Not another hatchback comparison!’ I hear you say. Well, girls and boys, the truth of the matter is that hatchbacks drive the Indian car market, and the addition of another one is always fairly big news. The Toyota Etios Liva is not just another hatchback, however – it’s probably been the most anticipated car in this space for a while now. The buzz began almost as soon as Toyota announced that it intended to develop a small car for the Indian market, and never mind the fact that it’s taken five years for the Etios, in either iteration, to actually hit shelves. A made-for-India hatchback from Toyota, masters of reliability, good value and competence? It sounded like it was almost too good to be true, but here the Liva is in the flesh, after a delayed launch due to the tsunami in Japan. Naturally, we had to go and find out how it fares against its immediate competition – read on to see whether the Liva, er, lives up to its billing.
FROM THE OUTSIDE
Let’s start with the newest entrant first. It’s clear upon first glance that the Etios looks much better in hatch form than as a sedan. Indeed, in the top of the line VX variant, it’s among the best looking hatches you can buy, especially in this shade of electric blue. The nose is exactly the same as the Etios sedan, but everything behind the B-pillar is all its own. The Liva isn’t beautiful in the conventional sense, unlike, say, the Fiat Punto – in fact, it’s a little on the gawky side. However, it manages to put its design elements together rather well, resulting in a car that looks like a hopped-up, boy-racer hatch from Thailand; the body kit on the VX variant, along with the nifty alloys and larger tyres, chiefly contribute to this effect.
The Figo’s problem is that it looked a generation old when it was launched, mainly because it was based on the previous generation Fiesta. There’s really nothing wrong with it, per se – it has a nice, planted stance, those headlights are pretty sharp looking and its lines are neat and uncluttered. It looks typically European and solid, to its credit, and in a bright red or lime green, it’s actually quite a fresh-looking car. In this company, it manages to hold its own reasonably well.
This brings us to the Walter Da Silva-designed Polo, which is the best looking car here. There’s something about the way that it manages to combine both good looks and inoffensiveness; it’s definitely a car that you’ll turn back to look at after having parked it. The air-dam looks great, and its waistline and wheel arches subtly accentuate its otherwise ‘safe’ design. The rear end is, arguably, a bit bland, but as an overall design, the Polo works very well.
The Liva whups the other cars hollow in terms of interior space, first off. If you’ve sat inside the Etios sedan, you won’t find much of a difference in the hatch, despite a wheelbase that’s down by 90 mm. With the driver’s and front passenger seats pushed all the way back, there’s still enough leg room for the rear passengers (with better headroom than the sedan) and three adults can sit in comfort at the back – the flat floor and low transmission tunnel help immensely in this regard. The quality of the cabin is another matter, though – quite frankly, it’s a bit shocking to see a Toyota-badged car with interiors like this. The plastics are noticeably cheaper and poorer than the Figo and Polo, both to look at and to touch, as are the other materials used. In our test car, the plastic around the ignition was misaligned; it literally had to be slapped back into place. You’re never in any doubt that the Liva’s been built to a cost, which isn’t a very good thing, as far as I’m concerned.
The Liva is very spacious, comfortable and practical, nevertheless, which are qualities a lot of buyers look for. In terms of features, the VX-trim Liva is quite loaded – you get steering-mounted audio controls, a nice, flat-bottomed steering wheel, a DVD-based audio system (although what you’ll do with one is another matter, since there isn’t a screen in sight) with USB and AUX connectors, twin airbags, ABS and a huge, cooled glovebox.
The Figo is a lot better than the Liva in terms of overall quality of materials used; indeed, it has quite a cheerful cabin, especially if you opt for the red treatment on the dashboard. The Titanium trim comes nicely loaded, with a Bluetooth-enabled stereo system, twin airbags, ABS and a powered ORVM adjuster, which is very well placed and allows easy use. The seats are adequately comfortable, although there’s a lack of back and head support at the rear, and rear leg room is rather good, although not in the Liva league.
The Polo presents you with an intriguing mix. On the one hand, it has the least features of the cars here – the top-end Polo doesn’t offer USB or AUX, Bluetooth, vanity mirrors or a powered ORVM adjuster. Its steering wheel is rather thin to hold, and it really needs a leather-wrapped unit. It feels Spartan compared to the other two, therefore – but, strangely enough, it also has the best cabin of the lot. The Polo tops the Figo and Liva in the areas of quality of materials used and build quality; it’s the one cabin in which you immediately feel a sense of solidity and security, and it feels like it’ll last a long time. The Polo has, additionally, the least rear leg room here, but as a trade-off it also has the most hatch space.
GO FOR IT
All these cars have 1.2-litre petrol engines, so they’re not exactly ’bahn stormers; still, each has its own strengths. The Liva comes with a buzzy 4-cylinder, 78.9 bhp, 10.6 kgm engine, which is par for the course in this league, but it has one significant advantage – it’s the lightest car in its class, at 920 kg, so the engine has to haul less metal. Even so, performance isn’t exactly shattering, because the engine and transmission have been tuned primarily for efficiency; still, as a city driveabout, the Liva scores some important points. The car is easy to drive, with light controls and a fairly precise, hydraulically-assisted steering that weights up quite nicely at higher speeds. Out on the highway, the car’s light weight can be a disadvantage in windy conditions, since it gets buffeted about in crosswinds. The car gets to 140+ kph and then begins to run out of steam, and if you’re going up a hill road, you’ll need to downshift in order to keep the Liva moving at a decent pace. In this company, however, it has the best powertrain and, combined with a smoothly-shifting gearbox, it’s the nicest to drive.
In terms of ride and handling, the Liva sits safely in the middle of sportiness and comfort. The MacPherson strut/torsion beam suspension delivers a pleasing mix of plushness and neutral handling, with bumps being soaked up nicely; there is a certain amount of body roll around corners, however, and hard braking tends to make the nose dive, but all told the Liva is a car that will satisfy all but the most finicky of enthusiasts.
The Figo puts out 70 bhp and 10.4 kgm from its 4-cylinder engine, which is the least powerful among these three cars. It offers reasonably sprightly performance (it’s a shade quicker to 100 kph than the Polo) but the trade-off is that you have to be in the right gear and dial in the right amount of revs; if you don’t follow this rule, you’ll find yourself being bogged down in the Figo, which suffers from a lack of low-end shove; this, combined with its lower power-to-weight ratio, can be a drawback if you want to make rapid progress. In most cases, though, and in everyday city conditions, the Figo offers adequate performance, and it has a really nice gearshift action.
Ford knows its suspensions, so the Figo is a very well balanced hatch, with plenty of steering feel, a good amount of grip around corners and very little roll. Stick a 1.6-litre engine in this car and it’ll be a proper little firecracker! The Polo has one less cylinder than the other two cars, and this shows in its relative lack of refinement – it’s fairly noisy and clattery from the outside, although it has to be said that NVH levels are quite well controlled within the cabin. With 74 bhp and 11.2 kgm coming out of its 3-cylinder engine, the Polo sits in the middle of the performance stakes; for a three pot, it’s quite eager and easy to drive, both in the city and on the highway, but it’s the slowest car here in terms of outright acceleration. Top speed is around 155 kph, which is again in the ballpark in this class,
and the gearbox has the best feel among the three.
The Veedub’s got the best ride and handling characteristics of this lot. It has a superb combination of low and high speed ride and handling, with a suspension that is firm enough to make it a taut performer around corners, yet pliant enough to deliver a comfortable ride. The steering, although rather thin to hold, is nicely weighted and the general body dynamics and control are exceptionally good.
The Liva has the best engine in this group, is the easiest to drive (if not the most fun), has the most comfortable and spacious cabin and is a very practical city car, which is let down rather drastically by the quality of its interiors. The Figo offers superb value for your money and is a sorted vehicle. The Polo, however, is still the car to buy – it’s built like a tank, has the best materials and plastics in its cabin, looks great, makes you feel more special and safe than in the other two cars and offers the best combination of ride and handling of the lot. Our COTY, therefore, remains king of the hill – but let’s wait for the all-new Swift to make things really interesting, shall we?