Steady as She Goes: Hyundai Starex (2002)
Let's go on a short drive around Metro Manila and play a game called spot the Korean vehicles. After a few kilometers, you won't be surprised to note that there are plenty of them bustling around the streets. What might surprise you is that a lot of them aren't the small sedans and hatchbacks that have traditionally been the Korean carmakers' initial foray into a car market. The Kia Prides and Daewoo Racers have come, gone and fallen by the wayside of the automotive sales charts. What you will find plenty of instead are minivans. To be precise, what you'll see in droves are Hyundai Starex vans.
The Starex has been something of a runaway success in the Philippine market—it reportedly sold about 10,000 units in 2000, a figure that even our AUV manufacturers would find substantial. Does the Starex deserve this success, given that for many months there was no official dealer network, and even now a lot of them are being sold by independent importers? Will it hold well after years of shuttling the kids to school and the family to the mall?
We decided to revisit the Starex SVX Standout that we featured in November 2000. Obtained by the current owner when it was 6,000 km old, its odometer now read 29,395 km. We took the vehicle for a spin around Manila, and checked most of its nooks and crannies to see it's still as good as it was fourteen months ago.
A lot of the features that made the Starex trump the Mitsubishi Space Gear, with which it actually shares a platform and many mechanicals, are still up-to-date. The dash is laid out in a clear if not stylish manner. At least all switches are mounted high on the dash within easy reach and easily identifiable. Seat fabrics are acceptably soft, and they seem to be wearing well—no real signs of scuffing or fading. The driver's seating position itself is lofty but not perfect. The steering wheel always seemed too close for my preference. It's not at all cramped, though, and elbow room is sufficiently roomy. The floor-mounted shifter means the front center passenger better guard the family jewels. Three in the front only in an emergency, please. Plenty of fake wood is of course de rigueur.
Seven people can fit comfortably in the Starex, eight if you count the family jewels guy. Each one gets his own seatbelt and headrest, except, mysteriously, for the rightmost second-row passenger. Perhaps it's for kids only.
The stereo system, with six speakers and a single-disc player, pumps out pleasingly well-defined sound. Britney Spears offering to be our slave never sounded so good. However, the Pioneer head unit lacks any of her voluptuous looks, and the buttons are not as easy to press, too. The buttons are small and difficult to decipher. Dual-blower air conditioning is of course standard, and it can be controlled from the second row as well from the driver's chair.
We shut off Britney, fired up the 2.9-liter turbodiesel, and away we went. Slowly, that is. From low revs, the engine’s 170 Nm of torque at just 2200 rpm worked well and the van pulls away quickly from standstill. After a few tens of meters though, the van seemed to be running out of breath already.
The engine's lack of punch at mid to high revs can make for a frustrating run down to the supermarket. In-gear acceleration is also appallingly slow; press the accelerator to the floor and nothing happens for three to four seconds. The engine gets into the act only after that interval, and by then it's usually time to shift to the next gear. The clutch is easy to actuate, but the gear shift is notchy and makes it difficult to shift quickly.
That's with a manual; an automatic would have the advantage of always having the throttle pressed down even while shifting, thus keeping the turbo blowing, but the performance would certainly be degraded even more if coupled with an automatic. Fuel mileage is 6.0 kilometers per liter.
The double wishbone front/ multi-link rear suspension filter out bumps and potholes, giving a comfortable ride. The downside of that is the compromised response when cornering. Handling is not wallowy, but you are aware every instant that there is a van below you rather than a normal sedan. Of course, this is a minivan and not a roadster, so such considerations may well be secondary and even unnecessary.
So the propulsion, cornering and deceleration systems all seem to be holding up well. Performance did not seem to have degraded noticeably in 24000 km. The van has trekked to Baguio and back without throwing any tantrums. We next checked the interior. The plastic parts all seemed to be secure, and doors still opened and closed with a smooth motion, including the single sliding door.
When cars are imported without the benefit of an official dealer, the number one concern aside from mechanical failure would have to be rust. Philippine climate, with its scorching summers and flooded rainy season is nowhere near temperate, and woe to the cars that are driven without these conditions properly prepared for. Many have crumbled into rusted hulks without much warning.
We thus checked out every nook and cranny of the Starex to see if there was any danger of this. We did find one rust spot at the rear hatch door jamb, a little smaller than a 25-centavo coin. There were also some suspicious scratches under the hood and door frames. The problem is that rust often begins where it can't be seen, such as wheel wells and door frames, and when you do finally spot it, an expensive repair might be needed. Owners and potential buyers would do well to be vigilant against these rust spots, as they can be the start of an irreversible decay.
So aside from a suspicious looking spot on its otherwise shiny body, this particular Starex seems to be weathering the test of time quite well. Given what we see on the roads, the sales figures seem to be quite healthy, too.
Hyundai better not rest on its laurels though. The competition is heating up in this segment, with fellow Korean Kia launching its more carlike Carnival and GM releasing its Venture. The Japanese have some excellent minivans just waiting to pounce and like a certain giant mecha, they can deal a death blow if they're priced attractively. There are positive signs on the horizon: Hyundai is commissioning a manufacturing plant here, and official dealer support is firming up. Finally, Hyundai will be able to give future Starex owners the warranty and service that they deserve. That's certainly a welcome development: we wouldn't want to see 10,000 orphaned minivans running around on the streets.
By Jason Ang | Photos by Ulysses Ang and Jason Ang
Originally Published in January 2002 Issue