The Toyota Corolla is the best selling brand in the world and it earned those stripes very simply. It offered a no frills package, simple but long lasting build with good fit and finish, easy reliable and no-stress engines, comfortable interiors, compliant ride quality and relaxed ergonomics and aesthetics. No quick shift gearboxes, powerful engines, railroad dynamics or funky designs. Come to think of it, the Corolla has all the attributes we don't fancy and yet millions around the world love it. So how can you dethrone a car that has all its fundamentals in just the right place.
Its not going to be easy but there's no dearth of competitors. Which brings me to the Renault Fluence. Its the latest entrant in the D-segment and Renault's first offering after they broke off the JV with Mahindra and charted their own course. Their factory in Chennai is up and running, the dealer network is in place, the product line up is finalised and launched around India, all that's left is to assess where it stands against the segment benchmark.
Now the Fluence that we are pitting against the Corolla is a petrol and the Fluence petrol is available with just a CVT gearbox. Lucky then that the Corolla also has a CVT option that was recently launched along with an engine upgrade and a minor facelift. And as Sirish mentioned in his first drive in last issue, good just got better. So the Fluence hasn't got an easy task ahead of it.
And then to make it even more challenging we threw in our segment favorite, the Skoda Laura, with the TSI turbo-charged petrol and a manual gearbox (well, the only 'box). The last time the Corolla and Laura came head to head against each other was nearly two years ago. That was when we chose the Laura over the Corolla principally on the basis of it being a better drivers car. But that was two years ago, when a tankful of petrol was still cheaper than a bottle of premium scotch. And even though excise duties for liquor have shot up, in a few months we'd probably be better off running alcohol in our tanks than petrol. So here's how the comparison panned out.
DESIGN & STYLING
No wow factor, no head turners, no eye poppers. The entry D-segment has to be the most boring of the lot to look at which is strange. Doesn't visually appealing mean anything to a consumer here, or are the cars evaluated by consumers purely on the merit of their mechanical benefits? Take the Corolla for instance, a few design details have been revised but you'd either have to have a Holmes or Christie at the end of your name to detect the changes. For those who missed out on Sirish's first drive story last issue the Corolla headlamps and tail lamps have changed, the bumpers have been reworked and obligatory chrome strips on the grille and boot bring the look closer to the Camry. Visually it's still as boring as a slab of cheese.
Shift to the Laura which represents me perfectly. There's a hint of sportiness, a fair amount of aggression in the muscular haunches and a slightly Germanic aloofness. It is appealing but in the sort of way that makes people ask if I pumped iron when I was younger. So like me its a bit portly around the gut, look closely and the Laura doesn't look all that lithe and slim, the rounded corners and the slight bulge around the middle is now so last generation. Earlier this year we saw a sharper, slimmer and punchier visage of Skoda's next generation design language and it has no fat. Those changes being incorporated in the next generation Laura are still a long way off so for now were going to have to make do with this.
The Fluence then is the freshest of the lot and allow me to rephrase the low opinion I had formed some months ago when I first drove the car in France. The Fluence does look good, no let me rephrase that again, it looks chic. Especially in white and especially with the small design details it has accumulated since April this year. Its the typical Parisian fashion show ramp model decked in something you can't understand but can appreciate because there is something attractive about it. I can't put a finger on it, is it those crystalline headlamps that make the front look snakish when viewed head on, or the rakishly thin grille or the chunky rubbing strips that run along the length of the car or the purity of its white? Either way the Fluence is just that bit more interesting to look at than either the Corolla or the Laura, helped in no small measure by it's novelty value.
But how either of these cars look on the outside is of more concern to your neighbour than you. Scoping the interiors show that each car approaches interior style and cabin management in very different ways. The Corolla is almost no different from what was sold a few months ago, except for the touchscreen stereo which looks more aftermarket and is quite fidgety. I can't seem to get over why Toyota did away with the smarter looking flush fitting stereo panel that was also much easier to operate. Perhaps its the need to provide more features as the older entertainment system did not play DVD's, neither did it offer Bluetooth cellular connectivity nor did it have parking sensors.
The Laura on the other hand is clean and spartan. Effective if minimalism is your thing, but the lack of climate control and more interactivity from the audio system? Is it too much to ask? Taking threadbare to the extremes the Laura is also the only car in this trio to offer fabric upholstery which though nicer in Indian summers isn't luxurious. Not that Skoda doesn't have goodies galore in it's arsenal but it still refuses to give the TSI the Elegance or L&K trim that is available on the diesel.
The Fluence does not move things along significantly. If anything it is creamy - read that as luxurious with the best material quality, though the gadgets are the most cumbersome to operate. I didn't like it much before and that opinion stays. As a consolation I do think the steering is the nicest though, chunky, supportive and leather wrapped its got a nice tactile feel to it and is my pick of good looking appointments in this cabin.
Where space is concerned the Altis nudges ahead by a toe. And that toe comfortably finds space to wedge itself under the front seats allowing the rear passengers to stretch themselves out just that wee bit more. It is also the only one to have a flat floor improving accommodations for a third passenger. The Fluence nonetheless has a bit more knee room as evident in the pictures and even though the figures don't show it, the seatback angle offer better ergonomics, support and should prove to be much more comfortable than the Corolla or the Laura over long distances.
The Laura I'd mention only in passing because there isn't enough space for rear passengers to stretch out comfortably, a third passenger will be inconvenienced by the transmission tunnel eating into their space (even the Fluence does that) and the seats are too stiff and hard for long distance commuting to be comfortable.
Rather than the engines I'd like to start off with the transmissions on offer because that is a key differentiator: the Laura is the only one here not to offer an automatic while the other two have CVTs, not conventional torque converters. The reason I'd like to touch upon transmissions first is because CVTs have come a long way from the whiny nerve-grating units of yore. What you couldn't fault CVTs for was their smoothness and Fluence sticks to the script. Unless you're trying to coax maximum performance out of her the 6 manually selectable ratios are fairly noiseless though at high revs it gets noisy and the characteristic rubber band effect is moderately present. Ease off the pedal let the transmission do her thing in drive or even manual tiptronic mode and you will wonder why anybody criticised CVTs.
But use the Corolla's CVT and what you instantly notice is the superiority of this box. Perhaps it has to do with the 7-ratios which offers more flexibility and this is clearly the direction CVTs are headed in. Even at peak revs there is little buzz or whine, the shifts points in drive mode step in earlier in aid of efficiency and there is barely any stickiness or rubber band effect at the top. Power delivery through this box is seamless and feels more linear than the Fluence. Shift times are also pretty quick for a CVT matching or even bettering standard torque convertors. And most impressively she down shifts very quickly and eagerly.
The Laura is the odd man out since it has got a 6-speed manual and there's no automatic option. The shift quality is smooth, precise and the throws are short - it's definitely a 'box that engages and involves the driver when motoring briskly. It also strikes a nice balance between performance and efficiency though the focus veers more towards performance.
So finally coming to the engines the Corolla gets an all new naturally aspirated one displacing 1798cc. That displacement is about the same as the old engine though power and torque have increased by 8Ps and 3Nm respectively. The Corolla now makes 140PS@6400rpm while torque is a 173Nm@4000rpm. More important this engine now feels a bit more eager and energetic. Throttle responses are quick no doubt assisted by the CVT gearbox and it's refined and calm at all speeds - a Corolla trait since the beginning of time. This engine also has dual variable valve timing on both the intake and exhaust camshaft which improves torque and refinement but is largely focused on maximizing efficiency and mileage. This engine also revs quite high, redlining at 6600rpm.
The Laura also has a 1.8-litre engine displacing exactly the same volume as the Corolla. But it is turbocharged with direct injection and that makes it develop 160PS of max power with substantially larger dollops of torque -250Nm from 1500 all the way to 4500rpm. So without a doubt it is the quickest and fastest. Throttle responses are also way quicker, with the manual gearbox taking up whatever slack the turbo has (which is next to nothing). The Laura with an oversquare bore stroke configuration does not rev as high as either the Corolla or the Laura but it doesn't need to either thanks to the fatter torque curve spread over a wide rev band. So not only does it have the strength to accelerate quickly, it can do so even in fourth gear from low speeds and make overtaking moves stick in sixth. Drivability in the Laura even for a manual is quite frankly brilliant, it easily behaves as linearly as the automatics.
On to the Fluence then and its strange how the biggest engine generates such humble power and torque ratings. The Fluence has a volumetric capacity of 1997cc but develops just 137PS of max power at 6000rpm with 190Nm of torque developed at 3700rpm. In fact the power and torque generated lower down the rev band than in the Laura or Corolla is what gives the Fluence the ability to accelerate just a bit quicker than the Corolla, though neither is in a class with the Laura.
So where acceleration and performance is concerned the Laura rockets to 100kmph in 8.3seconds, 4.1seconds quicker than either the Corolla or the Fluence both of which post the same 12.4second time. The Laura maintains that difference past the quarter mile right up to the kilometer. The Fluence however by virtue of her stronger torque compared to the Corolla is marginally quicker as the distances increase. Top speed for the Laura is a 182kmph, the Corolla comes in second at 176kmph and the Fluence goes all the way to 174kmph.
Crucially the Corolla turns out to be the most fuel efficient with an overall fuel efficiency of 13.22kmpl. That is the big benefit of switching from the old 4-speed torque converter automatic transmissions. In second place then isn't the Laura, it's the Fluence which at 11.75kmpl is also very good. The Laura delivers
just 9.47kmpl overall which does seal her performance oriented aspirations.
As I mentioned at the beginning the Laura is our choice of a drivers car because it approaches performance and dynamics with huge enthusiasm. The engine we've seen is the most powerful and therefore also the quickest. Handling is also sharp thanks to its precisely servoed steering and the very European damping character which is firm but fortunately not hard. The stiffness also enables greater composure and stability in corners where it also exhibits very little body roll. The Laura is an enjoyable car and the confidence which it provides at high speeds will also bring a smile to the average drivers lips. It also has traction control to reign in all those horses.
On ride quality front it nicely balances out comfort though over long journeys the seats may prove to be a bit wooden. There's enough compliancy in the suspension to soak bumps and potholes without affecting ride quality or upsetting its stability. Yet the ride is nowhere close to that offered by the Corolla, which has always been one of its strongest value propositions. The Corolla is comfortable over short or long journeys and it never ceased to amaze me how a 1000km drive from Bangalore to Pune could keep me as fresh at the end as when I started out.
Handling isn't its strongest suit, body roll is present and it gets worse when you try and push it through corners. The steering isn't dripping with feel and the car feels uninterested in rushing along. Mind you the average consumer is not going to be pushing for GP times anywhere on their commute so in the real world the dull dynamic sensibilities really does not matter too much
Same with the Fluence whose body roll is exaggerated when trying to match the Laura's pace in the twisties. It is nonetheless the new benchmark for ride comfort and even puts the Corolla in the shade when it comes to ride quality. Handling also is pretty decent and it's the very same suspension compliance that gives it good ride that also allows her to carry good corner speeds as mid corner bumps don't ruffle it too much. The steering though lacks feel and sensitivity, neither does it weigh up sufficiently at speed to provide a sense of confidence like the Laura does. The Fluence has ABS, traction control and ESP to ensure you don't over drive the car, while the Corolla only has ABS.
LIVING WITH IT
So does the Laura cut it as an everyday car? Oh yes it does. It has an aggressive nature when you go throttle mad. At all other times it can be driven in a very civilised and easy going manner.
But it isn't as well equipped and there isn't an automatic box to make light work of city traffic. This same petrol engine gets a DSG twin-clutch automatic in the Superb, which is even better than these CVTs, why can't this be offered on the Laura? And why can't there be a higher trim level like on the diesel Laura? In this test she has the most parsimonious equipment list making do without the touchscreen infotainment system which we've seen in the Superb and Yeti to enhance its value. Nor does it get Bluetooth, climate control, leather or even steering wheel audio controls. Even on the safety front it only gets two front airbags, not four like the Fluence.
The Corolla and Fluence play it close both offering high levels of convenience features. There's AUX, USB and Bluetooth. Audio controls are mounted on the steering wheel. Both cars also feature dual zone climate control as well as keyless entry, ignition and cruise control. One of the Fluence's oddities though are the audio controls mounted on a chunky slab like stalk behind, and not on, the steering wheel.
The Corolla additionally offers electronically adjustable drivers seat and HID lamps with washers.
On the safety front the Fluence offers four airbags and ESP which isn't available on the Corolla.
The more things change the more they stay the same. The Laura still is the best drivers car, there's no disputing that. It's great for the occasional track day or a nice drive by yourself in the twisties. It delivers the biggest grin factor and we love it for that. As an everyday commuter there are better cars though; cars that look more closely at things such as fuel efficiency, comfort and convenience.
Such as the Corolla and Fluence. Despite the changes introduced in the Corolla, it too does not loose its inherently plush and luxurious character. Its CVT transmission is a revelation, smooth non-fussy and competent, it sets a new benchmark. That it scores very highly where fuel efficiency is concerned - coming pretty close to it's very own 6-speed manual sister - is going to come as a big jolt to traditional manual disciples. It's not sporty but there's enough composure to keep high speed highway drives safe. It's also very well equipped and space for both passengers and stuff is well thought out.
The Fluence cannot use its better interior space to stretch out an advantage to the best selling Toyota primarily due to the quirky interiors which reduce its desirability. It is a nice enough car to look at in particular shades I'm sure but I can't get myself to love these interiors and I'm sure several consumers will agree with me on that. Then there are the lack of trim variants (you want a petrol Fluence? Bizarrely the fully-loaded CVT is the only variant available), lack of enough dealers and the fact that only time will tell if it can match the Corolla's bullet-proof reliability.
Where prices are concerned the Corolla at Rs 14.77 lakh is the most expensive, nearly Rs 30,000 over the Fluence. But the Laura is nearly a lakh and a half cheaper than the Corolla and a lakh less than the Fluence which would have tilted the scales in her favour except for the fact that it doesn't have the equipment levels of the other two. And so, as much as we might love fast drivers cars, it is still the Corolla Altis that makes the most sense to live with on a daily basis.
Looks like the competition will have to do much more to knock the best seller from its perch at the top of the entry D-segment.