the car with ease.

Step on the accelerator, however, and it feels like the car would much rather be frugal than deliver you the power you need. Shifting to sport mode helps make it peppier when tackling rolling hills, but the lack of a dedicated low-range gear selection for engine braking makes for a puckering downhill experience. At the end of the day, it’s hard to complain given that it delivers a rather impressive 11km/L in city conditions.

The car's long wheelbase gives it plenty of space for passengers and cargo. PHOTOS BY HANS BOSSHARD

Living with the car for a few days running errands, going on shoots, and heading to the vaccination center felt like a back and forth between driving a classy car and a budget car. The trip computer’s ominous red backlight and the rotary headlight controls makes me feel like I’m driving around in a very European vehicle. Operate the handbrake and the center armrest gets in the way in a manner that seems rather obvious and “un-German.” Step out of your seat and its front fascia, body lines, and the VW badge make the Santana look like a class above the usual sedans that ply our streets. Open the trunk and the amount of exposed metal and unfinished trim makes you wonder if someone somewhere forgot to install something.

The 1.5-liter engine doesn't like to be rushed. PHOTOS BY HANS BOSSHARD

The Santana is a curious case that makes it stand out from the rest of the cars that occupy the same segment it’s in. It is by no means a luxury vehicle. There’s plastic everywhere and the seats are not exactly plush nor cushy. Despite this, it exudes a touch of elegance and class with its Euro-inspired looks and a sunroof, both of which make it stand out in its category. You can definitely see SAIC Volkswagen’s cost-cutting measures, but it’s not exactly anywhere that matters too much, and is easy to overlook given the little treats of luxury the automaker has managed to sneak in.

Some of the Santana's more expensive competitors don't have sunroofs. PHOTOS BY HANS BOSSHARD

I personally would have never even considered a Volkswagen when picking an economical sedan for the city, given that our market has been blessed with tried-and-tested vehicles from Japanese and Korean automakers. With the 180 MPI AT S priced at P755,000 and the 180 MPI AT SE at P898,000, choosing the Santana over the usual entry-level-sedan choices is definitely a bold move, but one that is neither outrageous nor unreasonable.


Engine1.5-liter four-cylinder gasoline
Transmission6-speed automatic
Power109hp @ 6,100rpm
Torque145Nm @ 4,000rpm
Dimensions4,475mm x 1,706mm x 1,469mm
Drive layoutFWD
UpsideEuro-inspired styling, ride comfort on the highway, and the generous equipment list.
DownsideLackluster acceleration, interior feels cheap, and the design looks dated despite the refresh.

Hans Bosshard

Hans is the ultimate commuter: He drives a car and he rides a bicycle. He also likes tinkering with mechanical stuff.