One of the most ambitious car projects in India’s auto industry debuts on Wednesday. But will Toyota’s Entry Family Car (EFC) capture the imagination of India’s middle class?

Toyota first began to understand just how under-represented it was in emerging markets when others, such as Suzuki with its Swift and Renault with its Logan, started ringing in large volumes there. At the time, Toyota was rising to the top of the heap with sales booming in the US, Europe and Japan. But Toyota’s board wanted something for the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) markets, and it was decided that India would lead that development.

So the EFC project took off about five years ago, and the idea was to design and build an inexpensive, high-volumes car from scratch—without lowering the bar on quality and safety. A tough brief, but Toyota engineers reworked some manufacturing norms and are ready to give us the Etios. The car will be available in a hatchback avatar too, but that will only debut in March. What is launching on Wednesday is the sedan version, and since I have driven it extensively, these are my insights on how good the car really is.

Etios: Toyota’s new family car. Red adds a dash of style to the interiors

Design matters

Now, on to the controversial styling. There has been a lot of pre-launch acrimony—especially online and among viewers of my weekly TV show too, that the Etios is dated, and lacks contemporary good looks. I agree, but I also concede that a lot of this has to do with keeping costs low. How is that? A simple body panel, minus the added curves and flamboyance, is cheaper to stamp and requires less number of stamping dyes. Having said this, I still believe the Etios could have been more stylish, and given its boxy profile, comparisons to the Renault Logan are, therefore, inevitable.

The Etios has a single large wiper up front. I admit that at first it does look a bit weird. But I drove the car through pouring rain, and that single wiper did the job just fine.

Under the hood

The car has a 1.5 litre engine, and what I enjoyed most about it is the ample torque on hand. When I spoke to Toyota engineers, I found this to be intentional, to afford greater comfort in city driving—sans the multiple gear changes—and more punch on the highway, when you need a boost to overtake, etc.

The gear changes are smooth too. Etios’ overall performance—though by no means jaw-dropping—is just fine for a car in this class. Power is adequate even with five adults in the car and two bags in the boot. I did test the car’s mileage and found that to my surprise, Etios returned a combined highway-city driving average of 16.5km to a litre of petrol. This was with the air conditioner on. Not bad at all (though it has to be said that Toyota claims even higher figures from its certification testing at the Automotive Research Association of India, or ARAI).

The diesel Etios with a 1.4 litre engine (similar to the Corolla Altis diesel) will also drive in next year. And the hatch I mentioned earlier, will sport the same diesel engine, as well as a 1.2 litre petrol, to stay within the excise duty-dictated “small car" definition.

Prices will be a key factor in the success of the Etios. They will be announced for just the petrol sedan. Expect competitive pricing—Rs10,000-20,000 higher than the direct rival Maruti Suzuki Swift Dzire (which retails at Rs4.88–6.32 lakh, ex-showroom Delhi for petrol variants).

The price factor

There will be differing views on what would qualify the Etios as a hit. Toyota’s Etios production will kick off in earnest from 21 December, and it will take the company three-six months to reach peak capacity. And that total capacity is just 70,000 units. By the end of 2011, the Etios (hatch and sedan combined) can only reach that figure at best. The Swift and Swift Dzire from Maruti Suzuki sell approximately 120,000 units a year. Other sedans, such as the Mahindra Logan, Tata Indigo Manza, etc.—also well priced—sell in fairly large volumes. So even if Toyota sells every car it makes, it may not end up as the segment leader, but it will still see that as a success.

Of course, in the second year, the Etios story could look very different. What I believe is that despite its somewhat dated looks, it’s the appeal of the Toyota brand, the promise of reliability and quality, and the reputation Toyota service enjoys that will see the Etios home. Perhaps brand ambassador A.R. Rahman will also strike the right note with Indian consumers? While bookings have begun, deliveries for the Etios begin in January for the sedan.

The Etios project will be emulated by Toyota Brazil, with Indian engineers and suppliers playing a big role in the car’s Brazilian debut, which is expected by the end of next year. Other developing markets will follow. So the Etios will end up as a large volumes car for Toyota globally, or will it? For now I will keep a close eye on the India debut, since this car will have an impact on the market—one way or another.

Siddharth Vinayak Patankar is Editor (Auto), NDTV.

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