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February 2, 2005

Review: 2005 Toyota Corolla Altis 1.8G

Five to ten years ago, the choice for a first car was as diverse as the colors on a Charlie Chaplin flick: it was either the Toyota Corolla or the Honda Civic.  Sure enough, sales figures and market shares simply swung back and forth, while the rest were just content with whatever table scrap that’s left.  Fast forward to today, and things couldn’t have been more different.  Aside from a resurgence from the likes of Mazda, Mitsubishi and Nissan; these two Japanese automotive giants are facing competition from the Americans, namely Ford and Chevrolet.  Add the fact that there are now excellently built sub-compacts, microscopic SUVs and a zillion other choices all catered to making every buyer happy.  Now, the question beckons: can the Toyota Corolla keep up with the changing market place?

With a rock-solid product and excellent brand values, the Altis surely will.  Despite whatever the competition throws at it, the Toyota Corolla Altis, especially in the 1.8G trim tested, looks pretty modern and up-to-date.  During its introduction in 2001, it must be remembered that Toyota grabbed the Corolla design formbook, grabbed it and shredded it.  The overall look connotes one of luxury with a subdued hint of sportiness.  Three years later, Toyota has played it safe, keeping everything intact save a few things; not a bad idea considering that there wasn’t anything wrong with the design in the first place.

Those keen enough will recognize minor changes with the front grille (with subdued chroming), alloys (a new six-spoke design), and the rear taillights.  The last is of particular interest as it’s the first time that any compact sedan has incorporated LED bulbs into a tail lamp design.  Aside from looking dazzling at night, the new LED clusters give better visibility in bad weather, last longer (virtually the entire life of the car) and light up faster.  In addition, the front and rear bumpers incorporates corner and back-up sensors, perfect for moving about and parking on the  skimpy Manila streets.  Although the system isn’t as sophisticated as BMW’s Parktronic, it’s accurate avoid any sort of paint ding or dent.  It’s simple to use too, with just one dashboard mounted button that activates or deactivates it.

While on the subject of simplicity, Toyota’s approach to the Altis’ interior remains honest-to-goodness simplicity excelling in build quality and ergonomics.  The dashboard and most of the side panels are made of soft-feel plastics, while the seats itself are covered in quality leather.  The wood grain paneling won’t tickle everyone’s fancy, but at least there’s a real attempt to make them look real.  The seats are comfortable, and now easier to adjust minutely thanks to an 8-way electric motor (on the driver’s side at least).  Although they don’t evoke any sort of sporty feel, it’s good for everyday driving.  At the back, passengers are treated on one of the best lap and knee supporting seats in its class, even if it comes at the expense of some interior space.

Some small items that fall flat include the Optitron gauges.  Although easy to read at night, they tend to wash out during the day, especially if you drive an Altis that’s not tinted.  The same goes for the audio system (an Eclipse 2-DIN) which is also filled with fiddly buttons and unfriendly nomenclature.  That aside, the rest of the instrumentation is easy to use and locate.  The gate-type shifter is slick (but the beeping sound when in reverse is still there), while the climate control is a joy even if it has pleura of switches throughout the center console.

As soothing and fresh the Altis is on static display, the best way to experience it is on the move.  Despite its 1.8-liter displacement, the 1.8G feels like any decent 2.0-liter car.  But while the 145 horsepower is a hefty figure, the restrained manner of power delivery means that people who go for an Altis aren’t interested in doing hot laps of the Subic International Raceway; they’d rather go for a long trip to Baguio instead.  The four-speed automatic with Super ECT is sublime.  The computer-controlled shifting is accurate and prompt, making you think that you’re driving a manual.

Though less enigmatic than its sportier competition, the Altis is still one composed and solidly performing car.  The heavier weight of the 1.8G compared to the rest of the Altis line means it’s less jittery on choppy roads, while the suspension has enough travel to absorb most heavy bumps.  Despite its simplistic approach to suspension design (front MacPherson Struts and rear Torsion Beam), the ride is a perfect balance between firm and soft, while remaining predictable and stable through any sort of corner.

Overall, the Toyota Corolla Altis ends up as one great deal for a car.  Although some of its competitors may taut better handling, a sportier heritage or a mile-long kit list, the Altis is still the one solid choice for those who want a perfect balance between performance, safety, styling and comfort at a budget’s affordable.  And that’s not even considering its solid residual value in the future.  Other cars may arrive and some new styling cues introduced, but at the end of the day, it’s having the solid car that’s important.  And on that end, there’s nothing rock harder than the Toyota Corolla Altis.

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