So you want a saloon that symbolises your move up in life. Then the car you need should have looks that stand out, be comfortable when you’re in the back seat and fun to drive when take the wheel. Which of the Renault Fluence, the Volkswagen Jetta, the Skoda Laura, the Chevrolet Cruze and the Toyota Corolla is most worthy of your money?
Big, bigger, biggest
With a length of 4644mm, the Jetta is the longest car here and in a segment where size does matter, it comes to this fight with an advantage. The simple strokes give the Jetta a mature look , its unmistakable German-ness is appealing and as with other VWs its unlikely to look outdated any time soon.
The 2009 facelift Laura still looks neat. The lines are tidy, the raised headlights are attractive and the thick C-pillar adds muscle. Skoda got the styling right and testament to that is the Laura is still a big seller even though it’s a notchback and not a three-box ‘saloon’.
The Fluence brings some French flair to the mix and to its credit also looks the most distinct. The small grille, swept-back headlights, smooth belt line and large taillights work well, while the sleek roof and wheels that fill the arches nicely give the Fluence a strong stance.
The Fluence though can’t match the Cruze for sheer visual drama. An imposing split grille, kinked headlights, aggressive face and a perfectly arced roofline are very different, but styling at the rear is a bit generic. Generic is a word that best describes the Corolla’s design. Designed to please-all, it makes do with simple lines.
The Jetta and Laura feel the best built but the Corolla and Fluence aren’t bad either. However, the Cruze with its rather hollow thud on door-shut doesn’t feel as well put together.
All the cars here extend their exterior identity into their cabins. So while the Corolla dashboard looks a bit conservative, the Cruze’s is the sportiest of the lot. The Jetta and Laura cabins have the same air of indestructibility and you won’t confuse the Fluence interior for anything else.
The Corolla cabin is extremely user-friendly. Material quality is nice too and even the touchscreen interface for the audio system and telephony is easy to navigate through. However, the system looks too aftermarket and out of sync with the rest of the dash design.
The Cruze’s cockpit-themed dashboard that wraps itself around the front occupants looks good and the combination of black and light grey plastics and silver inserts on the centre console works well. However, fit and finish is not all too great and the plastics could be better.
The Laura and the Jetta both come from the VW Group where build quality comes above everything else. The Laura cabin feels special, all surfaces are good to the touch, and while frontal visibility is good, the Laura’s notchback shape limits the view out of the back.
Like the Laura, the Jetta’s cabin won’t win you over on design. However, this is a proper VW cabin, with fit and finish that’s hard to fault. Not to say that the Jetta doesn’t have its rough edges. The air-con dials look quite tacky and the button with the phone insignia on the steering wheel is a bit misleading – it doesn’t operate your phone, but simply puts the audio system on mute.
There are many such quirks in the Fluence cabin. For starters, the cruise control is activated by a switch between the front seats, but the buttons for its settings are on the steering. The steering-mounted controls themselves are on a stalk behind the wheel rather than on the boss itself. Also, the controls for the music system on the centre console are too small. However, their small size does help give the dashboard its minimalist look. Light-colour materials and a tasteful use of faux wood and silver trim add elegance to the otherwise simply styled dashboard. We also really like the easy-to-read digital speedometer and the soft feel on the top of the dash.
The Cruze isn’t the most comfortable at the back. The seats are nicely contoured and there is decent legroom too, but the coupé-like roofline compromises headroom. A lack of rear headroom is an issue in the low-roofed Fluence as well. But the Fluence’s long wheelbase (the longest here) also translates to great legroom, even with the front seats pushed all the way back. There is no shortage of space in the back of the Corolla either. The seats are well shaped and come with generous cushioning. Great packaging allows the Laura to boast good rear-seat space despite having the shortest wheelbase. The seat is comfy too and if anything, it’s the backrest that is slightly too upright. It’s much the same in the Jetta, though the additional legroom is the clincher here. The good seat comfort and space really add up to make the Jetta a comfy long-distance car.
Variable-geometry turbochargers work behind the scenes to squeeze out maximum power from each of these engines. The Corolla’s 1.4-litre motor is the smallest here and, with just 87bhp on call, is the least powerful too. The Toyota can’t keep pace with the others, but to its credit, the D4-D engine does pull decently off-boost. For quicker progress you have to wait for the turbo to kick in at around 2000rpm. The six ratios in the smooth gearbox do help to keep the engine in its powerband and the light clutch does its bit too.
With a 1.5-litre motor under that sculpted bonnet, the Fluence may seem a bit under-engined. The truth is you don’t feel any lack of power and updates to the turbocharger have rid the engine of its serious turbo-lag. Power builds up in a linear fashion from around 1700rpm and its only the heavy clutch that plays spoilsport now. There is good power in the mid-range and ample muscle for relaxed cruising on the highway though.
A 148bhp and the most favourable power-to-weight ratio allow the Cruze to dart to 100kph in 9.31sec. But these figures don’t reveal the whole picture. You have to work your way around the turbo lag under 1800rpm and that reflects in the in-gear timings. Gearshifts on the short-throw box are quite nice but the heavy and snappy clutch takes the joy out of city driving.
The Laura and Jetta share their 2.0-litre engine, but power outputs are quite different. Skoda curiously sells the manual Laura diesel only with a detuned 110bhp version of the engine. The same motor produces 140bhp on the automatic version. That said, you never feel the lack of power and delivery is linear right from the word go. Driveability is impressive and as the timings reveal, it is second only to the more powerful Jetta.
But if the Laura feels great, the Jetta feels better still. There is a strong tug from low down in the rev band and, though the engine does not like to be revved too hard, you won’t mind short-shifting the slick six-speed ’box. The wide powerband and sufficient power allow the Jetta to seamlessly shift from city commute to long-distance mode.
The ride stuff
Ride quality can make or break a car as you go higher up the pecking order and the good thing is that none of the cars disappoint. Let’s start with the Cruze that does a fine job of shielding you against low-speed bumps. Its suspension, though on the stiffer side, is absorbent enough when the going is slow. Up the pace and the Cruze won’t give you that sense of confidence like the others.
Things are quite similar with the Corolla, which is good at tackling low-speed bumps but tends to feel floaty at high speed. The Skoda Laura maintains its composure on all surfaces and low-speed ride is better than the Jetta’s, which has an underlying firmness to it. But it is the Fluence that offers the best ride comfort at all speeds. All potholes and undulations are dispatched with a supple edge and it feels very composed at high speeds.
The Fluence always feels sure-footed and body control is good too. It does roll in bends but never excessively so. What really works a treat is its electric steering that is perfectly tuned to weigh up just as you’d like.
But for sheer driver engagement, it is the Laura that gets our vote. Its electro-mechanical steering is well weighted and precisely lets you know what the front wheels are up to. The Jetta may be a shade down on the fun factor but its electronic differential lock uses the braking system to keep you on the desired path. You don’t need to scale back on pace at bends as much as with the other cars and its long wheelbase only adds to the feeling of stability.
The Cruze is the only car here with hydraulic assist for the steering but it doesn’t weigh up accurately and shows a resistance to quick changes in direction. And that’s a shame given the Cruze actually looks sporty.
If your driving is confined to city limits, you’ll like the Corolla’s light electric steering. It’s quite accurate as speeds increase but it doesn’t give you much feedback. There is a fair amount of body roll too and handling is predictable at best.
Feature to feature
The Fluence in the updated E4 variant costs Rs 15.2 lakh (ex-showroom, Delhi) and gets brighter interiors, leather upholstery, climate control, rear AC vents, rear parking sensors, rain-sensing wipers and cruise control.
The Cruze LTZ is the cheapest car here, but it comes with all that’s on offer on the Fluence, except the rear AC vents and phone functions, and is also the only car here to feature a sunroof. Value remains the Cruze’s key USP then.
The top-spec Corolla GL we tested retails for Rs 14.93 lakh, and for the price you get leather seats, Bluetooth telephony, touchscreen for the DVD infotainment system and automatic headlamps.
In manual-transmission diesel guise, the Laura is available in two trims. The higher Elegance model costs Rs 15.58 lakh and comes with automatic wipers, dual-zone climate control, rear AC vents, leather seats and parking sensors. You do miss cruise control, though. But given that its engine produces 110bhp, the Laura is on the pricier side for what you get.
At Rs 17.86 lakh, the Jetta in top Highline trim is the most expensive car here, and by a big margin. Forgo the Highline’s touchscreen music interface, powered driver’s seat, cruise control, side airbags for the rear seats and ‘Navarra’ alloy wheels and you can have the Jetta in Comfortline trim. It costs a much more realistic Rs 15.51 lakh and still gets alloy wheels, rear AC vents, a CD player and automatic headlights and wipers.
On paper, the attractive Cruze has the makings of a winner. It is the most affordable car here, has all the features you could ask for and also comes with the most powerful engine. What marks the Cruze down is the not-so-great driving experience, rear-seat headroom and the fact that it lacks the finesse of its more expensive rivals.
The Corolla remains true to its honest-to-goodness ancestors. It gets the basics right and is also the easiest to live with. The thing is, the Corolla is a car that only appeals to your head and won’t pull at your heartstrings, and you can never escape the fact that the engine is short on power.
It is easy to like the Fluence. It is stylish, has the best ride and is spacious too. The reworked engine is a lot nicer and means you longer have to adjust your driving to the engine’s characteristics. Seat comfort could be better and there are some ergonomic quirks you’ll have to live with too.
On the other hand, the Laura feels more powerful than the figure suggests. The engine is very flexible and it is also the most fun car to drive. Built like a tank and luxurious, the Laura is a complete car in its own right, hefty asking price notwithstanding.
However, it is the Jetta that manages to offer that little bit extra still. It is distinctly more spacious, much more powerful and hence more driveable too. But most importantly, it feels a size bigger and a little more special. The Jetta may be the most expensive car here but it truly has the space, pace and grace to win itself the title of best executive car.