French cars, coffee and art

It isn't easy being the new kid on the block in the Philippine auto market. Granted, Peugeot isn't itself a new brand, and there are smaller players cropping up here and there, but Peugeot isn't a fly-by-night manufacturer with borrowed technology. It is one of the world's oldest car manufacturers, yet finds itself taking baby steps into our market.

The entire brand, actually, is working hard to increase its presence in the world market. Which is why we have the Peugeot 301 (and other models) here with us today.

But Peugeot, the new president of Peugeot Philippines, is quick to point out that today's event is not about the 301. Instead, it's about the brand and what Peugeot stands for. As the 301 represents a unique new approach to the global market on the part of Peugeot, our tour of Pinto Art Museum in Antipolo represents a fresh new approach to the brand itself.

The trip starts out at the posh Euro-esque Cafe 1771 at El Pueblo in Ortigas. After breakfast and some bracingly black coffee, we get the Peugeot 5008 for the convoy up to Antipolo. Not that there's anything wrong with the 301 and the 3008 units we are travelling with, but the large and comfortable 5008--with its panoramic sunroof, crisp head-up display, and punchy 2.0-liter HDI engine--makes for a very enjoyable driving experience.

At the gallery, we are given a walking tour led by fresh-faced interns, some second-generation motoring enthusiasts, who give us an eye-opening tour of this wonderful, sprawling museum, nestled in the foothills of Antipolo. The art is sometimes beautiful, sometimes shocking, always thought-provoking. I can't claim to be a connoisseur of modern art, but as I walk around, I can't help but try to calculate the value of the collection. I stop after the first P10 million.

I wish I had that much money. Beyond that, though, the gallery is a fine cross-section of Filipino art today, reflective of Philippine culture, a culture that Peugeot hopes to be a part of, hence the brand's new direction and drive.

Since its establishment in 1810--although it had built mostly bicycles until its first practical car came along in 1889--Peugeot has had a rich and colorful history in terms of technical innovation, motorsports and design.

This is something that the brand attempts to relate during our tour, through its young brand ambassadors, who give brief tours of the different galleries and short lectures on the history of the brand. It's a refreshing break from the use of runway models or PR people.

The tour doesn't end at the gallery, though. After some hors d'oeuvres (really, what would a French event be without them?), I get to drive back down to Manila with Dong Magsajo, Peugeot's marketing head and ex-Top Gear Philippines columnist. So I pick his brains a bit about how things are going at Peugeot.

Dong recognizes that they have a long road ahead, but he's upbeat about it. We're both suitably impressed that Peugeot has managed to bring a product like the 301 to market at this price range. Considering shipping duties and importation tax, the 301 is very cheap for a European-made car, yet it doesn't feel cheap.

I've driven the 301 diesel, but this is my first stint in the gasoline version. Contrary to expectations, it's more expensive, but the nicer interior, smooth and quiet engine, and extra kit seem worth it. You wouldn't expect a million-peso compact to sell at all, but Dong says the initial batch has sold out. Yes, both the diesel and gasoline variants.

The brand has been expanding aggressively with 10 dealerships already. Dong says that showing market presence is necessary to reassure people that Peugeot is here to stay. The carmaker's new '01' line of affordable premium cars may prove instrumental in making it more than a niche player in an already crowded market. For buyers looking for something different, it's worth checking out. It just might surprise you.

by Niky Tamayo

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