Just a road test of the Corolla is half the story. Here's the complete version.
When it was launched about two years ago, the Octavia single-handedly created a new segment in India. Bigger than C-segmenters like the Astra, Lancer or Baleno but smaller than ‘proper’ D-segmenters like the Accord, the Mondeo or the Sonata, the Octavia is elegantly styled, boasts good build quality and is good value for money. Until recently,competition in this relatively new ‘C+’ segment was scarce and
little-known Skoda had a rather unexpected home run with the Octavia. Things look set to change though. Goliath has decided to take on David, and the Corolla is waging war against the Octavia. Can a car, whose manufacturer hails from the former Eastern Bloc, fend off an assault from one of the largest Japanese best-sellers ever? The Octavia has been a great car, but people have great expectations of the new Corolla. So let’s put both protagonists – the Octavia 2.0 and the Corolla 1.8 E – in the ring, and let them slug it out for glory. Winner takes all...
Statement of style
The Octavia 2.0 ‘Ambiente’ could almost be the Paul Newman of cars. Quiet, sober suit, refined manner and understated good looks. There are no design affectations here – no pretentious add-ons or elements that might start looking dated next year. What we have here, instead, is purity of form and balance of proportion. The brash, yet restrained muscularity of a Nike Air Jordan. Short, stubby overhangs, a high waistline and straightforward lines mean that the car looks as good now as it did two years ago. In darker colours, the Octavia looks imposing and suitably authoritative – something which corporate types should love.
The Octavia’s interiors too follow its exterior’s line in sobriety.Our ‘Ambiente’ spec test car had after-market leather upholstery (leather being standard only on the ‘Elegance’ spec version) but fabric is standard on the Ambiente, and doesn’t look bad at all. Multiple hues of grays and blacks abound with unflinching
military discipline, and the very functional dash is a celebration of straight lines. Our test car was fitted with a six-CD-changer, though an Alpine cassette-player/FM is standard, and we are also told that new Octavias are being fitted with a single-CD player as standard equipment. Controls are all pretty much easy to operate,and someone new to the car can just get in and drive off, without first needing to spend half an hour trying to figure out what knob or button does what!
The Octavia’s seats are firm and supportive, but their dimensions have, it seems, been engineered to remind you to not forget your morning workout in the gym. That, and the rather limited legroom at the back could possibly be a concern for the more generously proportioned among us. Given that it’s a notchback, the Octavia has an advantage when it comes to boot space and at 528 litres (a full 100 litres more than the Corolla), the cavernous back end is adequate for a barrage of suitcases. Other odds and ends we noted were relatively weak headlamps (the Corolla’s lights were brilliant in comparison), lack of power adjustments on any of the seats and an aircon unit that took a long-ish time to bring temperatures down.
Style-wise, the Corolla is something of a mixed bag. First reactions amongst the Motoring team were varied – many thought the new car was about as bland as the Camry, some did not like the chrome-plated door handles and others condemned the headlamps and tail-lights as being gimmicky. Then, the Corolla also manages to pull off a rare optical illusion – it looks considerably smaller than it actually is. Most of us thought the Octavia is bigger than the Corolla, but the Japanese car is actually all of 23 mm longer and 74 mm taller. Even the wheelbase is 88 mm more than the Octavia’s, would you believe? And it doesn’t stop there – both cars ride on 15-inch wheels, but the Octavia’s wheels look bigger. Nevertheless, the Corolla’s styling grows on you. The car certainly attracted lots of attention wherever we drove it, with people asking us questions and trying to examine the car at close quarters. The Corolla does look contemporary if nothing else, though it doesn’t have as much presence as the Octavia.
Inside, the Corolla is a brighter place to be than the Octavia. Our test car, a 1.8 E, had velour upholstery, while a smattering of plastic-wood inserts on the facia and shades of cream and tan plastics had been used on the dash. All of this conspires to make the insides look somewhat American (the Yanks love beige, don’t they...?), but I am not complaining – at least it’s different from the usual grey/black combos we get on most of our cars. The car also had plush carpets, an FM/cassette-player/six-CD changer and a very effective air-conditioning unit with adjustable temperature control and an ‘Auto’ mode. As with the Octavia, the Corolla also did not have power adjustments on any of its seats but the seats themselves were comfortable enough. Legroom at the back was just about adequate, though I shudder to think of our own six-foot-two Murali K. Menon trying to get comfortable in there. Some neat little bits we noticed were powered rear-view mirrors (which fold in and out at the touch of a button), excellent illumination from the headlamps (much better than the Octavia’s units), an illuminated slot for the ignition key and six-spoke alloy wheels (the Octavia only gets pressed-steel wheels unless you opt for the ‘Elegance’ variant). Overall, the Corolla cossets its
occupants in comfort, and spending long hours in the driving seat is a pleasure.
Off the line...
The Skoda’s performance mirrors its styling – safe, solid and dependable. We have tested the car in the past, and we have always liked its rorty 1984 CC engine that puts out 110 horsepower at 5100 rpm and 16.8 kgm of torque at 4400. Rev it hard and the engine sounds like it’s set to take on all comers – and if you are wont to brawl, it will play right along. Clutch travel was somewhat long (especially when compared with the Corolla’s unit), but I liked the firm, precise five-speed gearbox which encourages speedy shifts. Launched hard from rest, the Octavia reaches 60 kph in 4.47 seconds and 100 kph in 11.53, which is not bad per se, but still quite off the Corolla’s performance numbers.
Still, though the Octavia’s mill doesn’t spool up in a manic burst of kinetic energy like the Corolla, it’s no
slouch either and takes the car all the way to a top speed of about 190 kph.Where the Octavia really shines is in the ride and handling department. The car’s four-wheel independent suspension – coil springs and anti-roll bars all around – feels taut, and slinging the car around fast bends is good fun.The steering offers much more ‘feel’ than the Corolla’s rather vague set-up, and the 195/65 Michelin Pilot Premacy tyres never threatened to let go when cornering hard – the Octavia always felt stable and planted at high speeds. And not only does the Octavia let you slice through twisties at fairly rapid pace, when the going gets too hot handle, the car is also forgiving – it deigns to accommodate ham-fisted drivers without getting them into trouble. Antics like braking hard in the middle of a fast corner (which I once had to, while coming down from Lonavala to Mumbai, to avoid a suicidal Santro driver who suddenly swerved across two lanes)
do upset the Octavia, but the car snaps back in line without much effort. For those who are inclined to push the performance envelope, the Octavia offers an adequate safety margin – there’s ABS, and airbags for both the front seat occupants. The only complaint I had was that despite ABS, the Octavia’s brakes (discs at front, drums at the back) were not up to scratch. The anti-lock circuitry cuts in too soon, and the brakes start chattering incessantly with the first hint of hard braking. The pulsing pedal, hopping wheels and squealing tyres wouldn’t really inspire much confidence in panic situations. Maybe Skoda should look at re-calibrating the ABS.
Back to the Corolla, and the first thing I must talk about is the car’s absolutely scintillating VVT-i (Variable Valve Timing - intelligent) DOHC engine. This 1794 CC unit revs up with intense urgency, delivering a frenzied 125 bhp at 6000 revs, and 16.1 kgm of torque at 4200. If you are looking for hard-edged, high-rev thrills, this is just the ticket – 0 to 60 kph takes a scant 4.10 seconds and 100 kph comes up in 8.06 – both being much better than the times posted by the heavier and less powerful Octavia. The Corolla also went all the way up to 200 kph while doing our top speed testing runs, which made for a slightly perturbed Srini. And I have not been able to stop talking about how the previous king of quick, the Honda City VTEC, has finally been blown into the weeds by the Corolla 1.8 (maybe this will prompt Honda to bring one of their ‘Type R’ cars to India?). Here I will also mention that I liked the clutch pedal feel of the Corolla (travel was much shorter than the Octavia’s clutch), though the shift action on its five-speed gearbox was not as clean and crisp as on its German competitor. Ground clearance was never an issue on the Japanese car, whereas the Octavia is prone to scraping its undercarriage over speed-breakers etc.
One area where the Corolla lags behind the Octavia, is driver involvement. Everything – from the somewhat inert steering, to the suspension set-up – seems to have been engineered to isolate the driver from the actual act of driving. Like its bigger sister, the Camry, the Corolla also never actually misbehaves – it’s just that you never know when it might – there’s just not enough feedback coming through from the steering wheel. The 195/60 R15 Bridgestone Potenzas always provided enough grip in fast bends, but the ride was not as compliant as the Octavia’s. The car is fairly stiffly sprung – McPherson struts at front, ETA beams at back – and ride over small imperfections in road surface gets jittery. No getting away from it; bad roads rattle the Corolla’s composure. It needs to be more pliant, but without losing its nifty agility, which could be a difficult engineering feat to accomplish. The four-wheel disc brakes were brilliant however, providing a lot of feel and power, and remaining fade-free under hard usage. Despite the Corolla not having ABS plumbing, stopping times were much better than the Octavia’s.
Winner takes all
No beating around the bush this time – the Corolla 1.8 E wins over the Octavia 2.0 Ambiente. I have been a big fan of the Octavia, but I have to admit that the Japanese car has a better engine, is better equipped, would probably be more reliable over the long haul, is marginally more fuel efficient and feels more contemporary. The Octavia still has the better chassis/suspension combo, offers more driver involvement, and looks more handsome than the Corolla, but all of this is still not enough to prevent the Japanese car from winning. Sure, you feel happy driving the Octavia, but you wait in delicious anticipation to get inside the Corolla and give that VVT-i unit some stick. The Japanese car has moved the bar up in this segment, and Skoda have their work cut out for them. And indeed, we might see an answering salvo from them soon (the engineering might of the VW Group, who own Skoda, can’t be belittled after all), but for now it’s time to celebrate the crowning of a new king...
Another area where the Corolla lords it over the Octavia, is the availability of an automatic gearbox. If you think of the act of shifting gears as an automotive anachronism, Toyota will replace the 1.8 E’s 5-speed manual with a 4-speed automatic, call it the 1.8 G, add Rs 70,000 to the 1.8 E’s price and sell it to you for Rs 11,44,000. Automatics are increasingly getting more acceptance in the Indian market, and the Corolla auto is spot on for this segment in our country, where a large percentage of cars are chauffeur-driven.
Like the Honda City 1.5’s auto box (which is just about the only other auto available in this particular segment), the Corolla’s auto is also very competent – floor the throttle for a quick overtaking move, and kickdown is near-instantaneous – the car simply charges ahead with glorious alacrity. Changes are always smooth and unobtrusive, and the driver can simply vegetate in peace. Fuel consumption suffers though, with the 1.8 G returning only about 8 kpl to the 1.8 E’s 11.
For me, the Corolla’s VVT-i engine is the most brilliant part of the package, and using the 5-speed manual to stir the engine’s innards and making it perform is a visceral experience. The auto box, for all its
competence, does take the razor-sharp edge off and dulls the engine’s sparkle somewhat. I do suppose opting for the auto box in this car would the pragmatic thing to do, and it certainly does make for relaxed driving in rush-hour traffic, but if you really love to drive your car (as opposed to languishing in the back seat...), you might still want the manual.
Both the Corolla and the Octavia go hand-in-hand, they are almost equally matched. And most people, between the two, would go for the Toyota because of the brand name. But I have some reservations. Other than the clear lens lamps, there’s nothing that distinguishes the Corolla’s looks, it’s quite ordinary looking. The Octavia, on the other hand, feels bigger and looks better. Inside, the Corolla seems more compact compared to the Octavia, as the Skoda has the advantage of a notchback design, and is marginally broader too. However, when it comes to all-out performance, I would prefer the Corolla – it has lot of power on tap and its acceleration is crisp. In the Octavia, the initial grunt’s missing, especially in the second and third gears, where it slackens – but once it picks up speed, it’s all right. The Octavia feels more planted on the roads, and when it comes ride and handling, the overall package of the Skoda is better. The Corolla offers more value for money in terms of engineering and the way the car is put together. Though the braking of the Corolla is good, for its price, Toyota should have included ABS as well.
- PRASHANT DESAI