The Toyota Corolla Altis has had its mid-life facelift, and the C-segment stalwart is coming soon to Malaysia, as those who read our post last week would have known. UMW Toyota is already accepting bookings, and we now know that the Altis will be officially launched on the 23rd of September, which is about three weeks from now.

Toyota Motor Asia Pacific had a regional test drive event at Sepang International Circuit yesterday, and we were there to sample the Altis that has more than just skin deep improvements. Malaysia will get what our neighbours get – the ZR series of engines with Dual VVT-i paired to a CVT gearbox that has seven virtual ratios.

Continue reading the report after the jump.

Three drivetrains will be available for our market – a 1.6-litre (120 PS/154 Nm) 4-speed auto, a 1.8-litre (140 PS/173 Nm) with a Super CVT-i gearbox and a 2.0-litre (147 PS/187 Nm) paired to the CVT. All three engines belong to the ZR series and have four cylinders, 16 valves, twin overhead cams and Dual VVT-i, the latter on both intake and exhaust. The 1.8 and 2.0 have Acoustic Control Induction System (ACIS), which is essentially a variable intake manifold system that works to optimise power/torque at low/high rpms.

Thailand, which produces the Altis for our region, has a low spec model (popular as Bangkok taxis) pairing the 1ZR-FE 1.6-litre engine to a six-speed manual gearbox, but we’re not getting the stick shift model here as expected. A UMW Toyota personnel explained that a manual version of this particular model, in this segment, would be very poorly received. He should be correct, but this BKK cab spec does sound quite interesting nonetheless.

Only Sepang’s North track was open to us, and we were to drive behind a pace car, but it was nice that we got to sample the outgoing model as well. That was the car I started with, and two laps in the 1.8G made me realise that the much maligned Altis is sometimes unfairly criticised. It may be poor on paper, but it’s not so dynamically inept as some self proclaimed enthusiasts say it is.

Like the similarly unpopular (among car lovers) Vios, the outgoing Altis has only four forward gears, but it makes very good use of them. Response is immediate, gearbox works unobtrusively, power spread and pick up is good, and the car has a decent turn of speed. In the bends, the Corolla leans significantly and the leather seats of our Thai test car were terribly slippery, but if you look beyond these, actual grip is decent and the car tracks accurately while body control wasn’t too sloppy on the slalom.

Of course, there are classmates that are better driver’s cars and provide more sensation, but the regular family man will be very well served by this car, and I reckon that Altis owners are generally happy with their ride, no matter what others may say.

Out from the old and into the new, so I got into the range topping new 2.0V model and eased off. While it’s quiet, there’s no super silent library feel like in the Nissan Sylphy, which hides away mechanical traces so well that you just glide away like a magic carpet. Here’s it’s all very “normal” feeling, which is good for most people. Bear in mind that “normal” for the Altis means more rolling refinement than in the Mitsubishi Lancer and the Honda Civic.

I drove the first lap without using the shift paddles or manual mode, and fully flooring the throttle revealed a surprise. Unlike every other CVT car we’re familiar with, this Super CVT-i feels A LOT like a normal torque converter automatic.

Instead of the normal “tacho sweeps ahead with a few seconds headstart before speed catches up” routine, the progress of revs and speed is more synchronised here. And at 6,000 rpm or so (below the red zone), the tacho needle falls down before rising again. This was repeated a few times with my right foot fully depressed on the gas pedal, like a normal auto.

Puzzled, I looked for Michihiko Sato, Chief Engineer for the Altis, who after a few nods and a smile, explained that my findings were a deliberate attempt by Toyota to emulate a torque converter auto ‘box. He said that many people aren’t really accustomed to how a CVT works and Toyota wanted Super CVT-i to feel as “normal” as possible.

Getting back to the Altis 2.0V, I drove harder on the second lap. The shift paddles are mounted on the steering itself (not the column) and flapping them got us fast shifts in manual mode. If memory serves right, the shift action is smoother than in the Lancer.

The small and slightly flat bottomed steering was good to hold (I don’t like too thick rims) and it felt more alert and responsive compared to the old car (EPS software was revised for more “direct steering feel”) but more sensation through the rim would be very welcome.

As before, body roll resistance isn’t the best in class and you’re sure to feel the weight transfer in successive direction changes but that’s not surprising for the Altis. I didn’t appreciate the VSC on track though; it intervenes very early (beep and light) and frequently. I would have also preferred the seats to go lower and have more support, although we’re quite sure not many owners will find this an issue.

We were also taken on a taxi ride by the event’s Japanese instructor, who is also a racer. In his hands, the Toyota was manhandled around bends with abandon, despite VSC making lots of noise. Body rolling and tyres screeching, the short lap showed that a sober car such as the Altis can have limits that are above what many drivers venture to. The ex-rally man giggled a few times behind the wheel; I’m sure it was because of doing his thing in an unlikely car/venue rather than the Altis’ super entertaining handling, but it’s good to know that the car has some reserves when we need it.

This 2.0V has an all black interior, which is quite suave and classy (note the tasteful wood trim, which is dark in hue and matte in finish), but Malaysia bound top spec cars will come with beige cabins, which does make the cabin feel more airy and spacious. The all black scheme is rather appropriate with the high spec car in my opinion, since it looks quite sporty outside with a black grille and smoked headlamps.

Like the Camry, this Altis sports an “X like” design on the front fascia for a wider and more aggressive look. The changes may be subtle, but they all add up to successfully spice up the car’s ageing design. The white example you see here has a bodykit that won’t be available for Malaysia, although I bet it’ll be coming sooner or later. Changes at the back include new lamps and a longer chrome strip above the number plate. I really like the new “3D” design of the five-spoke 16-inch wheels.

After the 2.0-litre, the 1.8 didn’t feel much slower or less powerful in the two laps we had. To be honest, I would not have known the difference if the interior looked the same; perhaps a longer drive would reveal the 3ZR-FE’s advantage. One sure advantage all engines have over their predecessors is fuel economy – the new 1.8 is 15% more frugal, while the 1.6 and 2.0 should be 10% less thirsty than older engines, according to Sato-san.

All else remains the same, including the platform, chassis, dimensions and interior room. On the latter, I always enjoy sitting in the rear of the Altis when stuck in Bangkok’s epic jams; while legroom is far from class leading, the seats are set high and you sit with legs properly bent, like on the dinner table (for lack of a better example). Interior fit and finish remains exemplary while the dash and door caps are in soft touch plastics.

Click to enlarge Malaysian Corolla Altis spec sheet

The final product we get may not be 100% like the Thai spec car you see here, as there is some give and take in terms of equipment. As mentioned, the aerokit and rear spoiler will be absent in our top spec car, as will keyless entry, auto lights and wiper, rear window blind and AUX jack. However, our 2.0V model will get HID headlamps, a full sized alloy spare, and front/rear parking sensors (as opposed to rear only). Malaysia will get a beige interior across the board, while top spec Thai cars come with a dark cabin.

Indicative prices are RM105,990 for the 1.6E, RM112,990 for the 1.8E, RM122,990 for the 1.8G and RM131,990 for the 2.0V.

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