The editorial staff at wheels magazine have sent me a coded message with this car — at least I think they have. It's subtle, but why else would you give a new dad in his mid-thirties a vehicle as exceedingly youthful as the Toyota Zelas to test? Clearly this is a shot across the bow, as if to say, "You see this Nelson? This is all behind you now."
The car seemed to announce at every turn that it wasn't quite suited for the domestic bliss I currently enjoy; the groceries barely fitted in the boot, the child safety seat had no chance in the rear seat, and my full-size American in-laws (not fat, but tall) would have had their knees against their chins had I insisted that we take the Zelas out to dinner. And so I basically drove the car alone over the few days I had it, revelling in rare moments of solitude… Er, hang on. Strike the opening paragraph and replace it with this: The kind folks at wheels have given this new father his freedom back, if only for a few fleeting minutes.
Out on the road the Zelas doesn't really care who you are, and the sleek, mostly black leather-clad interior nearly convinced me that I was someone much hipper, someone like our beret- and turtleneck-wearing intern Julius.
The car is equipped with a premium eight-speaker audio system that Toyota contrasts with the meagre six-speaker systems offered by its competitors. The front seats are race inspired; still comfortable but with a little bit of thigh-gripping bucket love in the corners. The rear seats are, let's face it, cramped, which is how coupés are meant to be. Young people are known for their pecking orders and initiation rituals so the back seat of this car could serve as a sort of clout barometer, that is, if you're riding in the back, you're low on the totem pole.
As I mentioned before, a week's worth of groceries fits well enough into the back after a bit of negotiating, especially once I had to remove the detachable privacy hatch for better clearance. To be fair, had I just reclined the rear seats, the storage space would have been ample enough to accommodate a decent bit of cargo. In the literature accompanying the car, Toyota states that you can fit a snowboard or surfboard in the Zelas with the seats down. Good luck catching any of Dubai's pint-sized to non-existent waves with anything less than a kayak though.
The Zelas' efficient 2.5-litre four-cylinder dual VVT-i engine delivers 176bhp and 230Nm of torque at 4,100rpm. Its six-speed electronically controlled transmission is smooth, and in automatic mode the shift points are optimised for fuel efficiency. Put the car in ‘D' and the console display illuminates an ‘Eco' symbol, which is curious because the car lacks the obligatory Sport mode found in the majority of cars that bother to have an Eco mode. The good news is that, in Eco mode, the performance of the Zelas is comparable to a V8-equipped sports saloon when running in Eco mode. The bad news is that you are unlikely to actively want to drive a V8-equipped sports saloon in Eco mode as it feels a bit like leaving the emergency brake on. I'm all for fuel conservation mind you, I just think having Eco mode in a V8-equipped whip is a bit disingenuous.
Actually, that's not a fair comparison as the much lighter Zelas is perfectly adequate in Eco mode, if a bit Yaris-like. This effectively ends when you switch over to manual mode and take control of the transmission. I found I preferred the centre console shifter to paddle shifting, but both methods elevated the driving experience to grin-inducing territory. My only complaint is that while the Zelas can quickly deliver you to highway speeds in exciting, high-rpm fashion, the road noise is not quite deafening, but hard to tune out. Given my recent devotion to classical music, no amount of boosting the Zelas' hearty stereo system would suffice to drown out the roar of the road. This won't necessarily be a problem if you're 22 and listen exclusively to death metal.
The Zelas offers a sports-tuned independent suspension as well as vehicle stability control, traction control, and wide tyres; all culminating in a vehicle that is a great deal of fun on winding roads and, dare I say it, twisting on-ramps. The front MacPherson strut suspension provides ride comfort and agile handling while the rear double wishbone supports vehicle rigidity.
I found the feel of the power steering to be just a tad crude, but on the whole the Zelas evinces good control and manoeuvrability. It might not feel as glued to the road as a sportscar costing twice as much (or more), but then with its four-pot and small frame, it doesn't have as much weight to shift in the corners. And that's the thing really, by combining a light vehicle, with sporty(ish) handling and paddle shifting, the normally aspirated 2.5-litre Camry engine feels more than adequate for getting from A to B.
The Zelas offers a not-quite throaty, but certainly guttural exhaust notethat is a bit like a metaphor for thecar; it has none of the bravado of the little Italian coupés that owned the category once upon a time, but it does have personality.
On my last night with the Zelas, I went out to pick up shawarma from a place we like on Beach Road. The location is important, because at any moment you might see any manner of top-tier sportscars pass by, often painted in inexplicable canary yellow. But when I pulled the spunky little Toyota up to the restaurant, the manager came out and did something I've never witnessed before in all my car-testing years; he made a full circuit of the Zelas, like a man at a dealership day-dreaming about his dream car. With arms folded behind his back, he circled the Zelas in a fugue state, oblivious to anything but the car's every detail. And here's the thing, he was a little bit older (gasp) than I am.
With the Zelas, Toyota has a car onits hands that will certainly appealto the younger segment — I'm justnot convinced that the attractionends there.
What's in a name?
Want to know what Zelas means? So do we. Toyota ME says it means ‘passion' in Italian, but we asked an Italian and he spat his meatball at us. Anyway, we do know what the Zelas is, and that's basically a Scion tC, an American sub-brand of Toyota aimed at the youth and launched in 2002. The marque sells boxy hatchbacks and van-like thingies, plus this Celica replacement (seriously, they say the tC is a Celica successor). You can walk into a showroom and spec things like huge blingy rims, big sound, bodykits and the rest of that TRD tuner stuff.
As a bit of an antique in the FWD coupé segment, Mitsubishi's Eclipse is available with a potent wheel-spinning V6, or a 2.4-litre inline four-pot producing 162bhp and 220Nm of torque. Confusingly, the 2011 model will cost you Dh89K, but Al Habtoor Motors could also sell you a 2009 3.8-litre 265bhp Eclipse for Dh78K.
Kia Cerato Koup
Kia's raid on the affordable sporty segment relies solely on the Cerato Koup (sister company Hyundai focuses on RWD buyers with the Genesis Coupé), a Peter Schreyer-designed chunk of aggressiveness with a 156bhp 2.0-litre and a six-speed paddle-shift driving the front wheels.
Engine 2.5-litre 4-Cyl
Transmission Six-speed auto, FWD
Max power 176bhp @ 6,000rpm
Max torque 230Nm @ 4,100rpm
Top speed NA
Plus Cheeky looks, well-appointed and sporty interior
Minus Handling, price