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New Toyota Corolla Altis India first drive, review

“Reborn” proclaimed Toyota at the 2011 Tokyo motor show. Take one look at the aggressive design of the new Corolla and it is apparent that the infusion of fun, excitement and emotion at Toyota is well underway.

Just a glance at the new Toyota and you will wonder whether this really is a Corolla. Its Lexus-like looks are very striking and handsome. Its muscular proportions and cuts and creases give it a very stylish yet athletic look. A longer wheelbase makes the car look low and 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 Corolla has changed under the skin as well. Although it is based on the previous generation Corolla, it has undergone far-reaching alterations. The new chassis is considerably stiffer, the centre of gravity of the car has been lowered and also uses a 100mm longer wheelbase. The longer wheelbase translates almost entirely into extra leg room at the rear. You get 92mm more knee room than in the earlier Corolla. The backseat continues to impress with excellent thigh support and a supportively shaped backrest. Now, there is also the option of reclining the seat back angle for a more relaxed posture. The absence of a central tunnel makes sitting three abreast comfortable.

 The design of the 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 The earlier ‘T-type’ dashboard and central console have been replaced by a more visually interesting layered dash.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 centre band of the dashboard is finished in beige on the Indian cars. And chrome strips have been added to make it look more attractive. 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 Altis is well equipped with a touchscreen music system, telephony, a reversing camera, illuminated cup holders and a reading lamp for rear passengers. Rain sensing wipers and brake assist are also included in there. 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 Skoda Octavia or Hyundai Elantra.
 Under the hood, there is Toyota’s long-serving 1.8 petrol engine which now boasts 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.

On the test drive, only the CVT-equipped versions were available. It now features steering-mounted paddle shifts and the ratios have also been tweaked for better response. The paddles add a greater sense of control  and excitement to the driving experience. A light tap results in quick and prompt gear changes. This works well when looking to change the pace by just a notch or two. Ask for anything more demanding and the powertrain feels strained and stretched as it pushes on.

On the diesel front, Toyota continues with the tiny 87bhp 1.4 turbo diesel. Despite a variable geometry turbo there is a fair amount of lag and you need to work the six-speed gearbox to keep it in a rhythm. The motor peaks at 2500rpm and feels comfortable till about 3800rpm. Pushing it beyond this causes the engine to become quite vocal without a proportional change in pace
 On the dynamics front, the steering is more responsive. 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 soft and at highway speeds, it didn’t feel as planted as expected over bumpy patches. 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 VW Jetta and new Skoda 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. It softens the blow from potholes and bumps beautifully with just the rear bobbing lightly over.
 First, “Fun to drive, again”? Not quite. The experience behind the wheel is hampered by motors that are dated when compared to the hi-tech competition and despite being more engaging to drive than the outgoing car, the Corolla doesn’t have the thoroughly planted European feel yet. However, the new Corolla partly fulfils Akio Toyoda’s promise, with an emotional design and equipment levels while  boosting its traditional values of comfort, reliability and efficiency.

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