Reliability. It’s what we seek in life: a stable job, a stable set of relationships, and most definitely a car that will not break. Failing that, one that repairs easily. Gone are the days when cold-start problems were forgiven in vehicles. In fact, just being reliable isn’t enough – the product needs to be exciting.48 years and 40 million units later, the Corolla doesn’t need to prove its reliability. However, it certainly needs to inject some excitement into itself, and that’s exactly what the 2014 year model aims to add to what was already the best-selling diesel sedan in its segment in the Indian marketplace.
Looks & Styling
Toyota has taken a page or two out of other manufacturers’ books, and that’s no bad thing. The Altis leads with the prominent logo on the nose of the chrome grille, and runs into swept-back double-barrel headlamps that remind me of the Chris Bangle-designed BMW 5-series. Only one projector unit is present per headlamp, but that is also a step ahead from the previous bulb-and-reflector design. Look carefully and you’ll notice an interesting mix of chrome and blacked-out bits in the headlamp itself. There is also an LED strip, but unexpectedly it isn’t a DRL array, it is the pilot lamp substitute. I really like the way the horizontal chrome strips of the grille extend above – and inside! – the headlamps. Toyota has also followed the now-standard trapezoid design for the front bumper that lends the Altis quite a bit of aggression, but they’ve not made it overt like the Mitsubishis, which is nice. Strangely, the diesel top-spec variant doesn’t get fog lamps.
From the front three quarter and the side, the Corolla reveals its intentions to be comfortable rather than sporty, but it certainly isn’t dumpy any more. There is an element of the horizontal lines rising toward the rear, like the shoulder line and the lower window sill. The strong creases help accentuate the sporty design elements and the thin spokes of the new alloy wheels help give it that ‘superleggera’ feel.
At the rear, the pictures reveal that the sporty plot is lost sight a little, but it doesn’t look out of proportion at all in the flesh. The slim, wrap-around tail-lamps that extend into the bootlid and the fat chrome strip that links the two tail-lamps help take your eyes off the height of the tail. Interestingly, the same trapezoid design of the front is carried over at the rear with the metal surrounding the numberplate and the creases of the bumper, and the Altis carries it off with style. Toyota has stuck with giving the Altis badge priority, and a small variant designation is present below the right tail lamp.
The Altis isn’t the best-looking sedan in its segment – the muscular Cruze and elegant Fluence come to mind here – but it manages to be a great balance of traditional design and modern sportiness.
There are some major changes to the interior as well. The dashboard is a beige and black sandwich, with beige in the centre. This is carried on to the doors as well, which makes it look like a continuation of the dashboard. All the usual goodies for the segment are present: a twin-pod instrument cluster, a multi-function display, a climate-control system and a touch screen audio system with all possible media options. The analog instrument cluster remains a twin-pod system, but gone is the white background and amber backlighting, replaced with a snazzy black background with cool blue backlighting. The multi-function display doesn’t show too much information, however – most VW group cars show a lot more information with the same display layout. The steering wheel is a new three-spoke design and Toyota has not carried forth the wood finish of the previous model. This is a good thing, because sweaty palms and wood-finish steering wheels aren’t a very good combination at the best of times. What’s new on the steering wheel are the buttons for voice commands. We didn’t get an opportunity to test them out on our extremely truncated drive, but it should perform at least as well as the other systems in the market. Cruise control is present in the top-spec petrol automatic variant as well. On the right of the wheel you’ll find the buttons to electrically adjust and fold the mirrors, the parking sensors and the engine start/stop button, and on the left of the steering wheel you’ll find the hazard lights button. The headlamp stalk has an additional step for the automatic headlamps. Toyota has chosen to echo the automatic wipers’ settings and put the ‘Auto’ setting for the headlamps next to the ‘off’ position rather than at the other extreme like they used to before, which is a good thing. The boot and fuel filler lid releases are in the traditional place, on the floor to the right of the driver’s seat.
Both the driver and passenger get vanity mirrors on the sunshades, and a manually-operated light on the roof for those times when you want to look at yourself at night. The inside rear-view mirror dims electrically, and there is a single central roof-mounted sunglasses holder.
The centre console has a digital clock flanked by two AC vents, but is dominated by the touch screen audio head unit that is situated below them. This is the first capacitive touch screen unit I’ve encountered in the segment. It accepts all sorts of media, including CDs, SD cards, iPods, USB drives and Bluetooth streaming and calling. Audio quality of the system is good, and on par with the rest of the segment, but nothing exceptional. The head unit has a lovely carbonfibre surround that is outlined by chrome as well. To the left of the screen lies a second door lock/unlock button to add to the one already on the driver’s door.
Below the head unit is the climate control controls, which are the same as before. At the bottom is a 12V charging socket. The gear lever has a leather wrap, and a couple of blanked-out buttons show themselves ahead of the dual cupholders next to the handbrake. There is also the storage space under the armrest, but it isn’t chilled. Toyota has chosen to let the glovebox be the sole chilled compartment in the car. Behind the armrest storage space lies the second 12V charging socket. The rear passengers get a pull-down armrest, complete with an integrated twin cupholder. A manually-operated rear blind is also present.
Seating is comfortable, with the driver getting electric adjustment for the seat. The lumbar support only works in one dimension, though, but the seat base can swivel to add underthigh support, a welcome addition for tall people. The steering wheel telescopes as well, so the perfect driving position is only a few minutes of adjustment away. The front passenger gets only manual adjustment, with nothing but the basics – even height adjustment is absent. The rear seat still remains the most comfortable in its segment, with the extra 10cm in the wheelbase and consequently more knee room contributing significantly to comfort. The almost-flat floor and the traditional roofline and the headroom it liberates at the rear also help seat three in comfort. The rear doors also get bottle holders, so the Altis remains the best car to buy if you’re a backseat babu. Boot space isn’t very large at 470 litres, but it is usable and the rear seats split and fold flat for added luggage room if required.
Toyota has consciously added features for the diesel variants, something they didn’t do before, which is a good thing – but there still are some omissions like the lack of fog lamps which weren’t necessary. The multi-function display needs to display more information like the competition does, and despite the LED light source for the low beam projector headlamps, the pilot lamp LED array should ideally have had the option of functioning as DRLs, which would have made the Altis appear so much more premium to the common man.
ABS and airbags feature on all variants, with the top-spec variants getting ESP as well. However, this operates completely in the background, with Toyota not giving the Indian consumer any way to turn off the ESP.
Engine & Gearbox
The Corolla is powered by the two familiar engine options: the1.4-litre diesel and the 1.8-litre petrol. The petrol is rated at 140 horsepower and 173Nm. It is one of the great four-cylinder engines of any era, with its refinement and progressive torque delivery. It does this, thanks to variable valve timing on both the intake and exhaust valves, which Toyota calls ‘dual VVT-i’. Interestingly, the petrol now gets a six-speed manual gearbox, which bodes well for both performance and efficiency. We didn’t get to sample this combination, but what we did get was the CVT automatic. This has seven ‘steps’ engineered into it, which makes it act like a regular automatic gearbox. The effect is startling. Changes with the steering-mounted paddles or the shift lever are immediate, and the engine revs to the redline before switching to the next ‘speed’ in the gearbox. When driven docilely, though, the gearbox acts more like a CVT, changing its shift points as necessary. This is the best of both worlds, and there is no CVT gearbox at this price that is so enjoyable to drive.
The real star of the show is the diesel engine, though. It is a puny engine with power and torque for the size of the car with power and torque figures of 88 horsepower and 205Nm, but it manages to move the Altis with surprising vigour. It is mated to a six-speed manual gearbox with a short, positive throw, and a variable-geometry turbocharger helps with the progressive torque delivery. Of course, the Altis diesel is made more for fuel economy than speed, but this still remains one of the best mile-munchers you can opt for. Its best-in-class fuel efficiency helps it get the highest sales numbers in its class. Despite it not being the fastest in class or very exciting to drive, I have to admit that this is one of the great engine/gearbox combinations available in our market.
Ride & Handling
As with everything else in the brochure, the Altis is made for comfort rather than speed. It absorbs all potholes and bumps with a muted thud and nothing else. Nothing gets translated to the cabin, and external noise is kept external. The flip side is usually loss of handling prowess, but the Altis exhibits a surprising level of grip, and can be pushed hard on a winding road comfortably. Of course, there is body roll, but it is well contained. It is also willing to change direction, but the overly assisted steering offers no feedback, even when the front tyres start singing around a bend. The light steering is great in traffic and for parking, but it simply doesn’t weigh up enough at speed. That said, the Altis, especially in petrol guise, will offer enough enjoyment in a straight line to overcome the steering’s lack of ability.