It's an out and out gang war except here, unlike the Mumbai underworld, the characters have turned up in double-breasted suits, including the handkerchiefs sticking out of their pockets. Some of them have their hats on too. It is after all a battle to grab the eyeballs of the elite. The entry level D-segment caters to the luxury seeker who, might never admit it but, also has one eye on the mileage. Now that that's out of the way let's get meet the contenders. It's a mix of familiar versus the face-lifted. The ever-dependable Toyota Corolla Altis has proved its lineage even in its diesel avatar. The Skoda Laura is known as the beast that doesn't mind getting into a scrap. The Renault Fluence would just use its suave looks to talk you into submission. And pitted against all of them is the new Volkswagen Jetta, launched this year, the newest baby of the lot, but one that hopes to do what the earlier car failed to - sell in respectable numbers. The earlier version of the Jetta was a good car and was doing its job. But it was just doing its job. But with the 2011 version Volkswagen's hoping it has made an 'offer you can't refuse', a la Corleone. Let's look into the fine print.
If looks could kill
The car that screams out to you in this department is the Fluence. The swept back headlamps, the proud logo nestled all by itself without the interference of the grille which itself is a thin strip between the headlamps, the large air dam, Renault have definitely managed to make it a unique car. Its long wheelbase, the longest amongst this lot, combined with its wide and low stance gives this sedan a truly premium feel. On the flip side, apart from the nose, it doesn't really have a lot to talk about. The Corolla Altis has an old school feel to it. But it's a good old-school. The Toyota logo cresting the wide grille has been their trademark look and it hasn't gone wrong yet. This is the face-lifted Corolla which has a fair bit more flair than the earlier avatars. The more swoopy headlights give it a sense of finesse. It appeals to those who don't like to stand out and yet have a car that oozes quality.
The Laura on the other hand tries hard to hide that tattoo peeking from under the shirt cuffs. You can't quite see it but you know it exists. The chrome strip that guards the grille and the logo gives character to the nose. And this car doesn't like to bow down and the nose which doesn't slope down as much as the others wants to indicate that. The distinct shoulder line running from the headlamps to the taillamps continue the reigned in muscular feeling that this car exudes.
VW have decided to K.I.S.S. and tell. Keep it simple silly, screams the Jetta. From the front it now subscribes to the VW family. The big VW logo resting on the two chrome slats, the double projector headlamps smallest in terms of size in this lot, the trapezoidal air dam, all of this makes it look like its other siblings. Don't know if you would want your Jetta to look like the Vento but then again the Passat too has a similar look from the front. So you can't argue too much and just accept that styling logic of the Germans. One of the issues with the design of the old Jetta was that it was a Golf with a boot stuck on. Though the new one retains the same platform with a stretched wheelbase, the all new panels give it a completely new identity. So the Fluence noses ahead of the competition purely because it brings variety to the table and has that slight oomph factor. The Jetta is half a car length behind because we honestly don't have any complaints with the design and it does look refreshing in its new avatar while the Altis and the Laura, due to their comparatively outdated looks are comfortably in third.
Under the hood
Now that the gangsters have impressed you with their suits, let's strip 'em down. And this is where the fellowship of the ring breaks so as to speak. The Laura has always been the enthusiast's car. Its 110PS of power takes it from 0-100kmph in just 12.7 seconds. Add to that its 250Nm of torque coming low in the rev band at 1500rpm means that it has a strong bottom end which makes it good to drive around in the city too. And an overall mileage of 13.7kmpl makes it a good package. Only drawback is that it has a five-speed gearbox while its competitors boast of six-speed ones. Like the Corolla Altis. But it produces only 88PS at 3800rpm.
Now Toyota have never laid claims to the Corolla being a speed demon. It takes a leisurely 14.68 seconds to reach the three figure mark (the slowest in this face-off). But what it does really well is put that 205Nm of torque to good use. Driving in the city becomes a breeze with that much torque available at as low as 3800rpm assisted by Toyota's quick to spool variable geometry turbocharger. The six-speed gearbox has tall ratios to improve fuel efficiency and an overall figure of 18.73kmpl, the highest in this comparison, is proof of that. But even though it takes its time to get to 100kmph it isn't a slouch when it comes to overtaking on the highway. If you keep the car in the powerband, strong acceleration is at your beck and call.
The Fluence has the loudest engine of this lot. The distinct whine of the turbo spooling when you rev it is constant and becomes a bother after a while. The Renault takes 13.5 seconds to get to a ton, faster than the Corolla but it doesn't quite like to be pushed so hard. It produces 106PS with its 240Nm of torque available at a low 2000rpm translates into an easy driving car in the city as well as on the highway. In terms of fuel efficiency the Fluence returns an overall figure of 15.9kmpl. The six-speed gearbox, with tall ratios, isn't as smooth in operation as the Corolla but still does the job. The Fluence uses the same Renault K9K engine, as in the Micra, but with more power and with variable geometry turbocharger. But the clear winner in this under the hood battle is the Jetta which now has a peak power of 140PS and a maximum torque of 320Nm. This is the upgraded version of the earlier engine which produced 110PS. The same engine is also in the Superb. The Passat too has the same engine but tuned to produce 170PS. The Laura gets a 140PS engine but that's available only with DSG and not on the manual.
This enormous amount of bottom-end torque means that there is very little turbo lag and the car is egging you to speed up and get to that 100kmph mark which it does in only 11.2 seconds the quickest in this group. This figure would have been better if we could switch off traction control but on the new Jetta you can't switch off ESP. But in spite of all this power, in our tests, the Jetta returned an overall fuel efficiency figure of 13.48kmpl. The six-speed manual gearbox is a delight to use with its slick and smooth operation. If you prefer automatic then the Highline variant has an optional six-speed DSG available. Here you get paddles behind the wheel for manual control and DSG has lightning shifts so it's a joy to drive when you are in the mood for a hustle. Maximum mileage from the Fluence, slick gearbox in the Corolla but it's the Jetta that gets out vote here for being eager to jump to the ton but still returning excellent mileage with that much power.
Ride quality and handling
The cars involved in this battle have to cater to two kinds of people. The driven and those who drive. And getting the right mix is the trick. And here everybody has gone all in. The Laura offers a good mix. It doesn't mind being pushed around and while it's slightly stiff, the ride won't leave you complaining. On the highway it feels completely at home and it also takes the broken roads without too many spine jarring moments. But it's not as comfortable as the Corolla. Ride quality has always been one of the Corolla's high points and this clearly shows. This car isn't meant to be pushed around corners, the steering feels a bit light at high speeds and there is significant body roll to remind you that the car isn't fond of this style of driving. But it's only a gentle reminder. The lightest steering in this battle belongs to the Fluence. It feels extremely nimble at slow and parking speeds. For a car that has the longest wheelbase it feels the lightest when steering at low speeds. It weights up sufficiently as you push the accelerator pedal but not enough to inspire confidence when cornering at high speeds. Add to that quite a bit of body roll when taking fast corners and you know this isn't a car for pedal-to-the-floor driving. But the ride quality is better than the Corolla (something that takes quite a bit of doing). Its suspension takes care of most road surfaces with ease giving its occupants a plush ride. The new Jetta, which is the heaviest at a kerb weight of 1445kgs for the manual transmission and 1460kgs for the automatic, manages to compete with the Fluence when it comes to ride quality. The Jetta's suspension, Macpherson struts at the front and multi-link suspension at the rear, ensures that even the most unforgiving of roads are dispatched with ease. The ride quality gives the impression of being in a premium car. The Jetta's steering isn't as light as that of the Fluence but has just that much weight which makes it comfortable at low as well as high speeds. The Jetta has very good dynamics, the body roll is a little more than the old Jetta because it has been tuned for better ride quality, but it's never disconcerting, stays planted and take corners at seriously high speeds with confidence. It's the most reassuring car to drive hard and fast. The Laura comes a close second on the dynamics front but the ride is a bit stiffer. If you want pure comfort and back seat lounging, then Fluence is for you. However if you want a blend of ride quality, stability and fun handling then Jetta is your pick though the Laura still does a very good job on this front.
On the inside
Leather-wrapped steering wheel, climate control, AUX, USB, Bluetooth connectivity, leather seats, rear sun blinds and rear air-conditioning vents. The Fluence has none of these. It gets dull black and grey interiors which make it look gloomy on the inside. The quality of the plastics is not cheap but just that the interiors don't befit a car which has so much else going for it. And when you consider that the petrol version comes fully loaded with all of this, while the diesel is available in only one black and grey variant, it is surprising that Renault haven't provided luxuries in keeping with the segment. On the positive side, there is quite a bit of space inside, both front and back. But while two rear passengers can sit comfortably, the third one will be in a bit of a squeeze because the front armrest and the transmission tunnel take up quite a bit of the space in the middle. In terms of boot space it has a whopping 530 litres.
The Laura though tops this too with a huge 560 litres of boot space, the best in this group. The interiors of the Laura are plush with its beige and black colour combination. Though not as much as the Fluence, it has sufficient space for taking it on long journeys. The Laura interiors are minimalist but veering towards functional rather than the sparse feel that the Fluence has. The Corolla interiors feel rich, though its steering wheel doesn't get a leather finish. One major plus for Toyota is the absence of a transmission tunnel which means that the third passenger in the rear can sit comfortably. The Corolla offers creature comforts like dual zone climate control, AUX, USB, DVD player and steering mounted audio controls. It also has electrically adjustable driver's seat. It's better than the Fluence and the Laura but the Jetta trumps it easily.
While from the outside Jetta's styling is minimalist, on the inside VW have given it a very upmarket feel. Leather wrapped steering wheel, gear shift knob and hand brake lever. Chrome interior package and wood inserts for the dashboard (along the centre console too) and doors (along the sills) are available in the Comfortline and Highline variants. The steering wheel, exactly similar to the Passat, has controls for audio and the information display. The infotainment display has a touch screen interface. The Highline variant gets a 12-way electrically adjustable seat and lumbar support clad in leatherette, not leather. Space at the rear is comparable to the Fluence and here too the transmission tunnel spoils the space for the third passenger. It also has a sufficient 510-litre boot. VW have put a high emphasis on safety and the Comfortline gets ABS, traction control and EDL (Electronic Differential Lock). The EDL essentially uses ABS sensors to send more power to the slower spinning wheel and thus give it more traction. In terms of space and features the Corolla manages to give a fight to the Jetta but because of its plethora of features and good amount of space, it's the Germans that have emerged victorious here.
The Skoda Laura (2.0 Ambiente TDI MT) price in India at Rs 14.86 lakh (all prices, ex-Delhi) remains an enthusiast's car. You can push it in corners and come out with a smile. It has pleasant interiors and good space (though headroom is tight at the rear) and it still looks stylish. But it has been almost six years since this model was launched and two years since the facelift and it is getting a bit long in the tooth. It needs refreshing and Skoda are thinking of launching a revamped Laura soon. And with the new Jetta, its only par for the course to expect the new Laura to be based on this slightly upgraded platform. The Renault Fluence price in India at Rs 12.99 lakh is the cheapest of the lot. It is also the best looking car in the battle and has lovely ride quality. Where the Fluence loses out immensely is because of its drab interiors. We can only hope that Renault brings fresh interiors as soon as possible. The Toyota Corolla Altis (DGL) price in India at Rs 14.55 lakh has been the leader of this segment for its exceptional reliability and great ride quality. And its styling update helps it keep its chin up. This brings us to the 2011 Volkswagen Jetta in India. The Highline is Rs 17.06 lakh which is by far the costliest car. Even the Comfortline variant, priced at Rs 15.39 lakh, is costlier than the competition by a considerable margin. It is Rs 53,000 more than the Laura, Rs 84,000 more than the Corolla and a whopping Rs 2.4 lakh more than the Fluence.
The Laura in spite of its hidden tattoo clearly needs an upgrade to step up to the podium. Getting the bronze medal is the Fluence. If you want to opt for a car that gives you good ride quality, looks unique and are willing on compromise on the creature comforts then the Renault is your choice. The reliability, driveability and excellent mileage clearly give the Corolla the silver medal. And the title of the Don, drum roll et al, goes to the Jetta.
A D-segment car is a bit more than the sum of its parts. It's supposed to have the space, the quality, the performance and such desirables. And on that count the Jetta has that sense of being expensive and des
irable, a lot more than its peers. It is more expensive but, simply put, it offers more value than the other cars. If you want to drive a car that gives you a complete experience in terms of comfort, and style - the kind that makes you want to show off - then the Jetta is waving out for you in a double-breasted suit with a red handkerchief if you may.