Photos by Jay Tee
Cat A VW Golf Life, Golf Life Plus, T-Cross R-Line and Skoda Scala, Octavia take the long and winding roads to Desaru : (Cat) A to the B (roads)
Anantara Desaru Coast Resort, Malaysia – Do you like to drive slow cars fast, or fast cars slow?
We’re firmly entrenched in the former camp and it’s also very much the journey and not the destination for us, which is why my hand shot-up when Volkswagen Group Singapore sent over the invite to sample its range of Category A Skoda and VW cars.
A little background first: In Singapore’s context, Cat A refers to cars that displace less than 1.6-litres, but more crucially, produce less than 130hp.
At time of writing, there’s a S$20k difference between the Cat A and Cat B (1.6-litre and above) COE premiums, which makes for a pretty penny saved in the grand scheme of ‘entry-level’ car ownership costs.
However, as we would come to discover over the course of the drive, the Skoda and VW models we sampled might seem to be simple, but they’re far from basic.
In case you think I’m winding you up for another fuel economy challenge feature cliche, it’s anything but!
Well-padded with plenty of BBQ babi for breakfast and licking our chops in anticipation of the B-road bombing to come, the ‘A-list’ sub-130hp gang (comprising VW T-Cross 1.0 R-Line, a pair of VW 1.5-litre Golfs, a Skoda Scala ‘Monte Carlo’ 1.0 and a Skoda Octavia Style 1.0) proved a boisterous bunch that had a blast all the way to our destination, the Anantara Desaru Coast Resort.
The route tally from Singapore to the resort? ~450km!
“Wait, isn’t Desaru a little over a hundred klicks away from Singapore?”
Yes, but only if you take the direct route, which to us, is no better than driving on the highway, because you don’t come away with a better understanding of any car.
Trust an ex-car journo (turned PR person) to gift-wrap a mid-year present to us petrolheads with a sinuous trail of many happy kilometres on ribbon-like roads and a rowdy pack of cars we could really drive the nuts off… with precious little traffic to worry about – yes, even during the border crossings.
However, truth be told, this wasn’t our initial impression when we encountered the cars at the VW Showroom assembly point.
Relatively ‘small’ rims with generous tyre-walls, the cavernous wheel-arch clearance, puny, pea-shooter exhausts and no obvious body-kit or aero in sight.
At first glance, our rides for the day seemed more Brady Bunch than Mötley Crüe, especially alongside the powerfully sculpted Octavia vRS models that were to serve as our support vehicles!
As they say, never judge a book by its cover, because by the time the cars were returned to the showroom, we’d gained a newfound appreciation for our brat pack!
On the drive, these seemingly anonymous works of non-fiction revealed vividly fleshed-out characters that delivered salacious thrills better associated with the latest action thriller.
As far as B-road bombers go, our (Cat) A-List of unusual suspects seemed like the unlikeliest bunch ever to have a wheel turned in anger – if anything, you’d expect them to turn the other cheek and roll-over when the going gets winding!
Folks who know me will realise my favourite cars tend to be the book-ends of the range – entry-level or top-shelf – and it was the former we would be enjoying over the two days, especially the Golf Life – cos base is best.
A lot is said about the legendary reliability of Japanese cars, but European brands add a level of refinement to the ride and comfort proceedings that the former can never quite match, especially in this sub-S$200k price segment.
As high COE premiums push up car prices and with such a small gap between Japanese and European Cat A models, it shouldn’t be any surprise that buyers are looking towards the Europeans to be better padded (in refinement) against the painful economy.
With the exception of the mid-spec S$184k Golf Life Plus, the rest of the cars in our group excel in price, performance and practicality and are in the S$160k to S$171k bracket, which is right smack in Civic, HRV, Corolla, Yaris Cross Hybrid territory.
It’s like the time we tackled the Stelvio Pass in the F22 M235i – you don’t always want the gnarliest, fastest and most hardcore car on offer, because those qualities don’t always translate to engaging real-world fast road use.
On the stretches from Kahang to the Jemaluang Crystal Lake, the roads were decently paved, but the fluid undulations could be downright violent as they constantly tested and played havoc with the suspension’s compression and rebound.
In our Cat A cars, it was fine, but we can’t imagine tackling the same roads in more track-focused machines with tarmac-scraping lips and aero addenda.
Apart from the straights and during overtaking manoeuvres (with our power outputs ranging from 115hp to 129hp), the Cat A cars acquitted themselves admirably as we threaded our way through the winding roads.
Don’t forget, they’re engineered to deliver go-anywhere comfort and refinement, which points to a certain breath of ability in soaking up the good with the very bad with stoic aplomb.
The cornering speeds were right up there with the vRS heavy hitters too, because we were told that even though they shrugged us off easily on the straights, the tiny tykes held their own when the roads started getting squiggly again.
Without exception, the lower CG cars were alert and had pointy, invigorating steering (especially the Scala, which was shod in relatively stickier Eagle F1 rubber – the other cars wore Bridgestone Turanzas).
Although the taller T-Cross offered slightly softer responses, it could nevertheless be wrung along at a decent pace to keep up with the pack.
Fast driving should be about reading the road, feeling the car and achieving that fine balance between control and kamikaze.
If anything, the lack of outright punch forces you to slow-down and think about your next manoeuvre, because it requires introspection and planning ahead, as opposed to mindlessly pointing and squirting – and that’s what driving is all about to us.
Even with under 130hp (and just 200Nm of torque), the pace of the Cat A VW/Skoda cars is brisk enough for the driver to have fun and the passengers to white-knuckle the OMG-handles, yet never too fast as to fear for life and limb.
This is because the cars have a broad enough threshold to accommodate drivers of different skill levels.
In fact, as far as accommodation is concerned, life-on-board is pleasant, especially with the factory ArtVelours microfleece fabric – we’d have this over local-fit ‘pleather’ any day.
What’s more important is the cars have tech goodies you’ll actually use, as opposed to gimmicky features for the sake of it, or too few features at all!
My 20-something companion plugged into CarPlay right away and eased me into a steady stream of Taylor Swift tunes as I drove it like a ‘getaway car’. It certainly ‘hits different’ from my usual death metal repertoire, so maybe this is ‘karma’ and the ‘blank space’ in this ‘anti-hero’s’ soul has now become a ‘wonderland’... “I knew you were trouble, Kim!”
Even on the highways, the cars attained a comfortable cruising pace thanks to the ride quality that is so well exemplified by European cars.
When cars are engineered to be sold in the EU, this means they have to put up with surfaces ranging from crumbly to perfectly paved, so there’s a lot of technical finesse involved in even something as ‘basic’ as a torsion beam rear axle.
The route, the company and yes, even VW and Skoda’s ‘Das Everything’ cars were a riot and we never, ever felt shortchanged by the Cat A models.
If anything, we reckon you’ll be the one selling yourself short by not giving these ‘A-Listers’ a shot.
PHOTOS Volkswagen Group Singapore / Jay Tee
P.S. For us, it's all about enjoying the drive so we aren't the sort that obsesses over FC. However, if you're thinking all that hard driving must have eaten into our fuel range, the Cat A pack demolished the 450+km from Singapore to Desaru with almost 200km range left to spare.