By on December 15, 2010

On December 1, a B-sized sedan went on sale in India without a single car in the showroom. It is called the Etios, it is made by Toyota, and sight unseen, it already received 12,000 pre-orders as of today. Production of the Etios will start on December 20 in Toyota’s factory near Bangalore, India. Boring story so far?

While in Toyko for the rest of the year, I had a chance today to talk to Toyota’s lead engineer of the Etios, Yoshinori Noritake. And a much bigger story emerged: Toyota is engineering and building new cars, made for the special demands and targeted at the world’s new growth markets. Developed markets may not apply.

Noritake is a soft-spoken, humble man. None of the often arrogant hubris I grew up with in Europe and in the U.S. Dressed in a dark blue suit with a light blue tie, he explains that the Etios is not a car taken from the Toyota rack and sold in India under a new name. It is a brand new construction from the ground up. It is not even a car for India. It is Toyota’s car for the emerging markets, commonly called “BRIC.” As in “Brazil. Russia, India, China.” But it is also for the other populous markets that take the step to mass motorization.

“India is a competitive market,” says Noritake. “If we succeed in India, we can apply this in other markets as well.”

Noritake and his “BRIC” team of engineers studied India well before they designed this car. He describes India as a country with often narrow and bad roads, where people “lack driving manners”, where there is “intense competition at the traffic lights” and where “goats, cows, bicyclists and more coexist on the roads with cars that often have no rearview mirrors.”

He reports of “sometimes 8 people in a car” and “a number of other people that attach themselves to the outside of the car.”

He doesn’t say it, but he clearly indicates that in his mind, something like the Nano is not the right car for India. “People aspire to a real sedan with room for the family. They tell us they would like a Toyota, but our price is much too high.”

So Noritake and his team built a car from the ground up for the harsh roads, for the demanding passenger load, and at a price Toyota hopes the Indians will be able to afford.

The Etios is an amazingly roomy B-Class car, with a cavernous 595 liter trunk, and room for five. A lot of room for five. “You know, Indians are kind of big, at least compared to us Japanese,” says Noritake, and muses that the reason might be the menu based on oily curry. But indeed, the backseats of the Etios offer legroom otherwise found in a long version so popular in China.

And speaking of legs, “people in India often sit barefoot in the car.” Therefore, the metal underpinnings of the front seats have been armored with plastic coating to avoid injury of shoeless feet.

Toyota’s BRIC team truly sweated the development of the car. They drove prototypes for 200,000 kilometers (125,000 miles) on all kinds of roads in India and soon decided that the Etios needs the strongest A/C as standard equipment, with a galeforce airflow, preferably at full blast into the face of driver and passengers. The A/C is augmented by clean air filters to protect the passengers from third world dust.

“The dust in India is tremendous,” recalls Noritake, and a shudder goes through his lithe body. “You want to keep watered–up all the time.” Seven cup holders, make that seven one liter bottle holders were distributed to strategic points within the vehicle. Toyota punched a hole with a bezel into the wall that separates the glove compartment from the A/C duct: Bingo, a refrigerated glove compartment. Did I say “glove compartment?” This 13 liter deep carmoire keeps a healthy number of one liter bottles cool and protects a large shopping bag from prying eyes when the car is parked.

At the outside, the car sports a 170mm (6.7 inch) ground clearance, quite the standard (and necessary) for Indian roads. However, instead of jacking up existing models, that ground clearance is built-in. And it wasn’t enough: During their 200,000 km endurance race through India, debris on the road killed some essential lines at the bottom of the car. The production model received underbody-armor.

More improvements were inspired by firsthand experience: During the monsoon, Noritake and team were soaked when walking up to the car. Cellphone and keyfob died. The Etios production keyfob is now waterproof. As long as your cellphone doesn’t come from Noritake’s team, keep it in a Ziploc® bag during the Indian monsoon season.

The Etios is powered by a newly developed 1.5 liter 16 valve DOHC engine that produces 90 hp and has a torque of 132 Nm to give you an edge in the competition at the traffic lights. The transmission is a 5 speed stick.

Now for the price of the car Toyota hopes people will be able to afford. Well, it’s no Nano. The following prices were converted from rupees to yen by Noritake, and then to dollars by me, so please no discussion about purchasing power. Prices start at a little over $10,000 for the base, or “J” model, and go up to $14,300 for the “VX” model. There are two other trim levels (“G” and “V”) in-between.

“Naturally, this car is not just for India, but for other markets too,” says Noritake. Toyota plans exports of the vehicle, and “naturally, the platform can be adapted to other markets as well.”

Noritake puts great emphasis on having the right car for the right market. “Toyota has a global standard for its cars. The local necessities take precedence over this global standard.” The car for India doesn’t have to start in Siberian winters. An Etios made for the R in BRIC possibly doesn’t need a galeforce A/C, but a stronger electrical system.

Is the car crashworthy?  Noritake imparts the frightening news that India has no legal requirement for crash worthiness, but fear not, “we build the car to European crash standards.” He concedes that Euro-NCAP is complicated and in flux. “The Indian buyer may want to trade some airbags for space or lower price. In Europe, we’d probably need the full complement of airbags and a little work on the pedestrian protection.”

He doesn’t seem to be too keen on exporting the BRIC car to the developed markets anyway. When asked, he lowers his voice, says “I cannot comment – there could be a potential.” In other words: No. The BRIC car will remain a BRIC car first and foremost.

It’s a rugged car, but it’s not a street car in plaid clothing and faux wood. It hides its ruggedness under an elegant suit. The front seats are racing style bucket seats. A roomy $10,000 Toyota would be an easy sell in China, especially during those sandstorms. It would seat 5 beefy Russians in full winter gear. Most of all, it’s a real sedan, with a real and huge trunk, and that’s what people want when they have outgrown a cheap hatchback.

Toyota could be up to something with this car and further cars of that type. Other automakers used to ship previous gen tooling to emerging markets. Now, they just ship what sells at home, maybe adapted skindeep, or decontented. The BRIC car is nothing of that. It is not even available back home. It is built for and in the emerging markets. The Etios already has 70 percent local content, and when the engine is built locally in India in 2012, and the gearbox in 2013, only 10 percent of the parts will need to be imported, limited to “the ECU, some sensors and other small high reliability items,” says  Noritake.

Not just the people would love such a car, governments and local industry would love it too.

Disclosure: The fare from Kamata to Iidabashi was put on my personal Suica card. Toyota paid for the coffee. The car was a preproduction prototype, photography verboten.

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19 Comments on “Review And Talk With The Head Engineer: Toyota Etios, BRIC Spec...”

  • avatar

    great article Bert.

  • avatar

    Nicely written article – I really enjoyed it. Successful Dacia/Renault Logan comes immediately to mind when reading about Etios.

  • avatar

    A smart move by Toyota to develop car for the rugged conditions of this market rather than use a hand me down from the developed world.  I’m sure the price-point played big role here.  The car looks it, even though $10K is probably expensive for the local market.
    If the air conditioning works as well as claimed, then you may see many of these in service as taxis.

  • avatar

    “something like the Nano is not the right car for India” ~ Not just India. I don’t think any car that randomly bursts into flames and kills its occupants is the “right car” for any country.

    That aside, this looks like a very competitive developing-market car, a real sedan with real room. A peek on the Indian Etios website (in English) shows a car that looks less like a penalty-box and more like a real car (I daresay it’s better-proportioned than the Yaris, and it’s certainly prettier than the woebegone Coda EV).
    I like the cut of Noritake’s jib, his willingness and openness to speak of the new car and appreciate Toyota’s attention to detail and consideration of developing countries’ driving habits and quirks in the Etios’ design.

    Toyota could have made a car on the cheap that would have to be totally overhauled when India gets around to having crash standards and such, but they didn’t. They did their homework.

    Now the only thing in their way could be nationalism: Putin wants Russian cars built in Russia; Hu wants Chinese cars built in China, I could be wrong, but Indians and Brazilians just seem to want cars, full stop.

    • 0 avatar

      We’re likely going to see production of automobiles decentralized.  Indian cars made in India, Russian cars in Russia, and Brazilian cars in Brazil.  There are still too many logistical and political barriers that exist.
      Clearly, Putin has made it clear that he wants Russian car production.  Brazil has one of the most draconian import tariffs in the world (up to 90% tariff on imported cars).  Other emerging markets are the same.  Lots of barriers, red tape, and simply not worth it when you consider the razor thin margins on these emerging market cars.
      There are several FTA agreements that will change these dynamics.  Principally the ASEAN-India, China-India, FTAs.  But there are too many stumbling blocks politically to really make this work.  Thailand is probably the closest to becoming a global auto-manufacturing hub.
      But the concept of the automobile as an export tool is long dead.  While it anti-globalization from a manufacturing perspective, its globalization from a business one.   Toyota has it right to focus on cars that are domestically produced in the country that its sold.  They have done this successfully in North America.  And the strong yen is temporarily helping them in this effort.

  • avatar

    Would be a good starting point for a cheap and durable rally car!

  • avatar

    It almost sounds like a car version of the Hilux.  If it is as bombproof, it should be just as successful.

  • avatar

    BTW, I really appreciate you bringing us an interview with an engineer and designer.
    It’s so refreshing after all the usual marketroid drivel.  The details are what make cars interesting.  A car is more than a small collection of drag strip and skidpad numbers.

  • avatar

    Filters on the AC unit are pretty typical. Given indian roads, you might would do double up on the filters.

    What I am also curious about is engine cooling — massive amount of time spent a very low speeds or traffic jams.

    Industrial level horns would also be useful.

    Personally, I think Toyota and Ford have the best Indian cars.

  • avatar

    I remember reading stories of Japanese Toyota engineers spending months in America driving minivans around the country, just to better understand the market and tailor their Sienna appropriately. It’s smart business, and leads to products that better integrate into their markets. Smells like a recipe for success for this car.

  • avatar

    This sounds somewhat akin to the Toyota Innova that TTAC reviewed a while back.

  • avatar

    And THIS is why Toyota dominates the globe… Attention to detail, designing a car for its market, not expecting markets to conform to your ideas (looking in your direction, Detroit). Just like the Toyotas of yore, the Etios will cost a little more, but it will be as loyal, trustworthy and dependable as your pet dog.

  • avatar

    “Seven cup holders, make that seven one liter bottle holders were distributed to strategic points within the vehicle.”

    No! Only fat Americans demand so many cup holders! This simply cannot be true!

    /snark off

    I suppose having a cup holder or 2 isn’t the crime some would make it out to be.

    • 0 avatar

      “Seven cup holders, make that seven one liter bottle holders were distributed to strategic points within the vehicle. Toyota punched a hole with a bezel into the wall that separates the glove compartment from the A/C duct: Bingo, a refrigerated glove compartment. Did I say “glove compartment?” This 13 liter deep carmoire keeps a healthy number of one liter bottles cool and protects a large shopping bag from prying eyes when the car is parked.”
      I had the same thought when reading this sentence. Plus, they used the same idea Chrysler did on the Caliber and Compass with the air conditioned glove box that cools drinks…
      Great minds think alike?

  • avatar

    Very interesting interview on a great design approach.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    What an interesting review. Thanks for making my day Bertel.

  • avatar

    Wow, a double-DIN ! What were they thinking of, not making it harder for them to upgrade the stereo?
    I think that’s an interesting brochure, or maybe it’s because I just like looking at auto brochures. From the looks of it and the tone of the story, Toyota may have made a car that maximizes space in the sort of the same way a Honda Fit does. I like that concept and wonder why more auto makers aren’t doing that as a selling point – in North America, anyways.

  • avatar

    Enjoyed the write-up. BS and JB are fun to read.
    Regarding the car, did it have to be so damned unsightly? What’s with the concave scalloping around the intersection of the A-pillar and the front fender? I guess Toyota was too embarrassed to share a picture of the rear with you. The Stateside Yaris looks so much better: and that’s not even faint praise.
    >>>>Sigh<<<< But it seems ugly is the new cool and that’s here to stay. Just look at the emesis the recently unveiled 6-series BMW is. And the latest news, that the genius who designed the tubby last gen 7-series is now rehired as head of BMW’s design, has just made my day.

  • avatar

    Great article! I have been to India and in order to understand the madness and what sort of vehicle perform well in it one does have to live there.  it may not be pretty, but it sounds like they incorporated a lot of features that will make it perform well in India. 

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