x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Road Test: Toyota to make rivals jealous of the Zelas

The Toyota Zelas is trying to tap into the market of coupes for the younger generation, with a basic but fun drive.

Toyota didn't really take any chances with the design of the Zelas, but it is not a bad-looking car. Satish Kumar / The National
Toyota didn't really take any chances with the design of the Zelas, but it is not a bad-looking car. Satish Kumar / The National

When the Zelas was unveiled at the Abu Dhabi Motor Show in December, it represented the first salvo from Toyota aimed squarely at the youth market of the Middle East. It was shown beside the FT-86 rear-drive concept sports car, which is planned to hit showrooms after 2012.

But Hugh Dickerson, the senior general manager of sales and marketing at Al-Futtaim Motors, said the Zelas filled "a gap in the market for younger motorists looking for a sporty vehicle that performs well, looks good and is in a price bracket they can afford".

And when you think about it, he's right. There aren't many sporty coupes out there for the Lady Gaga generation, those cheap and cheerful cars that are fun but not too fancy. Maybe Toyota is on to something here.

The Zelas may be new to the region, but it's not a new car; it's based on the Scion tC that is available in just about every other major market in the world. And it's not even really a coupe, per se: it's actually a hatchback disguised as a coupe.

The Zelas will be sold here in full body kit, with aggressive front and rear fascia to dress up an otherwise subtle, almost humdrum shape. Oh, it's not bad looking, really; I like the rear haunches, and the blocky stance makes it look bigger than it really is, but Toyota didn't really take any chances on the design.

The interior, save for some leather armrests, is almost entirely hard, black plastic, with some aluminium-coloured plastic accents thrown in for good measure. But though the materials are cheap, it's definitely a driver-orientated layout and certainly not boring, with various textures and patterns throughout.

The flat-bottomed steering wheel is sporty, thick and wrapped in leather, as are the well-bolstered seats; passengers in both the front and back will find a surprising amount of room. There is a good mix of options in the Zelas, such as one-touch power windows, keyless entry and cruise control in this top model, though a sat/nav system and a sunroof are not available.

The kids will love the eight-speaker, six-disc sound system for blasting down the motorway. The stereo isn't the highest level, but Toyota is aiming this at the tuner crowd, which would almost immediately swap in a top-notch, neon-burning watt monster into the dash. But those who normally wouldn't do so may consider it now, seeing as there was not a USB port to be found in the entire car. For a sporty coupe aimed at the younger generation, I can't believe Toyota would neglect the fact that just about everyone nowadays has their music on an iPod or some other music player. Heck, I'm not even that young, and I was disappointed.

And while the passengers will be fine for space, opening the rear hatch reveals a shallow area for cargo, leaving the possibility of crushing your oranges on a supermarket run. The rear seats fold down if you need the extra space.

But driving the Zelas is where the fun really starts. It's the kind of car that makes you want to find curvy, quick stretches of road, like the ones south of Dubai, and just open it up. With full independent suspension, the handling and steering is tight, quick and very predictable, yet it's still comfortable enough for general cruising.

Adding to the fun is the engine: the 2.5L four cylinder puts out 176hp, and it feels quick right from the word go. It's not a barnburner, mind you, but it's more than enough for such a small car. Plus, the exhaust note is just enough to let you know you're in a sporty car without being intrusive or annoying.

The six-speed automatic works well - when you leave it in auto mode. It doesn't delay in kicking down a cog when needed and the sport mode will keep the revs higher for more lively driving. You can also shift on your own, via either the gear shifter or the paddle shifters behind the wheel. But here's where I found a problem: bumping the paddles from fourth to fifth and fifth to sixth resulted in, well, nothing. The engine revs just kept climbing until near redline, despite my flicking and flicking the upshift paddle, until finally it settled into the higher gear. I tried it many times, my knuckles white with pressure, but it just didn't want to change gears. I finally just gave up and left it in auto. Strangely, a manual gearbox won't be an option in the UAE; shame, because that would just make this car more fun to drive.

Overall, I was pretty impressed with the Zelas; keeping in mind its price and market, there aren't many other cars out there that offer so much as a package. I would prefer to have a manual gearbox, and I would absolutely insist on a USB port (or a new stereo), but it's a good place to start for Toyota in luring the young market into its showrooms.