MPVs, or people movers, don’t really get the pulse racing. Engineered to provide mobility for seven, and not much else, they are practical, utilitarian and a bit boring. Unlike SUVs or executive sedans, these are not cars you buy with your heart.
Toyota’s new Innova, however, is different. To begin with, the Japanese car maker has truly put in huge efforts to make it look appealing. Configured to deliver more than just ice-cold efficiency, it is flamboyantly styled and lavishly equipped – a substantial departure from the current car.
Toyota’s willingness to take the Innova up a class is also understandable. It wants to appeal to buyers looking at both practicality and desirability. And from the look of things, it seems serious about it. What’s also undoubtedly added impetus is the fact that many car owners in the region finally seem willing to put money down for the practical car they really need, rather than just the attractive car they want.
We exit Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport and wade into a sea of MPVs. There’s almost every version of the Innova and its forebears here – from the early upright people-carriers through to the current Innova. And the fact that there are so many still ‘hard at work’ speaks volumes about their longevity. What’s even more fascinating is the scale of the evolution, or the Darwinian transmutation. The new Innova, however, promises to be the biggest step forward of them all. Question is, will buyers be willing to pay the 15 or 20 percent extra? Is the car good enough to justify the premium? Is it a bridge too far? These and other questions come hard and fast. I can’t wait to get some face time with the new Innova.
FACE TO FACE
I first set eyes on the new Innova in the hotel lobby the next morning. It looks much nicer in the flesh, with flourishes that run all the way to the rear. The new grille and headlight combo give it real character. This is especially true when stood next to the current car, which looks almost characterless in contrast. The frameless grille works particularly well. It forms the focal point of the design from where all the lines of the Innova originate, and the half a dozen or so slats that run across it are made to bulge out, making it three-dimensional. Whereas the current Innova is a pure monovolume, this new car has a more distinctive bonnet. The nose is larger, flatter and the ‘V’ of the bonnet has a sharp ridge to it; the fenders dropping away nicely. What works best, however, is the multi-element head lights. The twin projector units are clearly defined, the LEDs provide some bling, and the chrome border that runs from one headlight to the other and back is nice.
I walk around the side, and unfortunately, there’s no escaping the van-like profile. Toyota has tried every trick in the book to make it look more attractive by giving it a drooping roofline, a wider base and a tapering glasshouse, but the MPV dimensions still shine through. And what doesn’t really help is the stance of the car – the new car is considerably longer, but is built on the same wheelbase as the current one. The 17-inch wheels don’t do much for the bulky design either. That said, the ridge or mini ledge that runs along the shoulder-line of the car does give the MPV profile a degree of separation, and the boomerang-shaped tail-lights that overlap the flush-mounted rear windscreen look great.
The inside of the new Innova has been given even more importance than the exterior. This impression is further reinforced as I slide into the driver’s seat. To begin with, this feels several times more comfortable. I know this for sure because I’ve just jumped in and out of the current Innova, only seconds earlier. The new car seats are considerably larger and more supportive, both for the thigh and the back, and, as with every really good seat, I get the impression I’m sitting in rather than perched on top of it. What also feels great is that the cabin is much wider and airier in the front.
There’s also a considerable step up in comfort on the all-important second row. The ‘captain’s seats’, like the seats up front, are larger and much more supportive. There’s more legroom here as well, due to the longer cabin and slimmer seats. Visibility isn’t quite as good, however, as the new front seats are wider and the headrests are fair-sized as well.
Visibility is also a bit of an issue on the third row due to the kink in the window-line, which does make the rear of the car a bit gloomy. Space and comfort, however, are better than on the current Innova. Yes, there is some compromise – this is the third row, and I am sat a bit low, but there’s sufficient leg-, knee- and head room here to make it comfy even over long drives. The Mahindra Xylo’s third row finally has some serious competition.
Also enhanced considerably are levels of quality and sophistication. There’s no doubt that the ambience and feeling of luxury have taken a big step forward and that’s mainly down to the fresh, modern design of the cabin. The sweep of the dash is stunning and the manner in which the highlights and surfaces blend is extremely eye-catching. The top of the dash, for example, flows over the instrument cluster in a wave, the central console appears to weave in and out of the dash and Toyota’s engineers have combined wooden surfaces, brushed aluminium and metallic brackets with devastating effectiveness. There’s even a fantastic layering effect at work on the dash, with multiple steps and surfaces clearly visible. Even the door pads look like they belong on more expensive cars, the hidden door handles a neatly executed feature.
As with many executive-class cars, the new Innova gets a large touchscreen as well as a vertical display in between the instruments. This top-of-the-line car gets a smart key, bands of blue ambient lighting, folding tables for the second row and a slick climate control system for the second row. There’s masses of stowage too. The medium-sized gloveboxes are supported by a large elbow box, there’s plenty of space for bottles of all sizes and shapes in the central console and various door pockets, and there are a few USB slots and 12V converters as well.
While the design of the dash looks good enough to pass muster on something like a Camry, overall quality levels are actually more Corolla-like. There are, however, some truly well-crafted items like the multi-element steering wheel, the high quality central console and the beautifully finished seats. But this is a Toyota and that means the accountant’s scalpel always rears its head. The glovebox is made of hard plastic and rattles a bit when open, some plastics in the lower half of the centre console are clearly low rent and the quality of the vents should have been even better, especially considering just how much people run these cars.
Still, there are plenty of clever bits. There’s a fair amount of luggage space in the rear even with three rows up, a nice luggage net in the back and even space to place the centre headrest for the third row.
Setting off into Jakarta traffic is similar to ‘seamlessly’ merging with traffic back home – you have to spot a gap, shoot for it and then quickly judge if it is too tight to wedge yourself in or not. This leap of faith is sometimes a bit nerve-wracking in something as large as the Innova. Luckily, the gearbox and engine respond when I put my foot down, and we are soon on our way, nicely slotted into the flow.
I’m soon jostling for space with the locals in the stop-start traffic. I initially pay attention to how responsive the engine is and am busy judging the length of the car. But then, I notice, the hydraulic steering is inordinately heavy. It does improve as I go faster, but at low speeds, it feels downright weighty. So much so, I need to recalibrate how much effort I need to put in when parking. And that’s not it, the new Innova feels much larger from behind the wheel. It feels wider at the front, a little less keen to change direction than the earlier car, and isn’t nearly as friendly or as agile in traffic as the current car. And this is likely to be missed in India.
Overall ride quality, however, is even better than the current car. There is a layer of firmness at low speed. At city speeds, some amount of the pockmarked surface does filter in. Bumps are soaked up better as speeds rise though, the larger and heavier Innova smothering broken bits of road better. And ride is even flatter than the current car. There’s less bobbing, and pitching is also almost nonexistent, and that’s despite the greater front and rear overhang – impressive.
Stability at speed is even better. This is well demonstrated on the wide, open intercity highways we encounter. Despite speeds rising over 160kph in places, the new Innova remains plated to the road, with no hint of nerves from the chassis or steering system. It even responds to the steering well, changing lanes in one solid fluid motion, so slop, no sway encountered.
Even high speed corners are tackled with plenty of confidence. There is a bit of body roll, but apart from that, the new Innova tracks true and provides the driver plenty of confidence – and that’s something that will be appreciated on our increasingly faster highways.
The new Innova isn’t as agile as the current car in tighter corners, though. This is not a car you want to flick from one lock to the other; something I discover while driving over some lonely mountain roads on the outskirts of the city. The Innova rolls more than a fair bit around tight corners and so I’m not too comfortable attacking a series of bends at speed. What’s good is that this is communicated through: “slow down, I’m not enjoying this”, the car seems to say. And you do.
That said, a big improvement over the earlier car is performance. The new 2.4 diesel makes around 50bhp more than the current car at 147bhp, and the Innova, as a result, has a greater spring in its step. This is easily detectable every time I put my foot down, be it in traffic or out on the open road. There is a bit of lag from the variable nozzle turbo, and the bottom end is nowhere as direct or as strong as the current car, but the six-speed automatic gearbox and engine work so well together, the lag is well masked. This allows it to make up gaps in traffic quite easily, the muscular midrange of the engine coming in quite strongly and carrying the Innova away on a wave of torque. Even part throttle responses are much stronger and this lends an air of effortlessness to the Innova – something sorely lacking in the current car. And it even feels reasonably quick when you drive it flat out, the engine pulling all the way to 4500rpm.
What makes the whole experience much nicer is the quick-shifting and responsive automatic gearbox, which I find works well both in manual and automatic modes. And the three driving modes it has work well too. ‘Eco’ has enough power to be useable in city traffic without causing loads of frustration, ‘Normal’ is good enough for most situations and ‘Power’ delivers so much midrange punch, it actually is quite fun to drive.
Refinement isn’t great, though. Yes, it is pretty silent at cruising speeds and then the engine is pretty smooth too. But there is some clatter at idle, it gets vocal under load and feels strained and gruff past 3500rpm.
A NEW DAWN
The new Innova is a huge step forward for Toyota. This is because this is not just a new Innova, but an all-new type of Innova. More comfortable and luxurious on the inside, it is larger, better equipped and more attractive. And what it does effectively is blur the lines between practical transport and personal mobility. Even performance, an old weakness, is pretty strong. Yes, the steering is a bit heavy and engine refinement should have been better, but there’s just no denying this is a whole lot more car here. Question is, will car buyers be willing to pay the 15 or 20 percent more that Toyota is likely to charge for around 20 or 30 percent more car?
And should travelers who hire the Innova be willing to pay that 15 or 20 percent more for the greater comfort and luxury on offer? The answer, in brief, is yes – it’s that big a step forward. Sure, the Innova is initially likely to be struck by sticker shock and this could mean a slow start, but eventually sales will ramp up as customers appreciate the elevated positioning and the altered goals. And then, the taxi operators with their slavish adherence to a brand will pitch in. That’s Toyota’s plan at least; let’s wait and watch.