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July 7, 2003

First Drive: 2003 Toyota Vios 1.5G M/T and A/T

Let’s face it—we’re going to be late again.  Rushing through a mid-afternoon’s Metro traffic, our humble Toyota Echo zipped between bigger motor vehicles.  The 1.3-liter engine was clearly given a thrashing as the responsive four-speed auto ‘box gave us much needed accelerating power.  We subjected ourselves to a slightly sore backside for the sake of motoring journalism.

There’s no better way to test the new baby Toyota, we thought, than to do a back-to-back drive of the European-designed Echo and the cousin it soon gave life to, the Vios.  Upon arriving at the venue, we already had our doubts.  With the Echo and the Vios sharing the same set-up of Independent MacPherson Struts up front and an ETA beam with stabilizer bar at the near, we immediately concluded than the Vios and the Echo would share the same common faults: a harsh ride, an engine that buzzes throughout the cabin and overall mediocre driving comfort.

Boy, were we proven wrong.

Despite starting off with the same ingredients, the Echo and the Vios are two different bananas.  The former represents the mold, if you will, for the new generation of Toyotas that are as fun to drive as they are reliable.  The latter, is in simplest terms, the fruit of Toyota’s efforts to bring this new philosophy to the ASEAN market.  The Vios is the start of the new age of sub-compact sedans—where styling, practicality and driving dynamics are closely associated with the Toyota badge.

However, this is not to be confused with  ‘radical’, unlike its head-to-head competitor, the new Honda City.  In fact, it is a safe bet in any aspect—whether it be in its design, concept or even its mechanicals.  The most obvious proof of which is the Vios’ styling cues.

Looking like a Corolla Altis in 80-percent scale, the Vios borrows its bigger brother’s curvaceous front end, dominant mesh-type radiator grille, high beltline, pull-type door handles and tall-boy looks.  More so is the treatment of the front lamp clusters—something that can make one easily mistake the Vios for an Altis when viewed from a distance.  Now, don’t get us wrong.  There’s nothing really to hate about the Vios’ looks.  In fact, it easily grows on you faster than does the Honda City's.  Unfortunately, the Toyota just doesn’t stand out—and perhaps that could be as important for some as quoting acceleration or mileage figures.

Stepping inside the Vios’ cabin brings a bit of nostalgia with its center-mounted instrumentation and dominating center-console.  Yup, it feels so much like the Echo in here.  Fortunately, Toyota has taken the same formula to greater heights by fitting the Vios with much better fabrics and materials.  However, the Vios’ budget-conscious execution is still very much evident.  Overall, hard plastic is still abundant, the tackiest of which is shiny one that surrounds the center-mounted instrumentation binnacle.

The major controls and ergonomics can also cause a spell of déjà vu to anyone that’s familiar with the Echo.  The basic location for every control from ventilation to hazard to even the way the parking brake is obnoxiously far below the driver are all the same.  One major improvement though: the placement of the audio unit—it’s been moved up for better reach.

Speaking of the audio unit, the 2-DIN Fujitsu caused a mixed-bag reaction.  Some complained that it was tacky, sighting the differences in the hue of the silver trim used to line the interior and the radio.  Others found it wonderful, for it combined both cassette and in-dash CD player functions—quite a rare sight in cars nowadays.  In any case, the radio was relatively easy to use and understand, while the audio quality is surprisingly good, considering the car’s asking price.

The fluorescent gauges were discontenting at first—giving the feeling of looking into oblivion, but they are easy to adapt to.  Though most of the information are easily decipherable, the design ends up being too cluttered and some information such as the speedometer become close to useless.

Despite the Vios’ tall stature, one thing that could have been improved further is the way the interior space was utilized.  Though front seat leg and head room are bordering on the excellent, the shoulder room is severely lacking—often leading to unwanted shoulder rubbing with the front seat passenger, especially when yanking the hand brake.  The rear bench on the other hand is only good for two, even on short city trips.

With all the similarities between the Echo, Vios and the much bigger Altis, the only way, and perhaps the best way, to differ the three is in driving dynamics.  Though we could only take the Vios through a looped course prepared by the folks at Toyota Motor Philippines, the difference in the way the Vios behaves is evident.

The lighter 900-kilogram Echo is clearly the winner of the three, displaying the best corner turn in and most predicable manners.  The body roll is kept tight and the steering is instantaneous, acting almost in unison with the punchy throttle; it gives the Echo the most exhilarating experience.  On the other hand, the Altis is the softest and most grown-up.  Safe and predictable, it leans towards the understeer while giving great road noise isolation and bump absorption.  The Vios is somewhere in the middle.

Enjoying a 22-bhp advantage over the smaller engined Echo, it’s surprising that the Vios ends up with a more relaxed character despite both having similar curb weights and being equipped with a four-speed automatic gearbox with Toyota’s Super ECT technology.  The cabin noise is neatly muffled and subdued.  There were only slightest hints of the VVTi powerplant’s buzzy character intruding into the cabin.  Acceleration is brisk, with the speedometer hitting the 70 km/h on a relatively short piece of road.

Those who enjoy trivial pursuit would note that the 1.5-liter powerplant residing underneath the Vios is the same as the Japanese market Corolla.  With its reputation preceding it, the 1NZ-FE engine is perhaps one of the most refined engines ever fitted into a small car.

Though the four-speed auto box is good for the rest of us, performance junkies may rejoice as going for the full monty is possible on the Vios.  The rule of pocket-rocket performance applies here: small-bodied, lightweight car with a moderately powerful engine mated to a manual gearbox.  Though it still feels a bit notchy compared to say, the Honda Civic, the shifting mechanism has gone through considerable improvement since the Altis.  Couple that with an easy to modulate clutch, the Vios can easily squeal off the distance in a blaze of haze and tire smoke.

The stretched wheelbase and longer length of the sedan body makes the Vios absorb potholes and uneven road surfaces with much more dignity than the Echo.  However, the European handling wasn’t given a backseat as the Vios can still entertain when pushed to the limit.  In fact, it behaves clinically through the circuit with controlled body lean, snapping into over steer when provoked.  It admittedly feels a bit more sluggish when judged against the Echo.

Despite the absence of anti-lock brakes, the Vios stops surefooted into a corner—just don’t overcook it.

After having an afternoon’s spin inside the Vios, we’ve thought that we’ve judged the battle of the sub-compacts way too soon.  Before, we thought that the City, with all its advancements and radical technology would have easily trampled the Vios.  However, it seems that by playing it safe, Toyota has served up some good aces: a great powerplant, well-balanced dynamics and a quicker delivery time (the Honda City has over a month long waiting list, while Toyota has sold over 300 Vios already).

The battle is now dead-even.  With the ball over at Honda’s court, they’ve got one big hurdle to overcome.

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