2011 Toyota Zelas

The Good:
– Spacious cabin
– Good handling
– Superb fuel economy
The Bad:
– Hard plastic cabin panels
– Ordinary engine sound
– Unsporting brakes

The Zelas is a bit of a surprise from Toyota, the company that was hell-bent on peddling only practical family cars to the ever-conservative public. This two-door thing is the first coupe to be offered with a Toyota badge in the Middle East since the demise of the Supra more than a decade ago. And it is strictly a love-it-or-hate-it affair.

Truth be told, we suspect most people who hate it haven’t really laid eyes on it yet. It is a chunky little car that is actually not as little as it first seems. It may seem that the Nissan Altima and Honda Accord coupes are much bigger, and they are so in terms of overall length, but the Zelas actually has a longer wheelbase than the Altima and is only slightly less than that of the Accord. Combined with a standard body kit and 17-inch alloys, it isn’t a bad looker at all.

All that length between the front and rear wheels translates to a surprising amount of space inside. There is good legroom and headroom up front. And even in the back, the legroom is as good as any four-door compact, with decent access thanks to the large doors, although headroom may be a concern for the tallest of folks. The Zelas surprises again with a liftback tailgate for easier cargo loading, though the load floor is very high due to a full-size spare tyre underneath. The rear seats fold flat to increase luggage volume, and there are enough cup-holders and storage cubbies to keep the Starbucks crowd happy.

The unique dashboard is shaped a bit oddly but very functional, with a driver-facing centre console. It adds to the overall sporty cabin, with its heavily-bolstered sports seats and chunky flat-bottomed steering wheel. However, every other nicely-textured surface beyond the leather seats and padded armrests is comprised of hard plastic, which is bizarre considering the cushier Altima coupe comes in at roughly the same price range.

Our fully-optioned Zelas came with power accessories, strong manual a/c, intelligent keyless entry with starter button, rear parking sensors, front and side airbags, cruise control and what looks like an aftermarket Bluetooth phone that works fine. The stereo deck is intentionally cheap so that it can be replaced by those who want to, although it is already hooked up to eight solid speakers with steering-wheel buttons, 6-CD changer and USB support. Stuff like HID headlights, sunroof and dual-zone climate control aren’t available, even as options.

The Zelas is powered by a Camry-derived 2.5-litre 4-cylinder, making 176 hp at 6000 rpm and 230 Nm of torque at 4100 rpm. Mated to a 6-speed paddle-shiftable automatic in the top-spec trim, the gearbox is good if left on its own, but manual responses are slightly delayed. The engine drones like a Camry too, unlike the rev-happy exhaust note of a Honda, although it is still much quicker than the Accord 2.4EX Coupe, as we clocked 0-100 kph in 8.8 seconds during our January test, while burning a supremely-economical 8.4 litres/100 km.

Toyota lovers and haters alike will be interested to know that the Zelas is the best-handling Toyota we’ve ever driven. The Zelas is endowed with MacPherson struts up front and double-wishbone rear suspension. Body roll is muted most times, and only reaches moderate levels in sharp turns. There is good grip from the 215/50 tyres on 17-inch alloys, and the car safely understeers at the limit. Body control is also good, settling down at once after sharp corners instead of wallowing like a Corolla. Even steering feedback is decent and responses are sharp, surprising given how light the wheel feels. About the only unsporting bit has to be the ABS-assisted disc brakes, which are simply average when they should be stronger.

The ride quality is expectedly firm but not jarring, and it isn’t the quietest car but not overly noisy. Most of that noise is moderate wind and road hush at highway speeds. All in all, it is a good daily driver without the hard edge that makes other sportier cars uncomfortable. Rear visibility is okay, even if partially bisected by the boot spoiler, and reverse sensors make parking easy. One has to watch out for the front bumper though, as that body kit’s lower lip sticks out pretty far.

The Zelas may not be the fastest Toyota out there, but it is definitely the sportiest Toyota in the company’s current line-up. It may not seem like it from the spec sheet, but it is practical, efficient and even fun to drive. While a manual gearbox option is not specifically offered, other markets do get one, and we suspect it’d be infinitely more entertaining if you could force your local dealer to ship one for you.

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