Is there a concept called the Made-for-India car? Apart from the ultra low-cost car segment, aren't buyers in India becoming homogenous with their global counterparts?
Apparently not! And, most definitely not in all the segments.
After being amongst the first few companies to enter the Indian automotive space, Toyota has been the last to enter the mass market segment here. Toyota frustrated many of its constituents along the way, because it seemed to be delaying its foray into the small car segment, despite having a considerably large share of mass market cars to dip into in its portfolio worldwide.
But, that exactly would have been the reason why it would have been a half measure to just pick out one of its existing cars, like the Yaris, for launch in India. Coming from Toyota, the much-delayed mass market car just couldn't have been one of those because it would have neither fit the price segment nor would the car have truly satisfied the needs and expectations of buyers here.
So, Toyota engineers designed and developed the Etios sedan from scratch, meticulously building into it all the major expectations of the Indian entry sedan buyer, as a prelude to which Yoshinori Noritake, the chief engineer of Toyota's Etios project, is said to have personally interviewed potential buyers to understand their needs. The result is the Etios, a sedan that many are going to drub as being drab, of being too Indian, but will still end up considering because it is a Toyota and because of its overall practicality. So, what is the ‘Indianness' that the Etios comes with apart from the ‘Teekha' in its logo?
“I want design which is smart, but is not intimidating”
Toyota's designs are inherently simple. There are rarely, if ever, vehicle designs that can be considered aggressive or over the board. It just gets protracted in the Etios because of the perceived conservatism amongst Indian buyers. And so, for example, while its design rather simplistically attempts to give the Etios an appealing front, with a smiling bonnet grille design, it also focuses substantially on practicality.
Large headlamps capable of lighting up the road ahead and large tail-lamps to ensure good visibility for vehicles at the rear, a simple, straight shoulder line design that ensures large glass area and better natural illumination inside the passenger cabin, and to improve the overall look of strength Toyota engineers have also added a large airdam at the front and well-defined, muscular wheel arches.
Yes, there has been and is bound to be more feedback about the Etios looking very similar, especially from the rear, to a competing car in the market. But, evidently that has not been a deterrent to the huge number of initial customers that have booked the car. One of the lessons that Toyota must have learnt from the Qualis experience is that there is a general distrust for high-brow design amongst entry-level sedan buyers and amongst institutional (read taxi) buyers. The perception that still seems to exist is that a design excess potentially leads to expensive maintenance.
The Etios strikes a balance that is unique and will keep the buyer happy, though it may not help him get an above average share of stares.
“I want a car with small a foot print, but with lots of space”
Liberating extra space inside a car, within the confines of its exterior dimensions is a science that few have mastered. The Etios is a pretty good example of this kind of leverage. Though its wheelbase is almost identical to that of competing cars such as the Volkswagen Vento, and is a little lesser than the Fiat Linea, there is a feeling of more space inside the cabin of the Etios.
Toyota engineers have integrated a few features that further liberate space inside the sedan. The first of these is designing almost straight door panels that enable them to keep the door trim intrusion into the cabin to the minimum. This then ensures that there is more shoulder room for passengers. The other feature that liberates more space is the elimination of the central drivetrain tunnel that has enabled them to offer a flat floor at the rear. A very practical feature in the Indian context where often saree-clad passengers are trying to get off the car from one side only since the car is parked too close to a wall or another car.
The seats in the Etios sedan also feature a thin construction, providing more legroom for rear passengers. Yes, this also means that the seat squabs are thinner and together with the cloth upholstery don't offer the kind of support that you get in the premium sedan segment.
The rear passenger bench in the Etios sedan is also positioned to perfectly merge with the edge of the rear door, making entry and exit easy. Toyota designers also seemed to have worked on ensuring that there is ample luggage room inside the boot of the sedan – a whole 595 litres of it.
“I want the interiors to be novel, but more importantly they should be practical”
Practical interiors in the Indian context means that the air-conditioner should perform excellently even during peak summer, there should be lots of storage space and there should be convenience features for the rear passenger, who is often the owner.
The Etios' interior features a simple, centre console heavy dashboard layout. The central air-con vents are stacked one on top of the other to possibly ensure better cold airflow to the rear. The vent fins are a simple slatted ball and socket design that is easy to adjust. Controls are all within easy reach for the driver and feel sturdy to hold and adjust.
There a huge amount of storage available – a 13-litre cooled glovebox and seven one-litre bottle holders all around the interior. A novel feature, which Toyota says is also more safe and practical, is the centrally positioned instrument console. Behind the steering wheel there are just acres of plastic to stare at. The analog instrument cluster looks cooler at night when it is backlit. Also on offer in the top-end V and VX variants is a 2-DIN music system with a remote control for use by rear passengers. A thoughtful addition is the clean-air filter for the air-con system. The top variant also gets steering mounted audio controls.
The other novelty is the steering wheel itself which features a racing car style flat or cut-away bottom. But, I wonder if the feature was also thought of to help Indians with an expansive waistline to get in and out of the car with greater ease.
Despite some of the variants getting fabric door trim and inserts to break the monotony, the interior of the Etios does feature a lot of plastic. The fit and finish quality is very good, though there is a general feel of it being an entry-sedan in terms of overall build.
“I want a car that can handle the rough and tumble of Indian roads”
One of the biggest concerns for sedan buyers is ground clearance. The Etios has enough of that at 170mm to handle the most monstrous speed breakers you'll come across. There are other difficult Indian conditions that Toyota's engineers have provided for, including the addition of anti-corrosion steel sheets at areas in the car that are prone to rusting and stone hits. There is also underbody protection to prevent damage to fuel and brake lines and also interestingly, a new type of chip resistant paint has been used on the rocker mould and fender to prevent the need for frequent touch up and repaint visits to the workshop.
Toyota engineers have also chosen large knobs or switches for two keys functions that are often overlooked by Indian car users – the use of a large oval hazard or parking light switch and the headlamp levelling knob (instead of the scrolling wheel). Hopefully these two simple safety features will be used more by Etios users.
“I want a peppy engine, but show me the money first”
The Indian car buyer is extremely value conscious and Toyota wants to show that it is acutely aware of this fact with the Etios. The integration of frugality, without compromising on its trademark quality standards, starts with the very conception of the Etios' EFC platform, which will be shared with other vehicles and will be used over a longer generation cycle. There are other features like the single windscreen wiper blade, which might have helped Toyota save costs, but as long as the buyer benefits too, he not going to be too bothered.
But, the one feature that will satisfy the Etios buyer most will be the choice of the powertrain. The brand new 2NR-FE, four-cylinder petrol engine was developed specifically for the Etios and it sure seems capable of delivering on its promise of being a frugal mill. Toyota claims that the engine will offer a ARAI rated 17.6 kmpl of mileage. After my test drive of over 400 kms with a mix of city roads, the highway and hilly terrain, I got about 15 kmpl.
The 1,496cc engine has fairly meaty performance numbers, with peak power being 90 PS at 5,600 rpm and peak torque being 132 Nm at 3,000 rpm. The key figure there is of course, the torque, which also rises up to the peak with a pretty flat curve. How does it help? There is ample torque available in every gear from very low rpm levels. It translates into fewer gear shifts, lower fuel consumption and lesser engine damage due to knocking.
For example, while on third gear, I could go down all the way to about 18 kmph and also all the way upto about 100 kmph. The engine is fairly refined too keeping down noise levels during idling and initial acceleration. The five-speed manual gearbox mated to the engine is also a good choice. Shift quality is very good, though there is a bit of play when the stick shift is in gear. The clutch feels progressive and will be both a bit accommodating of the average Indian driving style and also won't lead to driver fatigue.
After driving the Etios in Chennai, I head out on National Highway 46 towards Bangalore. The Etios' straight line stability is quite impressive. But for a mildly bouncy ride at high speeds, the car keeps its cool even at speeds of about 140kmph. Engine noise starts becoming intrusive after I cross speeds of about 125 kmph. Another feature that was helpful on the highway was the large amount of low-end torque that was available, enabling easy overtaking without the need to shift down to a lower gear slot.
To experience the Etios in a more demanding driving situation, I turn off from the Chennai-Bengaluru highway and drive towards Yelagiri. The 23 kms drive uphill has a mix of tight hair-pins and swooping hill-side turns to reach the top of this small hill town. Yelagiri looks like it has dropped out of the heavens to land in the middle of verdant fields. The Etios tackles the inviting 30-degree incline of the road with gusto and here again the torque and range available on each gear is a great help in pushing it into every corner and turn, and then pulling off quickly after that, without shifting down.
The steering is light and easy to use and though it could have been more precise, doesn't take away from its drivability overall. The suspension set up is more tuned towards offering the passengers a pliant ride. That has also meant that there is a bit of body roll, which I observed more on the hills than while driving the Etios sedan in city roads or the highway.
The Etios is being offered with four variants, which range in price from Rs 4.9 lakh to Rs 6.8 lakh. Apart from the very affordable pricing coming from Toyota, there is a lot going for this sedan. The competition is faced with a very difficult task of taking on the might of the Etios.