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Toyota Innova D4-Diesel

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Our PET track has seen many a great battle and they have seldom included a van. But when we assembled a few cars for a Performance Evaluation Track test, the Innova came along, pretending to be a camera car. Between the attack sessions which saw the new Mondeo challenge the Accord, I decided to use my editorial rights and take the Innova for a spin... yes, around a track meant for quick and fast cars. And what a revelation it turned out to be. Alright, it did not return a time that could embarrass 140-plus bhp sedans, but it was not all that far away. Before you ask, let me tell you our test car drank diesel. 

More than the performance on offer from the D-4D common-rail direct injection diesel, what was surprising was the way the Innova tackled the three-digit lane change manoeuvres, fiercely took on the fast slalom run and braked to a halt with vengeance at designated ‘zero’ spots. It was difficult to believe that this machine weighed a tonne and a half, had power going to its rear wheels and answered to the name ‘van’ most of the time. You see, the Innova makes you think that it is a car and we will deal with this ‘illusion’ later in the road test report.

Looks and design
In my apartment parking lot, the Innova looked like a mothership and the assortment of commuter cars around it mere shiplings. Now listen to me, this is a big vehicle. Yes, it is bigger than the Qualis, the Sumo, the Tavera and the Scorpio. It looks like the Qualis jokes have hit home and the result is a replacement that is two generations ahead. Front-on it is very much car-like, thanks to the adventurous headlamp treatment, grille that just about manages a smile and the recessed bonnet treatment. In profile, the blandness made famous by Toyota over the years creeps in, but look closely and you can see a few subtle strokes of design flourish over the wheel arches. The quarter-glass treatment is  actually effective – unlike in the City and the Getz – when it comes to visibility (read active safety) and makes the body stronger (read passive safety). The five-spoke alloys on the top end model looked swank but the tyres still look inadequate. The only glamorous bit about the tail are large, wraparound taillamps. Toyota designers have somehow made the car look sophisticated despite the bulk and as a segment creator the design succeeds. Good!
Looks: ****

Interior and driving comfort
My previous stint with the Innova was at a factory test track, but this time around, I managed to live with it. Honestly, I felt guilty driving alone to work in a van with six vacant seats. So much so that I contemplated taking passengers from bus stops. And then the ghost of the Qualis caught up with me. ‘Really,’ the ghost said, ‘don’t you think I was better in traffic? My clutch was lighter, right? And my steering easier? And tell me, wasn’t I easier to park?’ Unfortunate it may sound, but the ghost was right on all counts. The Qualis, though it didn’t say much about the owner the way it looked, was an easier compatriot in commuter games. 

Here I was driving the behemoth gingerly, scared of small openings in traffic, minding my wing-mirrors (that almost crushed the thoracic region of a toll assistant), and taking fifteen minutes longer for my daily commute. I appreciated the space and comfort but still. So what went wrong? 

Nothing, as my weekend run proved. When exposed to a long stretch, it became relaxed and almost a sedan in its manners. The Innova has the space and feel of a Camry, the driving position of a Land Cruiser and the long distance manners of a train. This car is bliss when you have to cover long distances and I can already picture happy people emerging fresh at Goa after a ten-hour, 600-km drive from Mumbai. Yes, the gearing makes the engine a tad too busy even at cruising speeds but that is something you can live with. Seats are extremely comfortable and aircon quite efficient (summer has not started yet, still). The audio system that supports MP3 is a boon – though the speakers were nothing short of a disgrace to the whole package (or so says my audiophile friend).
Interior and driving comfort: ****

Powertrain and performance
Back to the test track then. The Innova is not a pretty girl who is always willing to dance, and spirited acceleration runs are obliged rather than jumped at. We clocked a 6.75 second run to 60 kph and 17.1 seconds to 100 kph – not exactly pulse quickening stuff, yet it cannot be termed disgraceful either. The 0-100 kph run was marred because the Innova requires a shift to third gear at 95 kph before it crosses the century mark. Overtaking in the Innova is easier than, say in the Tavera, thanks to more usable mid-range thrust. No, it does not feel very quick, just that it has got adequate thrust to dismiss slow moving traffic. We managed to max out the Innova at 150 kph with a bit of help from wind and a slope! As said before, the motor feels and sounds a bit busy at cruising speeds and maybe Toyota will address this issue with the help of more spaced out gearing. The aerodynamic shape (for a van) ensures that the Innova returns a best of  14 kpl on highways and a consistent 11 kpl even in dense city traffic with the aircon running. That is an astounding figure for a car of its size and better than any comparable SUV or UV.
Powertrain and performance: ****

Ride and handling
You cannot fault the Innova for its ride quality – it performed admirably well on our tests on and off the road. The big machine just didn’t care about the terrain it was traversing. This is text-book stuff for those Indian carmakers who are still struggling to contain body roll on their SUVs. The four-link rear suspension setup is not rocket science, but a big leap from the leaf spring days. Those who remember the early Qualis that bottomed out on every speed breaker will know what I am referring to. 

My first impression (BSM, Found in Translation, April 2005) of the Innova’s handling was very good. But after living with the car and driving it on various terrain, I have slightly altered my view. In that story, I had stated that the Innova can be thrown around corners like a car. You can do that all right, but now I would like to add, ‘as long as you don’t forget that it is not a car.’ You see, there are certain things a modern day car with monocoque construction and independent suspension can do that a modern day van that is built on a chassis and with rear wheel drive cannot. As the speeds go up and corners get either acute/dirty, there are chances of the rear end stepping out. And if you are not used to classic rear-wheel drive/oversteer situations, then you may find the Innova a handful to control. In short, drive it like a van or an SUV, and not like a proper car. That said, as I told you in the first paragraph in this story, you can have fun with it if you play by the rules. 

Also it is important to note that vehicles such as the Innova handle differently with different loads, so it is important that you take it easy when on that long drive with the entire office for company.
Ride and handling:***

Verdict
Forget the base version that has no power steering. And forget the top-end version that is so loaded that it has its very own moon. The Innova that makes sense to the family man who wants an alternative to a car costs around Rs 8.5 lakh, but it unfortunately won’t come with airbags and ABS. Full marks to Toyota for introducing such safety kit for the first time in this league. The Innova is a brilliantly conceived vehicle that transcends segment boundaries and one that appeals to a very large set of people. As I write this, Toyota dealers have orders for more than 8,000 units and it looks like they have a runaway success story on their hands. It may not serve the taxi trade well, but it may serve many an Indian who is discovering the excitement of travel. Do we recommend a buy? A resounding ‘yes’ if you have people to ferry. Buy a Corolla instead if you want rapid inter-city transport on a day-to-day basis.