Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Tested & Approved: Hyundai Starex 2.5

2009 seems to be a season of bang-for-bucks MPVs. Notwithstanding the economic recession looming ahead for us, multi-purpose vehicles are hoping to rough through the downturn, especially with budget models like the much-hyped, soon-to-be-launched Proton Exora and Perodua’s new MPV (Toyota Passo Sette) in the making.

Coming to present tense, and moving a couple of rungs up this people mover segment, we have this ‘Starship Enterprise’ of a minivan (as the American folks call it), minibus or full-size MPV. Whatever you might want to call it, there’s no denying that this Starex is simply huge. Ditto its front and rear tracks, with even the bulge of all 4 wheels showing its wide jutting stance. Measuring over 5metres in length, think Mercedes R-Class and S-Class in extended ‘L’ guises, and perhaps even taller than the trendy and popular deep-freezer-on-wheels Toyota Alphard. This is another repeat of maximum bang-for-bucks from the Koreans. Splendid, I thought to myself since most guys, if not all, love bigger things generally (stop your wandering minds people). A preference applicable even to handsets now, unlike in the early 2000’s when Nokia’s most ‘iconic’ and smallest handphone, the 8210 were so ubiquitous.

In all honesty, almost all the folks that spotted me piloting the Starex – a parallel imported MPVs dealer included - were more impressed with its exterior styling than the other slab-sided metal chunk wearing that coveted ‘T’ badge. Some even commended that the Starex’ rear profile traces the current Mercedes-Benz Vito/Viano to a certain extent. Now that must be quite flattering for Hyundai’s Starex going into its third generation. Personally, I quite fancy the Starex’ frontal visage and I guessed it could pass off as the next generation Mercedes V-Class (Vito), more so with the Starex in metallic silver. All you need is a change of the big emblem sitting in the centre of the large slab of a grille!

It’s also very heartening and appetising to digest figures like 170 hp and 392 Nm of torque at 2000 to 2500rpm coming from Hyundai’s 2.5L turbodiesel, equipped with Variable Geometry Turbo (VGT). Definitely class-leading figures for an oil-burner at RM138,888 or for any 12-seater for that matter. Much like a double-digit load capacity Korean-made washing machine I still cherish a lot until now; seating the Starex up to the max didn’t seem to bog it down, with cruising at legal speed (and beyond) and also passing slower pickup trucks and SUVs a breeze. The 2.2 tonne Starex also passed my self-coined uphill-sprint-test with flying colour, lugging the same full load of passengers. That’s the beauty of near-400Nm of turbodiesel torque working with you, for you, via the 5-speed auto ‘box. Interestingly, I have managed to clock about 580km to the tankful of 75litres of diesel, for what is mostly highway blasts at ‘high’ speed, with some urban driving thrown in.

This behemoth from Hyundai is best left cruising down highway since its sheer bulk and high centre-of-gravity don’t usually translate to fun tackling the twisties. That’s to be expected but it’s not to say that it pitches and rolls badly around corners, far from it. In fact, I found the Starex mostly as planted as the SsangYong Stavic tested years ago, if not for what is recalled as slightly better tracking composure of the latter’s front axle into corners. Needless to say, both makes are best driven sedately around bends since they are after all massive vehicular masses in motion. The brakes of the Starex is very adequate though, and for those who like to split hairs about having drum brakes at the back (e.g. Naza Ria, Toyota Innova and the Grand Livina), the rear axle items on the Starex are not only discs but huge, ventilated rotors. The turning radius of the Starex is simply superb, enabling unusually small semi-circle for making U-turns, even better than some front-wheel driven sedans with lengthy frontal overhang! In addition, this also makes parallel parking easier than you imagine.

One of the few gripes I have with the Starex is the absence of a rear screen wiper when even a reverse camera is standard. You know how an expansive rear windscreen on a near-vertical tailgate gets easily sprayed with smudges after a rainy day drive. In an already tall van, the taller bee-sting radio antenna only serves to scrape ceilings, an occasional overhead fire sprinkler’s piping and sometimes metal frame scaffolding of basement car parks. In the meantime, I found the vague release of the parking brake lever deep in between the driver and front middle seat mostly inconvenient. More often than not, the parking brake does not disengage fully unless and until I extend my elbow and wrist, each time having to consciously push the lever deep down to the carpet trim level. Also, what’s with the old school instrument dials with plain green backlight at night and ever-so-boring fonts, looking bargain basement and much like a commercial goods carrier’s? Come to think of it, I have spotted a white panel-van version of the H1 - as the Starex is known as - in the U.K. last year, but c’mon Hyundai, surely there’s room for differentiation at the meter panel!

Interior wise, the ceiling is lined bilaterally with A/C vents which kept all three back rows’ passengers cool, near freezing-cold even in scorching mid-day sun. Though the seats sizes are just adequate, trimming them in soft beige leather did help in increasing their comfiness and even adds a tinge of class to things. In fact, the overall cabin ambience is far more inviting and luxurious versus the likes of Toyota HIACE and the Kia Pregio. Heck, there is even a touch screen double-DIN DVD player up front along with a ceiling mounted LCD screen to keep my kids and their cousins quiet during an outing to Kuantan, and back!

After returning the tester unit, this writer was actually contemplating getting one for his ever expanding, at times extended family. If only the economic uncertainty that looms with the doom of global financial crisis isn’t so murky and threatening. Nonetheless, at sub-RM140k there is nothing like this out there in CBU form (or even CKD!) and as a brand-new vehicle for you to pick. So it does make sense – more so in these testing and trying times - as say, a third ‘car’ for mass transportation or utility purposes for a large family. That’s provided you can get past the usual badge snobbery that may afflict most of us. For the record, this Hyundai is already well received by the decision makers in the hospitality, travel and tourism industry. That's some positive testament, isn't it?

Related post:
2008 Hyundai Starex MPV

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