There is exactly one glaring flaw in Toyota's bread-and-butter MPV, and it’s not the bland styling (which is perfectly fine for its segment). It’s not even the price anymore, which raised more than a few eyebrows last year when the new model breached the P1 million mark for all but the base variants. Were I in the market for an MPV, the one thing that would stop me from getting the Innova would be the manual transmission. I would skip right over that option no matter what promos the dealer may offer and just park my lazy butt in an automatic.
As any Metro Manilan is painfully aware, the average speed in the city is rarely ever more than 30kph. On a payday, it may actually be faster to jog to your destination depending on the distance. And it’s not even because I hate manuals, mind you. My daily driver is a stick shift. If I was buying a sports car, it would be manual or nothing.
The problem with the manual Innova is not so much that it’s a manual per se, but because the rest of the vehicle is so good that its basic five-speed (yes, five) transmission quickly reveals its shortcomings. It’s not the same unit as in the Hilux either. The clutch is heavy and takeup is abrupt like an older model truck’s, and the gearing is too short.
First gear winds up too quickly that you’ll be going into second just before you hit 10kph. The midrange gears are fine, but the fifth is still too short. The 2.8-liter engine is so gutsy—as in 169hp gutsy—that it’s practically straining at the leash at 115kph. At 100kph, the engine is ticking over a shade above 2,100rpm. At 120kph it’s turning over at 2,800rpm. Yet the engine can clearly push harder than that.
I’ll wager it’s good for at anywhere from 160-180kph. The transmission is practically screaming for a sixth cog to calm things down and improve fuel economy. Twice I gnashed the gears when muscle memory pulled the stick back into a non-existent sixth slot that was, of course, taken up by reverse. An overachieving engine and an overmatched transmission is not a good combination.
And that’s my one big beef about this MPV. Not the looks, which is still a bread loaf like before, except Mom has sliced away the borders. Certainly not the interior, which bid good riddance to the acre of cheap, hard plastic dashboard of the past for something more layered and more nuanced, with better textures and color matching. The instrument panel is handsome and quite sophisticated with its multi-info central display.
Toyota still can’t wean itself from its penchant for faux wood appliques, but I suppose it’s less pretentious than fake carbon fiber. The seats are much improved; nicely padded and supportive for long drives unlike the lumps of the old generation. The second row bench can be adjusted for seatback rake, and the 60:40 split/fold/tumble design frees up valuable cargo space for road trips.
Mismatched transmission aside, the Innova handles long roads like a champ. The ride is on the firm side, with steering that borders on mildly heavy rather than featherlight for added stability at high speed. Despite its body-on-frame design, the solid ride is free of the annoying judders and squeaking that plagues most non-monocoque automobiles, even for our 12,000+km test unit.
Toyota has actually made a rather fun-to-drive stealth ship in the Innova, giving it the underpinnings to match its power. If you like to drive briskly from time to time, this unassuming mom-mobile has a pleasant friskiness that belies its middle-of-the-road looks. It’s confident in the turns, feels planted at speed, and you get the sense you could drive barumbado and it would be none the worse for wear.
Over a week of short and long drives, hours in gridlock and on open roads, the Innova endeared itself to all its passengers. My wife and kids appreciated the comfort of the quality seats and powerful A/C, signaling their approval by falling asleep within 10 minutes practically every ride. The windshield has a nice, panoramic view marred just a bit by the thick A-pillars, and passengers appreciated the low window beltline.
The cargo area doesn’t have any fancy fold-into-the-floor seats, but the basic split-fold-tumble design works well enough. I was able to fit my TT bike, a cooler, and a weekend’s worth of luggage for a triathlon by just removing the front wheel and folding half of the rear seat.
As expected of a family vehicle moving up the totem pole, it’s quite loaded with standard equipment. There's a more than decent stereo, front and rear A/C, multiple power ports, ABS and airbags. Toyota didn’t forget to add a touch of whimsy in the accent lighting on the headliner, while adding functional touches like fold-down trays on the front seatbacks and fold-out cupholders on the dashboard.
The diesel Innova E is priced at P1.164 million for the stick shift, but unless you’re really scrimping or just plan to rent it out, the extra dough for the automatic will be worth it. An E with the automatic is priced at P1.244 million, but the premium is justified. It’s a thoroughly modern six-speed unit with sequential manual shifting, and based on my experience with similarly equipped Toyotas in the past, it will make the driving experience of an Innova even more enjoyable.