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.