By on November 28, 2008

What the heck’s an Innova? While the Toyota website and Wikipedia give no hint to what the word actually means, I suspect it was supposed to evoke the feeling of being innovative, exciting, something new and vogue. Well, so was the Oldsmobile Achieva. And just like the Achieva, no amount of marketing and media shots of active couples rampaging around the country side will convince me the Toyota Innova is anything more than a marketing focus group’s bastard child. Then I found out that the platform and mechanical bits are donated from Toyota’s legendary Hilux pickup truck. Now we might be on to something.

This first thing I had to come to grips with about my shiny new white Toyota Innova G was it really wasn’t a Toyota at all. Instead, the mini mini-van comes from Malaysia where Astra Motors stamps them out next to basic Hiluxes under license from the ToMoCo. The Fauxyota screams knock-off like a Couch purse, or a Folex watch. It looks like the real thing at a distance with the shiny Toyota emblem glinting in the equatorial sun; however, when you get up close, third-world horrors abound in a way I haven’t seen since the last National Geographic special on Rwanda.

See those cool swage lines arching over the fender as if directly inspired by the Fiat Coupe Turbo? Look closer, and see that they aren’t quite straight, and there a few paint runs where the undercoating was most likely sprayed by someone making a buck a day. The rest of the body seems well screwed together, despite the large panel gaps reminiscent of the 1970’s, and the styling, while conservative looks quite attractive with the Euro small bumpers and flowing lines that run from hood to hatch. Without having to worry about American or European crash testing, designers (if there actually were any on the Innova) had a free hand and used it to make … a minivan.

The interior, in desert beige looks remarkably like every other Toyota, with parts stolen from the Yaris, Corolla, and even the Hilux. The colors were pleasing, the textures interesting, and the controls easy to use and simple. Still, the dodgy origins shine through in the fit and finish. Just like native trinkets, each Innova in my military fleet proved slightly different. My dashboard showed scratches where it was literally filed down in places to make it fit snug against the airbag. Another Innova showed melted patches on the door where it looks like it was burnt with a cigarette lighter to ensure it would fit smoothly against the armrest. I would find these oddities charming in a rug from Afghanistan, but not in a vehicle that might meet the wrong end of a speeding BMW on a Middle Eastern highway. At least there are no rattles to be found — yet.

Scary build quality aside, the real interesting facets about the Innova derive from what you can’t see, the oily bits underneath the ho-hum exterior. When Toyota decided to design an MPV specifically for more rugged trails, they turned directly to one of the most robust and successful platforms they had, the Hilux pickup. So rather than a unibody minivan, the Innova gets a ladder frame, with the body bolted to it. This creates a nearly indestructible platform should you want to make the school run through the Korean DMZ. The 2.7L VVT-I 160bhp four-cylinder, which will last longer than the next North Korean dear leader, also carries over from the Hilux.

Parents usually don’t like to see their children catapulted from the rear most seats into the ceiling, so the Innova design team stripped off the leaf-springs from the Hilux, and replaced them with a much more advanced spring and strut assembly. This smoothes out the ride considerably, given that the chassis was originally engineered for the most brutal conditions. While there are still snaps and kicks, the Innova remains relatively calm while traversing broken pavement and cobblestones.

The best and worst part about being a cousin to the indestructible truck: rear-wheel drive and a very stupid automatic. You approach every turn with a certain amount of fear, and excitement, for you do not know what the automatic transmission from the 4th level of hell will do (upshift? downshift? bog down? I have no idea!). This only adds to the drama. You sling the incredibly vague steering wheel and hope that you placed the heavily rolling beast on the correct line, for you have no hope of correcting your turn in mid-arc. Then you smash the gas and feel the van go sideways as the rear steps out smoothly and controllably. Lift off, and the Innova straightens out, as if nothing were amiss.

I should praise the Innova as its RWD Hilux derived setup means it will probably last forever while giving a few thrills, yet I can’t. Despite all the things going for it, the Innova still feels like a real Toyota in the sense it is terminally boring in nearly every situation, and yet it feels unlike a Toyota with its noticeably second rate construction. If you live in more topographically demanding regions of the world and need a family hauler, get the similar Toyota Fortuner, or better yet, a real Land Cruiser.

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11 Comments on “Review: Toyota Innova...”

  • avatar

    Our esteemed author is showing us his ignorance of other markets. The Innova is not sold in North America for a reason. It is designed for places like the Philippines where roads are terrible, traffic awful and families large. This vehicle is commonly use as an “FX” in the Philippines which is like a small bus. It is indeed indestructible and was never made to “generate g-forces in twisties,” nor “canyon carving,” nor will anyone care it the “shift lever falls readily to hand.” It is designed to more lots of people at low speeds and be as reliable as a rock. Judging by the numbers I have seen on the roads in SE Asia, Toyota has succeed admirably.

    Finally, the MOST expensive Innova in the Philippines lists are just under $24,000 and the cheapest one, still with a/c of course, is under $16,000. Compare this to your Sienna, which would not last a month on Manila roads.

  • avatar

    There is definitely a place for a body-on-frame live-axle minivan (towing, long term durability); it was sad to see that die in the US with end of the Astro, Safari and Aerostar.

    GM and Ford should have kept modernizing those platforms instead of trying to chase Chrysler and the imports with inferior fwd unibody minivans.

  • avatar

    I agree 100% with Canucknucklehead. The truth about what, how does this piece fit to TTAC’s context? It’s like Japanese automotive website would review US Market Toyota Tundra and would find that its completely unsuitable for narrow Japanese mountain roads and Tokyo peak traffic hours.

  • avatar

    Looks very much like Honda Odyssey circa 1998 (I owned one). Even interior looks similar. Honda wasn’t bad, except for turning circle larger then Enterprise (aircraft carrier).

  • avatar
    Ed S.

    The Innova sounds like another Toyota product the Previa. Sold in the US from 1991 to 1997, this minivan featured a mid-rear drive train layout with a torquey 4-cylinder engine. The vehicle was assembled in a Hino factory, IIRC, and did not conform to traditional Toyota ergonomic or interior materials standards. However, the vehicle proved tough and reliable. My parents still used their 1991 model from time to time. It has almost 300K miles.

  • avatar

    Interesting vehicle, provided it never reaches our shores. But I have to give Kudos to Toyota for the leaf-to-coil conversion on the back end. Its kinda like an Aerostar, except bland and probably has even worse safety ratings.

  • avatar

    The new Land Cruiser are brutishly expensive… which model is being sold down there?

    The Fortuner is FUGLY, based on the Hilux truck also and with rear coil springs.

    I want to signal one thing he put in his article: bad quality construction. The thing is sold in 3 virtues: ruggedness, usefulness and the big T it has in the grille. The first 2 are acceptable to me, but after seeing the local last generation dash plastic, the big T can kiss my ass because the interior just plain SUCKS, and screams CHEAP.

    And I have to pay a premium for that? LOL

    The Isuzu D-Max (Chevy here) has better materials inside.

  • avatar

    @ Sajeev:

    I give props to them for the real coil springs… I’m pretty much sure the setup it’s already in their parts bin.

    And here in my country, people would buy them as luxury vehicles :-S. Seriously.

  • avatar

    it was sad to see that die in the US with end of the Astro, Safari and Aerostar.

    …but not sad to see the death of the self-same Astro, Safari and Aerostar IMO!

  • avatar

    Is it one of those cars no one wants, but everyone needs? Aside from the build quality I mean. I seem to be on a branding kick today. Toyota stands for quality. They should be careful.

  • avatar

    Stingray: probably true, but the actually spent the time to upgrade the HiLux with those springs? This would be a good vehicle for my homeland too.

    From what I saw in India, these third-world Toyotas (for lack of a better phrase, no disrespect intended) have far inferior build quality and material selction to the ones found in other parts of Asia, Europe, USA. Maybe that’s okay, because with Toyota’s perfect supply chain, they can easily sell the better ones anywhere in the world…whenever the market demands it. The Tundra’s recent introduction to the Middle East (blogged about here) is proof positive.

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