The cars we loved.
The Chinese auto market is an odd thing. There Buick is like Lexus and VW was like Toyota. Was because VW has lost its sales dominance to Buick of all companies. One of the reasons VW was such a powerful force in the Chinese market was because it was among the first Western companies to set up shop there, in a nation eager for cars with Western brands stamped on them WV had eager buyers and an even more eager Chinese government wanting to build factories.
China’s insistence on local production would progress VW’s offering there from kit car assembled in Chinese factories to full-fledged production. The Shanghai Volkswagen Automotive joint venture or SAIC was China’s way of saying to VW that we want your access to your technology and we want to build it here or else.
The car that would fulfill this partnership would be what we knew in America as the second generation Quantum. When it was updated after 1988 it became the Passat in most parts of the world. In China and other developing markets the old Quantum was sold as the Santana.
As a VW 3 box sedan, it was larger and more attractive than the Jetta, a car sold alongside it as the Bora. The Santana with its relatively shallow trunk and engine bay appeared wider than it was, lending it a bit of upmarket elegance. From some angles you could clearly see the influence of the old Audi 4000. The interior was simple in the VW/Audi way in that it was black, geometric and logically laid out.
When it came to powertrains there was nothing particularly Audi about the range of inline four cylinder engines that motivated the front wheels. Started with a 1.6 liter (97 hp) and topping out with 2.0 liter model making all of 107 hp. Sedans and estate wagons were sold in China, but in other markets where the Santana was sold like Brazil, a sporty 2 door coupe was offered.
The Santana was enormously popular and became the Toyota Camry if you will of China. Popular as police cars and for use for government officials the Santana was equally popular with citizens who wanted a car with a Western pedigree. Production started in the mid ’80s and ended recently with the last new Santana being sold as a 2013 model. In that long stretch of time the car went through three major revisions, all while still being based on the (older) Passat. The last iteration called the Santana 3000 was completely designed in China by SAIC.
Things have changed dramatically in the Chinese market since the Santana was first introduced to the huge Chinese market. By now one of the many Chinese automotive companies has likely already made a clone of the Santana design, even as the market has moved on to more current looking cars like the BMW 3 Series or Buick Regal.
The Santana was in many ways like another VW that helped mobilize Germany after World War II. With the Santana, China may have been a bit slower to adopt the automobile in mass as it has or someone else would have beat them to the punch.