Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Toyota Corolla Altis vs Chevrolet Cruze vs Skoda Laura

Toyota has finally plonked a diesel heart in the venerable Corolla, but how does Toyota's latest oilburner fare against its closest rivals? Abhishek Nigam rounds up the contenders

About eight months back, we had compared the two topmost diesel contenders in the D-segment range, wherein the Chevrolet Cruze was pitted against the then reigning champion the Skoda Laura. The very same cars are being pitted against each other yet another time, but this time we also have a third contender, the Toyota Corolla Altis D-4D. Both the Laura and the Cruze have had the market pretty much for themselves for quite some time now with no competition from the land of the rising sun at all. While the big 'H' and the big 'T' were busy dominating the petrol market, it was about time that one of them takes the plunge and Toyota was more than glad to oblige. Already one of the most sensible buys in its class, the Corolla then should pretty much be the ideal buy. Read on to find out.

Walk past the three cars and you realize none of them is actually new as far as looks are concerned. The Czech from Germany was never a standout looker and even in its latest avatar is more of the elegant kind rather than the 'hey, look at me' kind. The grille though similar in shape is wider now and has more chrome as well. The tail lamps receive a mild update as well and so does the rear bumper. The car also receives newly designed 5-spoke alloy wheels.

Moving onto the Cruze, things start getting more dramatic. Muscular, chiseled and dripping with attitude, the Cruze is definitely the one to arrive in. The unusual double decker front grille treatment coupled with the swept back head lamps and the muscular swage line gives it an extremely aggressive demeanor.

The Corolla falls right in between looking neither too aggressive nor as bland as its predecessor. The new Altis though follows the design cues of its bigger and more radical sibling the Camry. The car has gained on aggression, being bold and attractive at the same time. The Diesel variant gets a mesh grille apart from the badging to differentiate it from its petrol variant.

Time to step inside the cars then. Getting into the Altis first up, one is greeted by familiar surroundings. The dash looks smart in beige-grey combo with fake wood inserts adding a touch of grandeur. Rest your backside on the large front seat and you find adequate support for most kind of driving styles. The rear passengers are well pampered as well with the seating position being spot on. Another bonus is the near flat floor at the rear with the transmission tunnel being nary a hindrance unlike other cars. Quality of the materials is also pretty good and everything feels pretty good to touch and feel and is pretty much free of creaks and rattles.

Out of the Corolla and into the Cruze, one feels a lot livelier and not to mention funky. The centre console is a mix of grey, silver and glossy black surfaces. The seats are pretty comfortable and offer good support in all the right areas. At the rear however, the Cruze takes a back seat to the Laura and the Corolla Altis. Not only does it have less legroom but headroom also suffers thanks to the sloping silhouette. While things look pretty attractive, quality of materials could be way better.

The Czech's have been synonymous with quality ever since their inception here in India and it's no different even now. Getting seated in the large captain seats is a very comfortable affair. The fascia is dominated by the largish audio console while all the knobs now sport chrome rings around them. The Laura was already a spacious car and can easily accommodate 3 adults, however the center passenger's legroom is restricted considerably due to the rear a/c vents. There are things missing though. For starters, the steering wheel feels nice and meaty but is devoid of any kind of audio controls. What pinches even more is that even hatches like the Swift which cost less than half of the Laura's price include that feature.

Press the Start/Stop button and the 2.0 litre VCDi unit in the Cruze awakes with a typical diesel clatter but settles down to a nice idle once the engine warms up. Sourced from Italian engine builders VM Motori, the 2.0 litre common rail diesel engine is force fed via a variable geometry turbocharger which boosts output to a 150 PS @ 4000 rpm and a very impressive 327 Nm of torque.

The Laura has just received a major tweak under the hood recently as well. The 1.9 litre Pump Dusse has been dumped in favour of more modern CRDI units. For the base models there is the SOHC unit pumping out a 110 horses @ 4200 rpm and a decent 250 Nm of torque @ 1500 rpm. But the real party piece is the DOHC unit that pumps out a 140 PS @ 4000 rpm and a tyre balding 320 Nm of torque.

A look at the specs of the Toyota's engine may seem like it's a complete write off especially when compared to the other monstrous duo, but there is much more to this engine than just outright horsepower. The smallest of the D-4D series engines is also one of the most technologically advanced. Pumping out all of 88.4 PS @ 3800 rpm and 205 Nm of rotational force @ 2800 rpm, the engine makes a very linear and absolutely flat torque curve. There is another ace in the pack as well. The Corolla's transmission also features a very smooth shifting 6-speed manual gearbox.

"Diesel Rocket" is what the Chevrolet advertises the Cruze as and it is exactly that. Getting to the numbers, the 100 km/h sprint is covered in just 11.6 seconds while keeping the throttle buried see's the speedo needle go north of 200 km/h with ease. Outright performance aside, drivability isn't the best in the group thanks to the excessive turbo lag which necessitates frequent gear shifts.

The Laura we received was the Ambiente version with the DSG gearbox mated with the brilliant 140 PS DOHC unit. The dual clutch transmission not only makes sure the engine stays in the powerband at all times but also achieves lightening quick shifts. The 100 km/h comes up in a quicker 11.44 seconds with a top speed close to 200 km/h. While the engine is a gem, it's the DSG gearbox which really steals the show.

With the figures already looking meek on paper, the Toyota was not really expected to raise a lot of eyebrows as far as performance is concerned and it didn't. Outright performance can be termed just about adequate with the 100 km/h mark coming up in 14.55 seconds. Top speed runs saw the Corolla Altis run out of breath at a shade over 170 km/h. The other two being significantly faster isn't the end of the story for the big Jap with the little heart. Real world performance is more than acceptable and around town, the Corolla feels more than peppy in bumper to bumper to bumper traffic. Drivability is where the D-4D's excels and coupled with the excellent 6-speed gearbox, one barely needs to downshift.

When it comes to ride and handling, there is barely any difference between the Corolla's petrol and diesel variant. Gentle crests and minor undulations are handled with aplomb, however Toyota has never managed to get the suspension totally sorted for Indian conditions. It feels too stiff while going over extremely bad sections, but that very stiffness instead of aiding handling makes the car feel nervous while going through a corner at high speeds, a trait we encountered even with its bigger sibling the Camry. The steering too is extremely light and devoid of any feel whatsoever, which is a boon around town but not the best thing to have when you decide to have some fun. The Toyota then makes no bones about the fact that it makes for a good family car but has nothing in store for the enthusiast in you.

Cars exchanged and this time I get into the diesel rocket. First thing to notice when I turn the wheel over is the difference in the steering feel. The steering wheel feels nice and meaty and has a heavier feel too. Ride quality is the most compliant of the lot, with the Cruze's suspension set up for all out comfort. The mini-block coil springs at the rear offers brilliant ride quality be it on the highway or around town.

If you love to drive though, look no further than the Laura. The Laura's suspension set up is just plain brilliant and throwing it around corners was an absolute delight. The suspension is nice and firm and is aided by the perfectly weighed steering with oodles of feedback. Ride quality is pretty decent, though not as plush as the Cruze. The Laura doesn't like craters though and one has to baby her through the extremely bad sections lest you want the passengers hitting the roof.

The best bit about modern diesels is that not only do they offer petrol rivaling performance but are also much higher on the efficiency scale. The diesel rocket returned an overall figure of 12.41 kmpl. With a 60 litre fuel tank the Cruze will easily mange 745 km. The Laura equipped with the DSG gearbox managed a tad lesser returning 11 kmpl in the city and 14 kmpl on the highways. The mileage champion in the group however is the Corolla Altis. Managing 14.2 kmpl around town and an unbelievable 24.3 kmpl on the highway, the Corolla Altis sips fuel as if it's on a diet. With an overall figure of 16.7 kmpl, the Altis will cover a whopping 835 km before its 50 litre tank runs dry. Simply mind blowing figures these.
So which one is the obvious choice among these three? The fact however is that all the three cars differ from each other as chalk and cheese and as a result will appeal to different people with different needs. Let's start with the newest in the bunch the Corolla Altis. As mentioned before, if it's a family car you are looking at, the Altis does everything well, offering space, good drivability and unrivalled efficiency. Backed by Toyota's legendary reliability and service it is also offers total peace of mind. With prices starting at Rs. 10,95,000 for the base variant and going upto Rs. 13,75,000 for the top end variant it is also amazing value. But then the driving experience is comparatively dull and if you are looking for more enthusiasm you'll have to look further. The Cruze has better ride quality, explosive performance, looks the best of the lot and comes loaded with features galore including a segment first keyless entry feature. With the base model starting at a slightly dearer Rs. 11,52,254 and the top model with the autobox retailing for Rs. 13,95,982 the Cruze sounds like a bargain deal. However, you do have to deal with the iffy plastics and very average interiors.

The Toyota and the Skoda being way ahead on this front. Quality always comes at a price and the Laura drives home this point even further. With the best build quality and the best performance, it shows that the Laura was made with no compromises whatsoever. A reason why it's the most expensive of the bunch. You could opt for the base 2.0 litre manual, but even that retails at a whopping Rs. 13,79,613 and you still end up getting the 110 PS SOHC engine. For the DSG equipped Ambiente variant your bank account will be further depleted by Rs. 14,89,376 which is almost a lakh more than the top end Cruze and the Corolla. And if you want the Laura in the top end trim, the L & K with all the bells and whistles costs a Honda Accord rivaling Rs. 18,01,407. So if money is no object the Laura makes for a pretty satisfying buy. The only flipside is the after sales service which needs a lot to be looked into. Either ways you can't go wrong with any of the cars mentioned above. It's just a matter of establishing one's priority which makes the decision even simpler.

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