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Not just a WHITE VAN

Not just a WHITE VAN

How many ways are there to carry passengers in great comfort? Well, that depends. You could go for a top-range, top-dollar (which makes it top top top rupee) European luxury sedan from any of the major manufacturers for the sake of outright technological prowess and above all else, the star, propeller, big cat, four rings, or other bonnet badge that signals to the world “I’ve made it, plebs!” Or if you want to be a little restrained but show some dash to the knowledgeable, a large Japanese luxury sedan that may have some tech from ten years ago, but you can be sure that it will all work in another fifty.

The lot who like to literally look down on everyone else (or spend everyone else’s hard-earned money which they milked off them in the name of taxes) will most likely plump for a large SUV, European or Japanese (or even American in rare cases) which once again will offer them luxurious rear quarters to go about their business, insulated from the heat and suffering outside and the vehicle never seeing anything more extreme than the occasional climbing of a kerb to create their own “VIP lane”.

There is a small segment of people in other Asian countries (which has not yet caught on in Sri Lanka due to the large prevalence of the previous two segments mentioned above) who have come to see the value in a luxury MPV. Think about it, in the first two categories, the driver drives the vehicle and may probably never use 80% of the fancy features. In this category, the driver has to drive the vehicle, and that’s it. He has toys like his own climate control zone, sound system and GPS, but the true focus is where it should be – on the passenger, who gets the most luxurious and cosseting experience. That is where this Toyota Alphard Hybrid in ‘Royal Lounge’ trim fits in.

Thanks to Milindu Mallawaratchie of Mal Key Rent-A-Car for giving me this vehicle for a few hours where I was able to check it out in Colombo traffic before taking it to one of its natural habitats; an airport pickup run. This also granted me the opportunity to check out the driving as well as passenger experience for at least an hour each.

 

Exterior

It’s a van. There’s no other way to put it. That said, it’s not your typical “Toyota Hiace KDH 200 Dark Prime with w*nker mirrors and new face”. The Alphard is the way I’m more comfortable with a van, which is, with a bonnet and engine ahead of me rather than no bonnet and sitting on the engine. I’d rather have a crumple zone ahead of me, than be the crumple zone. Flat white and inoffensive alloys mean that this van will rarely be given a second look and that’s a good thing. OK the front is a little excessive on the chrome but once you get to the sides and rear, it’s all a fairly conventional design that doesn’t scream ostentatiousness. In other Asian markets they go crazy with these things, fitting body kits, larger wheels and the whole caboodle of “body styling – rolls eyes”. None of that here.

Of course the security guard at any five-star hotel here is unlikely to give you the prime spots in front of the lobby usually reserved for luxury sedans, but that’s a good thing. The Alphard, especially its interior is best kept secret, away from prying eyes and curious “looky-lous” and “let-me-sit-in-it” types. The decently dark privacy glass protecting the rear section means that Kim Kardashian could be twerking inside and nobody outside would know.

 

Mech & Tech

It has the same powertrain from a Camry hybrid, which is a 2.5L Atkinson cycle four-cylinder engine that puts out 150bhp, coupled to an electric motor and driving the front wheels through an e-CVT. A 141bhp electric motor assists the engine. At the rear, a second 67bhp motor drives the rear wheels. This is the meaning of the “e-Four” badge you see on certain Toyotas. It means electric four-wheel-drive, whereby a motor drives the rear wheels and the fronts are driven by a combo of internal combustion engine and electric motor.

Steering is via an electric rack, the suspension is a MacPherson arrangement up front with double wishbone at the rear, while stopping duties are via discs all round.

 

Driving Experience

The Electric driving seat with memory means that getting comfortable is easy, and the driving position is commanding. No hiding the fact that this is a van. You can’t get a low-slung, bathtub-like position… so don’t try. Once settled in, all major controls fall easily to hand and foot, and the interior has a very Lexus-like feeling to it. The front gets dual-zone climate control, heated seats, heated steering wheel and a JBL infotainment system (in Japanese as this is a JDM vehicle). The engine is quiet (when it’s running) except when you fully wring it out at which point being a CVT it revs to high heaven (you can configure a rev counter in the central screen). Setting off, the experience is smooth and relaxing even for the driver. The power delivery is nice, in that the powertrain seems tuned well to your right foot. A gentle press sees a mild rise of speed while an urgent flooring gives you a nice surge that will take other vehicles unaware as they would not expect a vehicle of this size and ilk to move quite so quickly.

The ride is a very smooth affair, bumps and imperfections make themselves gently known but you do not get jostled about. It also corners decently though the tyres do protest after a while. In fact the ride is so comfortable that the driver who accompanied us and sat in the passenger section whilst I was driving fell asleep!

On the airport highway I tried the cruise control. It holds the speed tightly and more impressive, it is radar guided so if there is a slowpoke in front, the Alphard maintains a decent distance by slowing down. Once you switch lanes to overtake, it speeds up to the set speed.

At one point I took the Alphard well beyond the legal limits (I shall not say how much or where, suffice to say there were no other vehicles around), and it felt well planted. The driver from Mal-Key was in the back and when I asked him how fast it felt, he said maybe like 80km/h. I have to agree with him, in the back you don’t get a sense of speed at all.

 

Living with it

This is the Alphard’s raison d’etre. While the third row has a traditional set of seats which are still leather and comfortable, it’s the second row that’s the winner. Two large, comfortable Captain’s chairs are the accommodations here. They are electric, with power footrests, heating and cooling and sun blinds. They can also be turned to face the third row seats for a meeting on the go. The passenger section also has its own climate control zone and drop-down 12-inch LCD monitor for watching movies. Look up and there is a sunroof (and another one in front for the driver section). Each passenger gets their own AC vent and reading lamp. In the armrests of the second row chairs are foldable writing tables too, which I used to make my notes whilst waiting for my wife at the airport.

Whilst waiting, the attention we get is huge from the waiting taxi and van drivers, as I open the door they all peer in and ask questions, many of them have no idea what this is and it is like something alien. They can’t believe that a van can be this luxurious or have so many features. This is due to the Alphard’s rarity in the country.

The sheer sense of space is what differentiates it from a luxury sedan or SUV. Even in long wheelbase variants, you never quite get the headroom, shoulder room and legroom that the Alphard or any other luxury MPV offers. Of course that’s mainly because the vehicle is tall; being an MPV the roofline is not as constrained by the design as it would be in a sedan or the newfangled four-door coupes. And that aforementioned JBL infotainment system sounds great. It’s claimed to have seventeen speakers and a twelve-channel amp which I do not doubt. There is a remote control for the rear passenger to control the system and even 100V power outputs to plug a laptop.

On the way back from the airport, I have the seat reclined, seat cooler on maximum and fully in relax mode. My wife is already asleep in the next seat. You are really isolated from the outside world, and the ride is even better in the middle than it was from the driver seat. Only thing missing is a beverage cooler (which I’m sure is an option) and you can practically live in this thing. Press a button and a cup holder pops out. Press another and fold out the table. There are plenty of nooks and crannies for storing stuff. The choking traffic outside, errant three wheelers, bikes and horning buses all melt away and you arrive at your destination refreshed and ready to go.

 

Safety

The Alphard has the full suite including front and curtain airbags, seat belt pre-tensioners, crash absorbing structures, ABS, stability control, radar guided cruise control and much more. It got a five star rating in JNCAP (Japanese New Car Assessment Programme), so no worries on the safety front. It also scored well in frontal pedestrian safety tests.

 

Fuel Economy & Price

We didn’t pay too much attention to fuel economy but cursory glances throughout the test showed the highway run netted around 12km/l, while in city this dropped to 8. While it’s a petrol hybrid, it’s got a large and heavy body to lug around, not to mention the significant frontal and side profiles that need to be pushed through the air. For a large MPV, the fuel figures are decent enough.

Price is a difficult one to put down, as our changing tax structure means that the Alphard should be nearer 30 million now, owing to the 2.5 litre engine. Still, it’s what can be expected from a vehicle of this ilk and compares well to the competition which includes luxury sedans and SUVs from the East and West, some of which may nip below the price of this due to their 2.0L turbo engines.

 

Final Words

So can the Alphard cut it in the luxury people conveyance segment? I think it can. It’s a people mover that offers a decent dose of luxury and comfort to where it matters; the passenger cabin, while the driver is well looked after as well, with a sufficient helping of tech and comfort too, but not enough to overwhelm. It doesn’t offer sub-6 second 0-100km/h times but can move its bulk at a decent clip to well beyond the maximum legal speed in Sri Lanka. It’s an ideal company transporter for the upper management, and for the travel and tourism industry which is what Mal Key uses it for. Above all, those who value sheer space on the inside over everything else will find it a compelling choice.

 

Tech Specs

Engine

2,493cc 4-cylinder

150bhp, 206Nm

141bhp motor at front

67bhp motor at rear

 

Transmission

e-CVT

All wheel drive

 

Suspension

Front MacPherson

Rear Double Wishbone

 

Brakes

Front Vent. Disc

Rear Disc

ABS, EBD

 

Wheels & Tyres

225/60R17 all round

 

Misc

Length 4,915mm

Width 1,850mm

Height 1,895mm

Kerb Weight 2,220kg

Fuel Tank 75L