ADIOS, AUV, ADIOS

The twi­light of the 10-seaters is upon us

Top Gear (Philippines) - - Top Read - WORDS BY NIKY TA­MAYO PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY CHRIS­TIAN HALILI

on most Top Gear photo shoots, cu­ri­ous on­look­ers stop to ogle the cars, se­cu­rity guards rush out ask­ing for per­mits, and half a dozen ed­i­tors stand around shoot­ing artsy pics for their In­sta­gram ac­counts. Here, the only sound is the snick­ety-snick shut­ter of our pho­tog­ra­pher’s cam­era. No­body bats an eye, not even af­ter we block off the mid­dle of the road for the beauty shots. Fa­mil­iar­ity breeds...in­dif­fer­ence, I guess? Here we are, two trucks, four guys, and a de­serted stretch of road, clos­ing a story span­ning half a cen­tury, won­der­ing if any­body ac­tu­ally cares.

This story started in the ’70s: The na­tional gov­ern­ment’s Pro­gres­sive Car/Truck Man­u­fac­tur­ing Pro­gram was in full swing, and ev­ery­one was build­ing cheap util­ity trucks. Mit­subishi’s ’60s-era Ci­mar­ron soon found it­self com­pet­ing with the Volk­swa­gen Trak­bayan, the Mazda Pinoy, the GM Harabas, the Re­nault Rodeo, the Ford Fiera, and the Toy­ota Ta­ma­raw. Jeep­neys for the modern age, with fuel-ef­fi­cient gaso­line en­gines and stamped-steel bod­ies in­stead of an­cient truck mo­tors and hand­beaten pan­els. Th­ese promised to kick-start an in­dus­trial and con­sumer rev­o­lu­tion for the coun­try’s un­der­de­vel­oped mid­dle class.

But weak gov­ern­ment over­sight, poor lo­cal­iza­tion, and crony pol­i­tics hounded the pro­gram. With the up­heavals of the early ’80s, it col­lapsed like a house of cards. DMG-Volk­swa­gen, Ford, GM, and Toy­ota—all gone. Be­fore Mar­cos stepped down in 1986, the auto in­dus­try was in tat­ters. Be­ing a young promdi (“from the prov­ince”) at the time, I trav­eled to and from school in an­cient Ci­mar­rons and, later, Isuzu KC20s. For­eign au­tomak­ers were still cau­tiously tip­toe­ing back into a coun­try that hadn’t im­ploded af­ter EDSA. The mar­ket was in­stead dom­i­nated by jeep-like util­i­ties like the Fran­cisco Mo­tors An­fra and the Mit­subishi L300. Cars that helped carry the na­tion back to its feet. But there was more to come.

At the dawn of the ’90s, thou­sands of of­fice work­ers and stu­dents, sick of the filth and stench of Manila streets, found them­selves flock­ing to FX taxis. The Ta­ma­raw FX, in­tro­duced by a reemer­gent Toy­ota Mo­tor Philip­pines, set the stan­dard: front en­gine, rear-wheel drive, five doors, 10 seats, and bliss­fully cool air­con­di­tion­ing. Thanks to the ex­tra seats, pas­sen­gers started ne­go­ti­at­ing shared rides with op­er­a­tors, which soon mor­phed into straight bente-bente (P20) fares. It caught on like wild­fire. This was the Uber of the ’90s, a game changer for a pop­u­la­tion that had out­grown the jeep­ney. Like Uber, it toed the line be­tween

le­gal­iza­tion and ban­ning be­fore be­ing ac­cepted as the new norm.

Get­ting into the Mit­subishi Ad­ven­ture for a spin in the present, I glance over my shoul­der, ex­pect­ing to see stu­dents crammed into the third row. Never the best third row to be in—no side-open­ing rear door (on early taxi units), and more cramped than the Ta­ma­raw and the Isuzu Hi­lan­der. Of course, nei­ther of those cars is still in pro­duc­tion. The Ad­ven­ture is, de­spite its looks be­ing a mish­mash of styling eras. For­mal body lines rem­i­nis­cent of ’90s Pa­jeros. Bug-eyed head­lights from the ‘Boulay nose’ of 2004. Grille lifted from the 2010 Strada.

The Isuzu Cross­wind, on the other hand, boasts styling cribbed from the ’90s Isuzu Rodeo, trape­zoidal lights in­spired by the 2005 Al­terra, and a grille lifted from the new D-Max. Con­stant facelifts have helped keep this ev­er­green AUV fresh since its 2001 de­but. It re­placed the Hi­lan­der as the fa­vorite of mid­dle­class buy­ers, who had caught on to the fact that th­ese tax-ex­empt AUVs were cheaper than crossovers like the Honda CR-V. The AUVs were start­ing to leave the peo­ple mov­ing busi­ness to ‘GT Ex­press’ box vans. They were now seen as lux­ury cars for the mid­dle class. While late to the party started by the Ad­ven­ture and the Toy­ota Revo in 1998, the Isuzu trumped them with its spa­cious in­te­rior and im­pres­sive SUV-like ride height.

The party wouldn’t last long, how­ever. Honda, want­ing a piece of the ac­tion, re­leased a 10-seat CR-V the fol­low­ing year. Never mind how small those seats were—the model qual­i­fied for the same tax breaks as the AUVs, stick­er­ing for un­der P1 mil­lion. The gov­ern­ment, ir­ri­tated by Honda’s cheek, re­assessed the cri­te­ria for cal­cu­lat­ing seat space, and de­cided that none of th­ese AUVs ac­tu­ally qual­i­fied for said tax breaks. Come 2003, ex­cise-tax re­forms closed th­ese loop­holes, and the play­ing field was lev­eled for ev­ery­one.

Isuzu re­sponded by pil­ing ever more lux­ury into the Cross­wind. Kelseat-sourced leather (the cur­rent leatherette is but a rub­bery ap­prox­i­ma­tion), bet­ter LCDs, karaoke play­ers, seat mas­sagers—you name it. Not to be out­done, Toy­ota re­placed the in­cred­i­bly pop­u­lar Revo with the In­nova MPV, whose swept-back styling and high-tech di­rect-in­jec­tion en­gines sig­naled the end of the AUV age.

The Ad­ven­ture, for its part, feels pretty spry for a zom­bie, its light con­trols car-like and sweet. Truly the sporti­est of the AUVs, it once sported a gaso­line mo­tor. Now, it sol­diers on with the same 4D56 diesel as the L300. It’s a much more re­fined en­gine than the Isuzu mill, and more re­spon­sive to boot.

The Cross­wind, mean­while, feels in­or­di­nately heavy, with syrupy steer­ing and an au­to­matic trans­mis­sion that takes ages to re­spond. I do a few laps for our pho­tog­ra­pher, boat­ing back and forth across the road with heavy prods of the ac­cel­er­a­tor. The creaks and moans of the body are won­der­fully fa­mil­iar to one who has driven sev­eral Cross­winds past the 250,000km mark. Not with­out is­sues: Ex­haust leaks, blown shocks, and doors that refuse to stay aligned are all too com­mon. But that 4JA1 diesel al­ways starts on the first click, hap­pily idling through decades of abuse with­out a sin­gle com­plaint.

Alas, the gov­ern­ment push for more strin­gent Euro 4 emis­sions reg­u­la­tions means the 4JA1 is dead. As is the Cross­wind. As is the Ad­ven­ture. Mit­subishi al­ready has a re­place­ment lined up, but it won’t be an AUV. In a mar­ket dom­i­nated by cars mas­querad­ing as MPVs and trucks pre­tend­ing to be SUVs, we no longer have that op­tion. AUVs have helped re­build our na­tion and grown up with it, and now, they’ve fi­nally been out­grown by it. The re­cent pros­per­ity of the SUV-crazy mid­dle class has left them to die a quiet death.

Driv­ing home from our photo shoot, I spy a rust­ing hulk. An­fra? Bida? The word ‘Cas­tro’ sits in faded let­ters across the grille. Another lo­cal builder that didn’t sur­vive the mil­len­nium and is now con­signed to the dust­bin of his­tory. We of­ten think of this his­tory as some­thing that hap­pened a long time ago, but this isn’t so. The AUV, though still around, is his­tory, and all that’s left is the telling—hope­fully be­fore the mem­o­ries are all but lost to time.

‘Th­ese AUVs have helped re­build our na­tion’

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