Cars > Driven

Volkswagen Tharu SEL: Classy, understated, genuinely fun to drive

Yet another crossover, but with enough spirit to get your attention

It may be Chinese-manufactured, but it's built to German standards. PHOTO BY ANDY LEUTERIO

The market has no shortage of choices for SUVs. Practically every brand out there has at least one entry, with Chinese-made crossovers tempting buyers with very competitive pricing, while the Japanese and Korean makes soldier on with their reputation for reliability and after-sales support.

The best-selling Territory is earning its keep with Ford, even though it’s actually a Chinese joint venture sold with a more prestigious American badge.

And then, we have the Tharu, which—like all recent Philippine-market Volkswagens—is sourced from China and manufactured by SAIC. Yet it doesn’t have a bargain basement price tag: P1,945,000 for this SEL.

At first blush, it seems like wishful thinking to price a Chinese-made car that high, but an extended drive reveals the logic of such a strategy.

There's not a bad angle to this car, especially in SEL trim. PHOTOS BY ANDY LEUTERIO

Just looking at the brochure, there’s nothing there that you can’t find in any of its competitors. Power adjustable seats, 360° camera system, tire-pressure monitor, 10.25-inch Active Info Display instrument panel, 12-inch infotainment screen with gesture control, Apple CarPlay, et cetera.

You can find these gadgets elsewhere in varying degrees, and while our managing editor noted a “glaring lack” of advanced driver aids (read: nanny toys) like lane-keeping assist, that’s fine by me. One less system to deactivate every time you start the engine.

Classy, business-like cockpit with great sightlines and ergonomics. PHOTO BY ANDY LEUTERIO

It still has Side Assist (aka blind spot warning) and Rear Cross-Traffic Alert, although the latter will just warn you with an urgent chirping rather than actively brake for you. This is also good because the Tharu—whether it’s made in China, Mexico, or Germany—is still very much a driver’s car.

Unlike a depressing number of cars these days that are going with automation to the point that they will practically do everything but drive themselves (although I heard that’s not far off in the future), the Tharu requires your active involvement.

No paddle shifters, but the manual gate for the DSG works just fine. PHOTO BY ANDY LEUTERIO

Set the engine mode to Sport, slot the pistol-grip shifter into manual mode, and prepare for a good time. As with all Vee-dubs of the past, the Tharu is an engaging companion. And whereas the smaller and cheaper T-Cross has a wonderfully sublime chassis let down by a gutless (albeit thrifty) engine, the Tharu has a decent amount of poke under the hood.

The 1.5-liter turbo in-line-four spools up quickly, and a flat torque curve lets you gather speed without the need for frequent trips to the redline. Do so, however, and you’re rewarded with a gratifying snarl that will remind you that you’ve still got a pulse even though you’re piloting a family car. It doesn’t guzzle gas either, netting 8km/L in city traffic.

Sublime chassis tuning and sporty (but not too sporty) tires make up the secret sauce of the Tharu. PHOTOS BY ANDY LEUTERIO

The chassis, as with all Volkswagens deserving of the name, lives up to its German DNA. It’s solid, quiet at speed, and flex-free. Do the door-slam test and it slams shut with a satisfying thud.

And well done, SAIC: This is also one Chinese-built SUV that doesn’t have pillowy suspension or spongy brakes. A substantial part of the money spent on a Tharu probably goes to the suspension, which uses good ol’ MacPherson struts in front but also a pricey four-link system at the back.

With firm shocks, 50-series Hankook Ventus tires around 18-inch wheels, and all-disc brakes, the Tharu is a joy to drive hard.

The steering is sharp, the body roll is modest and controlled, and the brake feel is linear and powerful. If it had a handbrake, I’d be over the moon and doing J-turns to rotate the car around for different angles in the photo shoot, but the e-brake is par for the course and probably what the focus group preferred. It is what it is.

Firm, comfortable seats made for long road trips. PHOTOS BY ANDY LEUTERIO

The Tharu’s classy, driver-oriented cockpit also helps in the fun factor category. You get big windows and clear sightlines all around; the seat cushion is firm; and, of course, you can set it just right with so many available adjustment buttons.

Familiarizing with the instrument panel and the touchscreen is intuitive and also fascinating. Setting the cluster to your preference is a little too fiddly, involving much trial-and-error with the steering wheel-mounted buttons, but the displays are handsome and no-nonsense.

There are no gratuitous graphics like you’d find in a Geely or a GAC, for example. Just that familiar amber dial-inspired treatment European cars have long been known for.

I especially like the capacitive touch switches for the climate control on a panel below the infotainment, and the stereo controls on the steering wheel. They’re more compact than physical buttons or dials (I think), and they have that cool factor that adds to your entertainment while you’re trapped in Carmaggedon.

Capacitive switches on the center console and the steering wheel are very cool. PHOTOS BY ANDY LEUTERIO

All other traditional crossover values are present and accounted for in the Tharu, plus a few bonus items: big cargo volume (1,543L with the rear seats down), panoramic sunroof, six-speaker stereo, seatbelt pre-tensioners, force limiters, side, curtain and front airbags, parking assist, and an auto tailgate system that opens if you swish your foot under the rear bumper.

It also has full LED lighting, including an adaptive front lighting system and matrix headlamps.

You'll enjoy flipping through the various displays of the digital gauge cluster while stuck in traffic. PHOTOS BY ANDY LEUTERIO

Again, these are items you could also find  in other crossovers for less money, but the intangibles count, too. The quality of the paint is excellent, and the fit-and-finish inside and out is world-class. Tight panel gaps, no mouse fur carpeting, and it even smells nice.

Lots of space whether the rear seats are down or up. PHOTOS BY ANDY LEUTERIO

Volkswagen Philippines‘ decision to put premium pricing on the Tharu means you probably won’t see too many of these on the road, but that’s just as well. If you like to drive and want that Euro look and feel without paying Euro-level money, the Tharu is actually a pretty good deal.


Engine1.5-liter four-cylinder turbo gasoline
Transmission7-speed dual-clutch automatic
Power158hp @ 5,500rpm
Torque250Nm @ 1,750-4,000rpm
Dimensions4,458mm x 1,841mm x 1,632mm
Drive layoutFWD
UpsideImpressive fit and finish. High fun-to-drive factor. Spacious interior means it’s still useful even while you’re driving the heck out of it.
DownsideNo lane-keeping assist—in case that matters to you.

Andy Leuterio

Andy is both an avid cyclist and a car enthusiast who has finally made the shift to motorcycles. You've probably seen him on his bicycle or motorbike overtaking your crawling car. He is our motorcycle editor and the author of the ‘Quickshift’ column.