Playing safe is something Toyota is famous for. Conservative in extreme, the measure-thrice-cut-once Japanese carmaker is so risk-averse, it only makes a move once it is absolutely sure. No short cuts here. This is particularly true in the case of the Corolla, the world’s largest-selling car, and the logic is understandable: why mess with a formula that works fabulously in the first place? Why indeed. But therein lies the conundrum; while Toyota has reaped the rewards of a conservative ‘acceptable-to-all’ Corolla over the years, the lack of excitement today is catching up with it.
Toyota knows this and has now issued a direct and simple diktat to its engineers – no boring cars. Toyota’s also pretty clear about communicating this message to the outside world. The opening line of the press information pack clearly states, “The new Corolla is designed to appeal to the heart as well as the head”, and that’s a fundamental change. Question is, can it prove to be as exciting, as fun to drive and as luxurious as the particularly stiff competition in the class? Cars like the VW Jetta, Skoda Octavia and Hyundai Elantra are no pushovers.
What Toyota has got right straight off the bat are the stunning Lexus-like looks. Sitting here, in the soft Singapore sunshine, with its muscular proportions and cuts and creases highlighted perfectly, the new Altis looks every bit the Olympian athlete in an Italian suit. Toyota designers have used a lower stance and a longer wheelbase to good effect – the car does look hunkered down. The low bonnet, rising window line and sharp-cut ‘C’ pillar carry the sporty theme further. And there are aggressive details wherever you look, like the large airdam, the aggressive upswept headlights and the ‘pushed-out’ wheel arches. It’s also fair to say the new Corolla doesn’t have a bad angle; this car looks stunning in profile and from the rear too.
The sporty theme is carried forward under the skin to some extent, with a lot of the hardware getting updated to improve the way the car drives. Toyota has started off from what appears to be the base of the earlier car, but has made fundamental changes. The new chassis is now considerably stiffer, the centre of gravity of the car has been lowered and the 100mm longer wheelbase delivers far greater stability.
Toyota has also improved the agility of the new Altis by using a thoroughly re-designed front suspension and providing a faster-acting steering. The supports for the front suspension strut towers are all-new (they are more rigidly located), there are new coil springs and wider-diameter dampers and the engineers have chosen to use ball joint-type anti-roll bars. Also improved is the electric steering of the car. It now uses a new control logic system and a more rigidly located and installed steering rack. The latter helps reduce flex in the steering geometry.
As a result, this new car feels much nicer to drive. Stepping into the driver’s seat is just as easy, but the driving position is now a bit lower slung. The steering wheel is a tad smaller, the steering column less vertical and the seat has better bolstering and thigh support. Singapore’s roads don’t provide too many opportunities to throw the car around, but once we are closer to the outskirts of the island city, the roads open out and allow me to carry greater speed. And immediately this new Altis feels much better from behind the wheel. There’s less body roll and sloppiness to contend with and what’s also nice is that the new car doesn’t keep shifting its weight around either.
The steering is more responsive too. It felt disconnected on the earlier car but this updated electric power steering feels nicely ‘linked up’ to the front wheels. Stability while turning into a corner, even at a relatively high speed, is pretty good and the front end really sticks. The non-independent torsion beam rear suspension, however, lets the car down. Its setup is a bit too soft and that means the rear of the car is often shuffling and shifting around uncomfortably in tight corners. This is a bit of a shame, as while the new Corolla is definitely improved in the handling department, it isn’t good enough to take on cars like the Jetta and new Octavia. It lacks their fluency, it lacks precision and it isn’t as confidence-inspiring either.
The upside of that soft rear suspension is that the car rides pretty well even over rough patches. Out in the docklands, where trucks with heavy containers manage to break up the roads, you do get plenty of patchwork even in sterile Singapore, and there are some pretty bad patches. But the Altis isn’t fazed. It takes even medium-sized bumps in its stride and swallows them silently, a slight bob the only giveaway. Here’s hoping the raising of the ride height of the car for India doesn’t impact ride and handling too badly.
What the new Altis does suffer from is a bit of road noise. This is especially true on coarse surfaces with plenty of texture, where the din from the air pockets on the road and in the tyres can become quite loud. That the Altis needs better insulation, there’s little doubt.
What the Altis has always had in India is sufficient power and torque. This new one, however, will be the third consecutive generation of the Altis to be powered by Toyota’s long-serving 1.8 petrol engine. While this 138bhp motor will be well upto the task, its power output is nowhere near that of the 180bhp Octavia. Toyota, however, has upgraded the engine and given it new technology to make it more responsive and more efficient. The engine gets a variable length intake system known as Acoustic Controlled Induction System (ACIS). It has a long intake tract for improved low-speed performance and once the engine begins spinning faster, a flap in the system opens and short-circuits the air flow, allowing for a shorter run to the engine and increased performance. The range in India will also include Toyota’s weedy 1.4 turbo diesel that makes a mere 87bhp, barely enough to even get the car to accelerate in an acceptable manner.
Toyota also has the option of slotting this car’s 122bhp 1.6 into the Altis in India. Similar in construction to the 1.8, this motor shares many parts with it, along with much of its technology. It too has continuously variable valve timing on both the inlet and exhausts and actually feels like a much larger engine at low and medium speeds. Pulling power is pretty good and a mere tap on the throttle gets the Altis scrambling into action. A lot of this, however, is also down to the Toyota’s CVT gearbox that uses a torque convertor to boost low-speed responses. What’s even nicer is that at low speeds you can’t tell it’s a CVT – responses are quick and the Corolla feels fast and agile. Even the seven-step sequential ‘manual’ works pretty well. It’s only when you desire a bit more performance and put your foot down that the 1.6 Altis disappoints – the CVT gearbox stretches and strains, the engine gets coarse and loud, and there’s no big step-up in performance initially. The performance does come through eventually, but there’s a considerable wait – fine for the open road, but not ideal for city traffic. The more powerful Altis with the 1.8 under the hood and paddles behind the steering wheel, however, should be much nicer.
What’s easily more than adequate is cabin space. The 100mm extra in the wheelbase seems to have worked wonders, especially at the rear of the car, and legroom at the back is almost as much as on a previous-generation Camry (it’s 92mm more than on the earlier Corolla). Support for the thighs is excellent – Toyota always seems to do this well. The backrest supports you in just the right places and you’ll even be able to adjust the angle of your backrest on the Indian cars. The absence of a central tunnel makes sitting three abreast comfortable.
Seat comfort up front is just as good. The large chairs support your thighs well and the cushioning feels right – it’s neither too soft nor too hard.
The design of dashboard is completely different from that of the earlier car. The earlier ‘T-type’ dashboard and central console have been replaced by a more visually interesting layered dash. The top layer is finished in non-reflective black, the blower vents and instrument panel tucked neatly under a couple of bulges. The horizontal lower half of the dashboard sits below a band of chrome and will be finished in beige on the Indian cars. It holds the medium-sized touch pad that controls many of the functions of the car. Below that, in a pod, are the controls for the air-con system. The fit is pretty good and so are general levels of functionality. But overall finish and material quality are not as good as that on competitors like the Octavia or Elantra. What Indian customers will love is that Toyota in India will specify the car with all kinds of goodies like a reversing camera, push button start-stop, a multi-speaker audio system and navigation as well. Drivers will get an eight-way adjustable driver’s seat and rain-sensing wipers, and there are reading lamps and sunshade for passengers sat in the rear.
If you liked the earlier Corolla Altis, you’ll absolutely love this one. It may not be the most exciting in its class, but the new Altis is now a car that can stand up to the competition – it has a unique combination of strengths. So if you’re looking for reliability, efficiency, comfort and practicality rolled in with a healthy dose of luxury, look no further.