Road Trip to Pico De Loro

When the Volkswagen Beetle was turned over to me for a weeklong test drive, the first destination I had in mind was a short road trip to Nasugbu, Batangas via the newly finished Cavitex. The new expressway connects to the Ternate-Nasugbu highway and passes through the Kaybiang Tunnel, which at 300 meters, is the longest tunnel in the country.

I choose that route to Nasugbu, Batangas because it is a much shorter way going to Pico de Loro Resort in Hamilo Coast, rather than through Tagaytay, which is longer and most of the time congested.

The route is perfect to test-drive the Beetle because the traffic is much lighter, providing a smoother 90-minute drive once you enter Cavitex.

How was the drive? See for yourself.

3rd Generation Beetle

The new iconic Volkswagen Beetle returned to the Philippines last year, and should be regaining its market share in the local motoring industry in no time. There is a big difference, though, from the Beetle’s older brother. Whereas the Beetle used to be known as 'the people's car' before, it is now classified as a sporty car because of its hi-tech features, and its bolder, dynamic and masculine appearance.

The interior, although remaining simple in design as compared to other cars in its category, is polished and functional.

The new Beetle is the third-generation design since Adolf Hitler conceptualized the iconic car in 1924 while in prison. In 1934 he commissioned Ferdinand Porsche to design and build the people’s car, which is what Volkswagen means. The design was finalized in 1938, but its production really took off after WWII when the Allies discovered the car’s manufacturing plants. The car became widely known as the Käfer (German for beetle) and was later marketed as such.

The Beetle became very famous in the Philippines back in the 1960s after it was introduced to the country in 1959. Almost everyone who could afford cars in that generation had a Beetle as his first or second car.

I remember, Mang Nestor, a Volkswagen mechanic in our neighborhood. He would repair several Beetles and other Volkswagen cars right in his apartment’s garage. He used to work for the Guevara’s DMG (Diesel Motors Germany, Inc.), the assemblers and distributors of Volkswagen in the Philippines at that time. After several years with DMG and gaining so much experience, he went solo and established his own shop in San Juan. He became famous in the neighborhood as the local Beatles (actually referring to Beetle) guy.

In the late 1970s up to the early 1980s, my father went into the chop-chop car business. He would import second-hand chopped cars and reassemble them in our backyard. One of them had been a Beetle and when it was finished and ready for a ride, I became its designated driver until it was finally sold.

Volkswagen’s assembly plants in the Philippines ceased to exist in the 1980s after the Progressive Car Manufacturing Program (PCMP) failed in its aim to establish a progressive car manufacturing industry. The Guevaras went into exile, but when they came back they decided not to renew the Volkswagen franchise.

So it’s been a long wait since Volkswagen’s return to the Philippines. After almost four years of negotiations with the Germans, the Ayalas finally brought back Volkswagen last year through its newly established company, Automobile Central Enterprise, Inc. (ACEI).

The 2014 Beetle that was launched here late last year was originally launched in other markets in 2011. Aside from the Beetle, Volkswagen Philippines is also offering five other models – Jetta, Polo, Touran, Tiguan and Touareg.

Volkswagen Philippines is offering two variants of the Beetle – the 1.4-liter four-cylinder TSI turbo gasoline engine with a twincharger (which we borrowed for a one-week test drive) and the 1.2-liter four-cylinder direct injected gasoline engine with turbocharger.

When I was informed by Arnel Doria, ACEI’s marketing director, that I would be driving the 1.4-liter variant (I still didn’t know that the other variant had a smaller engine), I thought that it would be a regular car and that it might not give me the speed I'm used to with the much bigger cars that I normally drive. I was wrong!

The 1.4-liter 4-cylinder engine gives the impression that it is slow for a sporty-looking car. To my surprise, it has the power and speed of much bigger cars. On a road trip to Northern Luzon, we were able to keep pace with much bigger SUVs and cars without really straining the Beetle’s engine.

I was also surprised that it runs on gasoline, because when I visited Volkswagen Philippines’ dealer in Fort Bonifacio last year, I was informed that they are only selling Volkswagens with diesel engines. The Beetle was not in the market then.

Doria explained that the small local gasoline companies are selling inferior gasoline products and it will not be good for Volkswagen cars running on gasoline. Only local diesel was appropriate for their cars. The Beetle was the first gasoline-powered brought in by Volkswagen Philippines and it runs on 95-octane gasoline.

A price tag of P 1,790,000 is definitely not for a people’s car, but old enthusiasts will still buy it at that price. Also, when its safety features, such as a reinforced safety cage that helps protect its passengers, is considered, the price is worth it. And talking about stability, its electronic stabilization program helps to take curves smoothly even at 80-100 kmh, which I rarely do for safety reasons. Other safety features include six airbags, hill hold control, antilock brake system (ABS), safety-optimized headrests, brake pad wear indicator, seatbelt reminder, standard pedestrian protection, and an eight-channel park distance control with acoustic warning signal.

The Beetle is a head turner. People, young and old, would look in awe as we passed them by during the test drive. A man who said he was in the buy-and-sell business approached me and asked where he could buy a Beetle. Luckily, I found some brochures for him in the glove compartment of the test unit.

By the way, the Beetle’s price tag is much cheaper than its main competitor, the Mini Cooper.

Covering The Cannonball

Have you seen the movie Cannonball Run? It was a three-episode film, the first of which was shown in 1981 (starring Burt Reynolds, Roger Moore, Dom de Luise, Farrah Fawcett and a cast of other supporting actors), about a cross-country car race from the US East coast to the West coast. The race was illegal and law enforcers were chasing the competitors to stop the race at all cost.

A local version was recently held here in the Philippines but with a big difference. It was called Cannonball, and it was legal, complete with all the permits required.

There were two versions. The first is called Cannonball 1000, which was a challenge for cars and motorcycles, with engines of 301 cc and above, to drive 1000 kilometers of winding roads and highways within a time limit of 24 hours.

The ride started in Clark, Pampanga covering the Northern Luzon loop on an east-to-west course going up through Gerona, Tarlac, and Baloc, Nueva Ecija, Isabela, Cagayan, and Ilocos Norte. Then going south through Vigan, Ilocos Sur, La Union, Baguio, Pangasinan, and then back through Gerona again to finish from where it started in Clark.

The second version – Cannonball 500 – challenged scooters, underbones and smaller displacement motorcycles to ride a shorter route of approximately 500 kms in under 12 hours.

Six-time endurance race champion, Joey Almeda, organized the event. He invited us to join the Cannonball, but since I just borrowed the Volkswagen Beetle for a test drive, I opted not to join. I didn’t want to compete with the other cars without informing Volkswagen’s management.

Although I’m sure the Beetle could compete with any other car in its class, I just opted to cover the event. Since the participants took off from Clark at 11 pm, it was not really ideal to shoot at night, specially when you will be chasing cars and motorcycles.

What we did was drive through the opposite direction and waited for them at the checkpoint in Vigan. It was a smooth four-hour drive from Clark to Vigan and the Beetle proved to be a powerful car even with only a 1.4-liter machine under its hood. By the way, the new Beetle’s engine is now housed in front of the car, unlike its old models where the engine was at the rear.

I have driven other cars with bigger engines than that of the 1400 cc Beetle lent to me, and I can confidently conclude that the Beetle can beat most of them in terms of speed and road stability. It can smoothly take curves between 80 and 100 kph. Whether uphill, downhill or straight highways, the drive was unbelievably easy, and the engine’s performance remained the same.

The only setback I can think of is the small and cramped space for two passengers at the back. Adding another person would be uncomfortable unless they were all children.

We arrived in Vigan ahead of everybody else, even the marshalls who were manning the checkpoints were not yet there. It gave us enough time to set up the cameras and parked the Beetle strategically so we could mount the go pros to document the arrival of participants.

After three hours of waiting, the first car, a Jaguar, co-driven by Mark Soong and Elbert Cuenca arrived at the Vigan checkpoint at exactly 7:14 am or approximately 8 hours after it took off from Clark. After Vigan, only one checkpoint remained in Baguio and then back to Clark. If we did Clark to Vigan in four hours, the Jaguar must have done it in four hours or faster even if it passed through Baguio.

A BMW bike rider would have been the second to arrive had its driver seen the signage of the checkpoint. He overshot by 15 kms and came back as the fourth competitor to arrive at 8:13 am, after a Lancer (8:01am) and a Suzuki Swift (8:10am) beat him before he realized he was off course.

The endurance run proved that bigger and more powerful cars are not sure winners. Six smaller and less powerful cars checked in ahead of the Ferrari co-driven by race driver Vincent Floirendo and Tammy Campos which came in 11th at 8:53 am. Floirendo said there are several factors, the road conditions were not really that friendly to their car and since it needed a lot of gasoline with the highest octane level, they could not easily find such in provincial gasoline stations.

Although we did not go back to Clark (we were test driving the Beetle, remember?), we learned later on that a total of 59 cars and 287 motorcycles finished the Cannonball 1000 (135 motorcycles) and 500 (152 motorcycles). Not bad for the total number of participants, which was more than 500 cars and motorcycles.

After brunch in Vigan, we went south and followed some of the participants until they turned going up the Naguilian Highway to Baguio. We went straight to Pangasinan to rest, then drove back to Manila the following day after paying our respects and thanking the Lady of Manaoag for a safe test drive of the Beetle.