The car that motivated China


When you sit back and look at it, the automotive industry in China really has undergone an incredible transformation over the past 30 years. If you were to jump into a time machine and flash back to 1984, China’s population had already surpassed the 1-billion people mark, yet the country produced just 5,200 cars for the year. China was one of the last countries on earth to be spared both the agony and ecstasy of personal car ownership.

Even more incredible was the overall amount of cars in China at that time worked out to just 1 car for every 6 million people in the country, compared to 1 in 25 for Hong Kong and 1 in 5 for Japan at that time. But this was all about to change, when a Shanghai Volkswagen Automotive joint venture was signed in October 1984. The vehicle they put into production would eventually go on to lay the ground work for the mass motorization of China. That vehicle was the Volkswagen Santana.


Based on the second-generation B2 Passat, the Volkswagen Santana was a 4-door sedan with basic yet sturdy underpinnings, available initially with a 1.6-litre petrol engine driving the front wheels through a 4-speed manual gearbox. The first 100 Santana’s to be built in China were actually produced from complete knock down (CKD) kits which were imported from Volkswagen in Germany. Soon after, local production began when the first Santana’s rolled off the assembly line in October 1985. By September the following year, more than 10,000 Santana’s had passed down that same line, setting the scene for what would be one of the longest automotive production runs in history.


The Santana brought cheap, dependable, no-nonsense motoring to the Chinese people – and as you’d expect people were falling over each other to buy one. The Santana quickly became the default vehicle of choice for taxi companies and government fleets around the country, keeping the vehicle in high demand not only into the 1990’s but also the 2000’s and beyond. All in all, almost 4-million Santana’s were built by Shanghai Volkswagen before production wrapped up in 2013. While that figure may seem insignificant when compared to the Volkswagen Beetle’s 21-million car production run between 1938 and 2003, the Santana’s long unbroken production history still puts it near the top on the list of the world’s most significant cars – and one most people probably don’t know about.

I guess you could say the car stayed true to its roots. Despite being produced in China for some 29 years, the Santana received only minor updates and revisions throughout its life. In 1986 a station wagon variant was introduced, which along with the sedan version both received updated 1.8L petrol engines, paired with the same 4-speed manual gearbox the car was released with. Perhaps even that engine upgrade pushed things too far, as the original 1.6L remained popular and was available in the sedan right up until as late as 2006.

Over the years, the Santana received other additional features too, including a fancy (for the time) Bosch electronic fuel injection system, a 5-speed manual gearbox, third brake light, improved back seats, a hydraulic clutch system, MP3 and CD compatible stereo systems, plus safety features such as ABS brakes and electronic brake distribution. But it wouldn’t end there.


In 1991, Shanghai Volkswagen began working on an updated version of the Santana, in conjunction with Volkswagen Brazil. It was eventually introduced in 1994 as the ‘Santana 2000’, presumably to make it sound more modern. The Santana 2000 featured a longer wheelbase and rear doors, presumably to pander to the taxi industry by increasing rear passenger space and comfort. If you take a look around and see how many Santana 2000’s remain in service even today, you’d know these changes only added to the car’s winning formula.


The Santana 2000 soldiered on for some 10 years before it was replaced in 2004 by the even more modern sounding Santana 3000. Shanghai Volkswagen went it alone this time and introduced an optional ABS braking system, electronic differential system, dashboard multi-function display screen and a sunroof designed by the German Webasto company. However, the same 1.6L and 1.8L engines remained all the way up until 2006, when a new 2.0L variant was added to the lineup.

That’s really where the Santana ended up – unless you count the ‘Santana Vista’ that was released in 2008, which featured front and rear visual updates and a few minor chassis modifications. But no matter what Santana model you happen to be looking at, if you were to peel away the bodywork you’d find the same original Volkswagen ‘B2 platform’ sitting underneath, which can be traced back to the Audi 80 of 1979. Only a few automotive platforms have lasted longer than this, and most of them are also Volkswagens. Better yet, many of the early build Santana’s are still on the road today, helping Volkswagen earn a strong reputation among Chinese citizens as a maker of reliable, no-frills cars.


On my numerous trips to China I’ve probably been in over 100 Santanas in taxi form – each and every one of them driven on the absolute raggedy edge every day, cut and thrust through the busy streets of cities around the country. The Santana name may not be well known in the western world (outside of music anyway) and looking at the cars themselves there’s certainly nothing special about them, but I believe the Volkswagen Santana deserve a massive amount of respect because it is a vehicle that simply refuses to die. It was exactly the type of vehicle China needed to mobilise its citizens back in the 80’s and the fact that it remained relevant in 2013 is an incredible achievement.


Sadly, the original Santana is no longer in production. Shanghai Volkswagen replaced it with a completely new model which wears the same badge – but is it better than the original? On face value you’d say yes. It looks like a smaller version of the Jetta, is markedly safer and better to drive, but most importantly it is still cheap. But is it good enough that they’ll still be making them in 2040? We’ll have to wait and see…