Chevrolet Optra vs Toyota Corolla - Hot pursuit

Who would have thought it would come to this? Indeed, one would scarcely imagine that makers of mighty Corvettes and Camaros would resort to selling cars with Asian origin in India. But that’s exactly what’s happening now. It seems General Motors owns, or at least has substantial stakes in, about half of all car companies that exist in this world. From amongst the respective line-ups of those companies, GM has decided to pick and choose the most appropriate cars for India, and inexplicably enough, sell them under the aegis of the Chevrolet brand name. Why Chevrolet? Far as I know, Chevy is still very US-specific, and the name is of little relevance outside America. Thanks to televised motorsport and various popular computer games, those with even a passing interest in automobiles might just be familiar with Japanese names like Subaru (whose Forester is also being sold as a Chevy here), or European brands like Peugeot and Citroen, but Chevrolet? And why isn’t GM selling its new cars as Opels? Isn’t Opel an already established brand name in India?

Since it’s beyond a non-MBA like me to fathom the mysteries of GM brand management, let’s talk about the car itself. The Optra started life as a Daewoo Nubira and was developed in Europe and built at Kunsan, Korea, where Bijoy even drove one, back in 1997. We’ll skip the long-winded and often-repeated story of how Daewoo then got into all kinds of trouble and how GM bought them out and put them back in the reckoning. Bottomline is, the new car is really a Pininfarina-designed Daewoo that was all set to go when the chaebol went under. The car, code-named J-200, is sold as the Daewoo Lacetti in Korea, the GM-Daewoo Nubira in some parts of Europe, the Suzuki Verona in the US, and as a Chevrolet Optra here. Regardless of what aspersions that might be cast upon its lineage, the Optra is not a bad car. Which is why we decided to compare it to nothing less than the Corolla, which looks set to repeat its world-wide success in India. Can the Optra hoist a decent challenge? Let’s see.

Gran Turismo
Stylewise, the Optra has the Pininfarina name going for it. If you ignore the rather brutish Enzo, you’d agree that people who design Ferraris can’t do too badly after all. The Optra’s rather wedgy, slab-sided styling isn’t nondescript like some of the Japanese competition, and the rear three-quarter looks somewhat Vectra-inspired. The stance is let down by 14-inch wheels that look a mite small for the car, and fail to fill out its substantial wheelarches. But overall, the Optra’s looks are easy on the eye. The test car’s metallic-brown paint was none too flattering, but other shades – silver and blue especially – do look good on the car. And just in case you forgot this was a Chevy, there are gold-coloured Chevrolet bow-ties all over.

The Corolla is, at best, ordinary looking. It manages to avoid being Camry-bland, but looks contemporary in a gimmicky sort of way. Headlamps and taillamps are a bit over-wrought, and the cab-forward styling is not to everyone’s tastes. That said, its lines are inoffensive, and the 15-inch alloys look rather good. We’d say the Optra edges ahead in the looks department, but only just.
Optra: ****
Corolla:  ***

Vice City
Inside, the Optra LT (luxury variant) is a pleasant place to be. GM has tried to make the cabin look as plush as possible, and it hasn’t done too badly. Seats (no power assistance here) covered in tan leather, are roomy and comfortable, and leg space is adequate. The top-end Optra LT did have an adjustable steering wheel, and ergonomics shouldn’t be a problem for most. In keeping with Chevrolet’s ‘new name in luxury’ positioning, the cabin has lashings of wood-effect, brushed-metal-effect, and beige plastic. Instrumentation is straightforward and simple, and personally, I found little wrong with the scheme of things. Srinivas Krishnan, our resident music fanatic, fell in love with the 5-CD-changer that sits right up front on the dash, and subjected me to an endless Judas Priest / Iron Maiden / Deep Purple session. At least he shared the chocolates he bought, and didn’t insist on keeping the Optra’s sunroof (yes, it has one and is electrically operated) open.

Apart from the missing sunroof (thank God for that), things were only slightly different in the Japanese car. The test car, a 1.8J, was the base version Corolla, hence no leather and no CD player, but the cloth upholstery used was nice enough, and in my opinion, cloth is anyway more appropriate than leather, for our hot climes. Like with the Optra, the Corolla did not have power adjustments on its seats, though the steering was adjustable. Devoid of “wood” and “metal”, the 1.8J’s dash looks rather austere when compared with the Optra LT’s, but controls are equally well laid out, all instrumentation is extremely legible, and ergonomics are beyond reproach. Those who miss the leather and fake wood can always opt for the more expensive 1.8E, which also has a 6-CD-changer and automatic climate control. When it comes to interiors, no car seemed to have a distinct advantage over the other, so we’ll call it a draw.
Optra: ***
Corolla:  ***

Test Drive -II
Performance is quite a Corolla strong point, and its VVT-i powerplant really can burst with the best. So, would the Optra stand any chance at all? Actually, on paper at least, it doesn’t seem so far off from the Toyota’s numbers. The Optra comes with a 1799 CC inline-four which makes 115 horsepower, and 15.9 kgm of torque. These figures are only 10 horsepower and 0.2 kgm off the Corolla’s numbers. In the jazzy acronym competition too, the Chevrolet has a “D-TEC” (I’ll admit to not knowing what D-TEC means or does...) to the Toyota’s “VVT-i”, so all is not lost. Floor the throttle, and the Optra goes from 0 to 60 kph in 4.31 seconds, and to 100 kph in 10.46. These times are off the Corolla’s by 0.21 and 2.40 seconds respectively, but given that the Japanese car makes 10 bhp more, and weighs 105 kilos less (the Optra’s kerb weight is 1265 kg, whereas the Corolla weighs in at 1160 kg), that was to be expected. The Optra’s gearshift is a bit slow and balks when you try to swap ratios quickly, which probably also hurts the Optra’s times. Not that the Corolla’s gearshift is remarkably good, but more on that later. 

What the numbers don’t say emphatically enough is how different the two cars feel from the driver’s seat. Right from the word go, the Optra feels calmer, more relaxed, and even laid back. Its responses don’t feel as frenzied as the Corolla’s, and its controls are more deliberate, with a studied slowness to them. If the cars were human, the Optra would yawn, look around, have a coffee, and smoke a cigarette. It would then get up slowly, put a friendly arm around your shoulder and ask you if you were ready to leave. It would even make sure you were carrying your favourite CDs and a bag of snacks with you, before the two of you left. “All in good time dude, we’ll get there. What’s the hurry?” would be the Optra’s refrain. The human Corolla would wink at you, tug at your shirt sleeve, and in a breathless whisper, say “what are we waiting for?! Let’s leave!” And believe me, if you love driving, you wouldn’t be able to resist. It’s not that the Optra is dull, it’s just that the Corolla’s engine has so much more verve. In terms of engine performance, the Corolla wins hands down, and the difference between it and the Chevrolet is bigger than what mere numbers would have you believe.  
Optra: ***
Corolla:  ****

Road rage
On the chassis side, things are more evenly matched, though the Optra’s ride felt more composed and comfortable. The Optra very much takes surface irregularities in its stride, and makes every effort to isolate its occupants from getting unduly buffeted around while travelling on bad roads. Push it hard in corners, and the Optra will make it amply clear that that kind of driving is not its mission in life. At the limit, the Optra starts wallowing a fair bit, and is not as confidence-inspiring as, say, an Octavia. Its 185/65 Hankook Optimos don’t offer as much gum as I would have liked, and to make things worse, the car’s brakes (discs at front, drums at the back) felt quite soggy. When braking from high speeds, the pedal goes a long way in before the car starts slowing down, which can be disconcerting to say the least. Hmm..., time to put discs on those rear wheels as well, perhaps. And ABS too, if you please.

The Corolla doesn’t get ABS either, but its all-wheel disc brakes feel much sharper and more powerful than the Optra’s anchors. Mash the centre pedal from high speeds, and the Corolla’s 195/60 Bridgestone Potenzas throw up plumes of smoke as the car comes to a halt in a straight line. After the Optra, the Corolla initially feels friskier and easier to unsettle, but once you get used to its lively handling, you begin to enjoy it much more than the Optra. It allows you to rev harder and faster, push deeper into bends, brake later, and get back on the throttle sooner. However, two things about the Corolla which I didn’t like so much were, one, the car’s tendency to waver and weave at 180 kph and above, and two, the fact that the gearshift doesn’t have a very crisp, ‘mechanical’ feel to it.

Optra: ***
Corolla:  ***

You must be wondering why we compared a top end Optra to a base version Corolla, right? Well, as always, pricing must come into the equation. And as always, it has the power to change, or at least modify, the verdict. The Optra is priced right – Rs 8.24 lakhs for the base version, and Rs 9.24 lakhs (ex-showroom, Mumbai) for the ‘luxury’ variant, the Optra LT which we tested. In Mumbai, the Corolla starts at Rs 9.83 lakhs for the poverty-spec version (the one we tested), which goes up all the way to Rs 11.36 lakhs for the one with all the bells and whistles. Any which way you look at it, that’s a big difference. To sum up quickly, the Corolla’s styling looks a bit gawky, and the pricing is a bit steep. Offsetting those are a brilliant engine, lively performance, strong brakes, and the legendary Toyota reputation for longevity and reliability. Those who love cars and enjoy driving will probably see a potential partner in crime every time they walk up to their Corolla. When it comes to pure performance and sheer driving pleasure, the Japanese car can’t be beat. But for those who are happy travelling at less than all-out pace most of the time, or let their chauffeur do most of the driving, the Optra is a solid value-for-money package that deserves a close look before you decide. And take note, there is an even cheaper, chauffeur-spec, 1600 CC Optra on its way, which should make things even tougher for the competition. 

So what is our verdict? It’s a tough one, and it’s performance and superior quality vs brilliant value and lots of car. Terrible though it may sound, it is a tie.

Optra: ****
Corolla:  ****


Let us cut to the chase. If you are the sort who is looking for an upgrade from the run-of-the- mill City - Lancer league then no doubt the Chevrolet Optra is  your next car. Look at it this way – you save Rs 1 lakh when you buy a top-spec Optra over the base model Corolla and for that money you can get close to 30,000 km of motoring (at 10 kpl and at Rs 35 per litre). And guess what? You also get a two year service holiday. So for the difference between the buying price of these two cars, you get free motoring for two full years (at 15,000 km per year). GMI has certainly got the measure of Toyota in this game.

But if you were driving a City VTEC for that rev-happy engine or even a Lancer SFX for the WRC image, you will be happy plonking your million rupees plus on the Corolla. Any Corolla for that matter, since it is the VVT-i engine and nothing else that you are on the lookout for. It is quicker and faster and has the right shoes and deceleration prowess to go with it. Overall lightweight build will help you stretch that litre but that also means slightly twitchy handling. Not a problem if you are in sync with the car. 

The motoring enthusiast in me can’t see beyond the damn good engine in the Toyota but the motoring journalist in me can’t miss the value that Chevrolet represents.
– Bijoy Kumar Y