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Okay, we'll admit it. The arrival of the Toyota Etios Liva for testing was not surrounded by the sort of enthusiasm that a luxury Audi could garner, for example, but the fact that the car impressed in several aspects is testament to why Toyota is Toyota.
Kodaikanal was chosen as destination for this travel review, because of the great roads from Bangalore that would offer the perfect proving ground for the Liva's highway manners, combined with the twisties of the ghat road leading up to the beautiful hill station in the Palani Ghats.
So we've kinda burst the bubble already, but what made this car tick so many boxes? Well, that's what we're here to reveal to you, so let's dive right into the thick of it.
Saturday evening had fallen over a Bangalore readying to hit the pubs, and our little white number was already making friends with an older Liva. There isn't too much to differentiate the two at first glance, but a slightly closer look will highlight the new grille, which seems to display a touch more purpose and sporty intent than its predecessor.
It seemed like we couldn't get enough of the Liva in Bangalore, with another red specimen working its way through bustling Hosur Road leading out of the city, seen in front of the central tacho and speedo. But once we we on the move again, the car began to really come into its own. We'll get to the nitty gritties of the driving experience a little further into this story.
We were now making good time once we passed Hosur town, and pulled over for a caffeine hit some 50-odd kilometres from textile-central Salem. The coffee was strong, much like the Liva's mid-range grunt, something we were getting nicely accustomed to as we progressed down NH7.
We turned off NH7 at around 1 am, and came across a temple festival outside the panchayat town of Bathlagundu that is famous for its agriculture. Pronounced ‘Vathalakkundu', this small town is also the last chance to stop at Dindigul Thalapakatty, a famous Tamilnadu chain of restaurants that dish out some rather fine biriyani and ‘non-veg items'. The brightly lit up goddess seen here could be spotted from a good distance away, and we couldn't resist a quick halt to capture the stark contrast of the neon lights against a moonless night sky.
A typically chill morning had broken in Kodaikanal, which played the perfect foil to our snapping intentions. Here is the scene from the Upper Lake View, a place that provided a good photo op with the town and Kodai Lake from a great vantage point, though the experience is usually accompanied by throngs of tourist attention.
So let's take a closer look at the Liva's front fasica. The latest iteration of the Japanese hatchback is instantly recognisable as a Liva, but features a new grille design that seems reminiscent of Subaru design cues. Designers seem to have stuck with simplicity, and it actually works. However, some might deem it a trifle bland, and without enough character to shake off its call-taxi image.
Viewed side on, the Etios Liva looks squat and compact with short overhangs both at the front and rear. Also, the large 15-inch alloys feature a 12-spoke design, and really lift the car's looks. A huge advantage the Liva has with these large wheels is that even suprise ruts on our ever-changing road surfaces pose no issue to the small car, with it lapping up road undulations with ease.
The Liva gets a thick chrome garnish above the Toyota logo at the rear, and the large wraparound tail lamps do the trick, but don't stick in your mind. However, everything seems non-offensive here as well, but then again, Toyota has always been a relatively sober manufacturer when it comes to styling, at least with its older-gen cars.
From this top down angle, the compact dimensions of the car really come through, and the large windscreen and short bonnet give the car a slightly cab-forward feel, but still remains clear of a one-box design like the Honda Jazz, for example. The grooves on the roof lift the otherwise plain surface, but as you can tell, there's nothing really spectacular about the Liva's overall design. It's here to offend no one, that's the way it is.
The 10 Mile Round is a loop around Kodaikanal town with tourist attractions dotted along the way, like Pillar Rocks, the observatory, Gunna Caves, the pine forest, and the golf course. We chose this route to show you the wonderful roads Kodaikanal possesses, at least when they're easily traversable and minus the tarmac degradation that takes place with alarming regularity, especially after a couple of bouts of rain.
While the interior is certainly nothing to write home about, the two-tone beige and grey theme lifts the otherwise drab cabin a touch. Materials are hard-surfaced everywhere, and the beige areas of the fabric upholstery and the dashboard plastic will attract dirt in the long run. But everything is within easy reach, the switchgear feels relatively well put together, and we liked the almost-180-degree adjustment capability of the air con vents. Other nice touches were the rotary headlight level adjuster and the 'slightly-flat-bottomed' steering wheel.
Toyota will do itself a world of good if it is able to decrease the travel of the clutch, as it was way too long for efficient operation. Also, the clutch is on the heavier side, so don't know if the fairer sex will appreciate that characteristic, as it makes it harder to modulate in slow moving traffic. The gearbox too, is not the slickest around, and we wish it required a touch less effort swapping cogs.
But where the car impresses the most is its driveability. Although the 1.4-litre diesel motor is not the most powerful around, producing a rather average 68 bhp, the usability of the power makes this car seem much more powerful than it actually is. The driver can harness every single one of those ponies to his or her benefit, and this is one of the traits of the Liva that we respect most. Also with the powerband between the late-1000 and the late-3000 revs on the counter, climbing up the ghat roads posed no problem for the Liva. Unlike some bigger engined diesels, there was never need to use first gear, even around the tighter bends.
With regard to ride and handling, the good balance Toyota found with the suspension setup continues. The combination of McPherson struts up front and a torsion beam system at the rear is just firm enough to give you confidence around curves, and like we said earlier, combined with the big wheels, and there's enough shock absorption to allow for a comfortable ride too. Ground clearance is good too, at 170 mm.
The Liva VXD features alloys, fog lamps, rear wash-wipe with a chrome garnish above the logo, and side mirrors with indicators to lift its otherwise unassuming looks. But since so many people say Ola to the Liva, are these quite enough to make them look past that key issue?
Eucalyptus trees are everywhere in Kodaikanal, and were first imported in 1867 by Major JM Partridge of the Bombay Army. However, while used to supplement the woodpulp industry, these trees spread like wildfire with an estimated coverage of around 11,000 hectares. Consequences were huge losses of soil water, that a Deccan Herald article published last year estimated could amount to as much as the daily water supply of Bangalore.
The 5th hole is one of the tricky ones, as you have to plan your shot pretty carefully, since you're playing from a lower elevation up towards the green which is much higher, and across this public road. As a Kodai local and golfing enthusiast very eloquently puts the reality of the shot, "You have to hit the ball and pray to God it doesn't hit a passing vehicle..."
The Liva too, never missed an opportunity to show off its own impressive handicap for our 1,000-kilometre course.
With the greens of the golf course behind us, we continued down to the end of the 10-mile loop and stopped to make a picture of a typical Kodai town hillside. Maybe I'm not too accurate calling it ‘typical', because with the astounding rate of development, Kodaikanal is not going to have too many empty spaces for too long. Liva let live is not on the agenda, sadly...
Headlights you win...
... and tail lights you lose? No, not really, they did the job just fine too.
We couldn't do too much monkeying around, because it's a front-wheel-drive affair with the Liva after all, and one without spectacular power output. If you still want to get the tail to hang out, you'd have to shell out some, hike across to Malaysia, and pick up a GT86. We want it too, Toyota!
The Kodai lake at night, with all tourist traffic diverted to the the town's tarmac. It's a very different scene during a typical day of tourist season, with several kinds of human-powered boats accommodating holidaying students, families, and couples. This is the view across to the lights of the shops against the Carlton hotel's (in the background) own.
Liva little, the small hatchback told us that Sunday evening. So we did. The temperature had dropped to a cool 14 degrees Celsius, and dinner was calling. Momos and crispy beef from the well-known Tibetan Brothers Restaurant accompanied a couple of pre-meal cold ones, with some good ol' 80s tunes playing their role nicely as well.
The next morning saw the Palani Hills alive with the sound of a diesel Toyota downshifting for its third and second gear corners, but Kodaikanal also made sure it said bye to us in characteristically scenic fashion, which prompted taking out the camera gear from the 251-litre boot for one of the last shots with this gorgeous backdrop.
A dream setting for any riding or driving enthusiast is the recently-worked on Madurai ghat road that is much wider in most places now, and with a unique combination of flowing corners and sharp curves. A good ghat road will always test riding and driving skills, that need to be adapted for these different conditions. To read our hill driving tips, click here.
When you're nearing the plains as you make your way down the 50-odd kilometres of the ghat section, don't miss stopping at one of the many spectacular spots overlooking the Vaigai Dam below. This dam provides irrigation water to the Dindigul District and Madurai District, in addition to drinking water for Madurai and Andipatti.
And just like that, Bangalore was in our sights, and our time with the Liva was drawing to an end. Final thoughts? The Toyota Etios Liva is a car that adjusts to you, not the other way around, and is extremely accommodating to anyone who drives it. Toyota's got most of the important things right with this car, like allowing almost anyone to easily find a good driving position, a highly impressive engine that allows you to make the most of its power, and good fuel economy at the same time. Where it fails is its image, which has been tarnished by its ever-rising taxi populace. But if you're looking for a practical hatchback for the long term, make sure you ponder over this one for a while, if only because of famed reliability and all-round practicality.