The Toyota Corolla Altis has always reached venerable status since its arrival at the break of the century, retaining the comfortable ride, good storage capability, decent performance and logical ergonomics that were the hallmark of its top-selling big body (chassis code AE101, or the 1994-1997 version) and AE109-AE110 (chassis code for the 1998-2001 version) models. But with the current Corolla iteration having to contend with a segment that's slowly embracing 2000 cc of displacement as an opportunity for sales (instead of treating the said arena as an afterthought), Toyota Motor Philippines Corporation (TMPC) had to release a 2.0L variant to contend with the likes of the Mitsubishi Lancer, the Honda Civic and the Ford Focus. Is its arrival too late, and can it compete against the aforementioned vehicles?

Obviously, the biggest upgrade to this Corolla variant is its engine, toting 139 hp and 189 NM of torque this time. You get into the narrow powerband at a high 3,400-3,500 rpm, but at least the a/t is willing to downshift at half throttle. Problem is, there are only four forward gears, and the steps between them are uneven. Second gear is short and third gear is tall; you have to use second gear for decent acceleration (be it on level or inclined tarmac) ONLY. There are steering wheel mounted paddle shifters (similar in design and ergonomics to the ones on the Lexus IS300's) that look cool, until you actually use them. It's frustrating, because gear movement - via manual mode on the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters or via the a/t stick - and the gear indicated on the gauge cluster frequently don't match. Fuel consumption is sacrificed (6.84 km/l, seven days mixed driving) as a result, but there's consolation - the additional 200 cc of displacement rockets the 2.0V Altis to 221 kph and a 10.18-second 0-100 kph acceleration time.

Handling, steering and safety are a bit of an upgrade from its 1800 cc sibling. The Dunlop SP Sport 01 205/55R16s break grip at 100-105 kph, but tend to bark at 80 kph. You feel that the test unit's corner entry speeds could go a little higher, but given the traction of the tires (and the reputation of Dunlop rubber as more for comfort than outright roadholding) you don't want to push corner entry/exit speeds beyond 110 kph. Steering is light in feel, but numbing in feedback; you have to saw at the wheel a little bit to get the line right on certain turns. The brakes have a bit of fade, but it's a given since the unit saw 7,000-odd kilometers before this writer got it. It does bite when needed, though. The handbrake requires just a five to seven degree pull to get passable bite, and the HID lighting for the headlights and foglights are extremely bright. Given the limited view from the rearview mirror, the parking sensors at the front and rear bumpers are an immense help. The parking sensors are sensitive at 0.9 feet onwards, a great aid in long backing and parallel parking (especially in cramped areas).

The exterior retains the basic shape of its 1.6G and 1.8V Corolla brethren, but has a few distinct features. There's a mesh upper front grille (right smack below the Toyota logo in the middle of the hood) that shows a tinge of boy racer approach, but it would be better if the lower front grille also had the same mesh grille motif to complement the upper front grille. Currently the lower front grille has the three horizontal slat pattern found in all Corolla Altis models since 2007, and it would be better if the 2.0V's front mesh grille ornamentation were consistent. The driver's side door handle has a black thumbpad (similar to that on all current Lexus models) that allows the driver to unlock all four doors with just a touch of his thumb on the said pad, just as long as he has the key fob on his person. The rims are the same exact rims as the ones on the 1.8V. Although they give a dint of athleticism to the unit, it would be better if - as the range topper - the 16-inch alloy rims would sport five-spoke ones similar to that on the previous model 1.8L Altis S, all to add to the "covetousness" of the unit. It would be similar to the setup for the Vios XX, in which a distinct feature of the said subcompact is its 17-inch multi-spoke rims.

The cabin layout and ergonomics looks like nothing's much different from its lower displacement siblings, but there are features that one will definitely feel that he/she is getting his/her P 1.1 million worth. There's a push-button engine start/stop function similar to that on Lexus units; all you have to do is carry the key fob on your person (or place it anywhere within the cabin), step on the brake pedal, push the said button (near the right side of the steering column) and let go once the engine starts revving. There's a rear windshield sunscreen, but you have to go to the rear of the car and pull it up or unlatch it down. The steering wheel tilts and telescopes, interior lighting is bright, and the Optitron gauge luster backlighting (along with the gauges, gauge fonts and indicators) are very much visible even during daytime. Airconditioning is cold, but the aircon blower and temperature switches/indicators should change locations. The former is closer to the shotgun side, while the latter is closer to the driver. It's easier to fiddle or check with the blower than the temperature. Given that this is a tropical country, modulating the blower speed is a better way to manage the aircon than modulating temperature. Also, the interior sports wood trim that attempts to exude luxuriousness, but to this writer seems tacky and out of place with the light tan-grey/silver/black cabin colorway.

But when it comes to storing stuff, the Altis is more than capable of doing the job. Storage bins abound within the interior, and the glovebox has a two-tier setup. The door cupholders and the cupholders between front occupants can hold a one liter bottle of water. The trunk can handle two golf bags, and the rear backrests can fold flat to handle odd shaped cargo. Center console storage is rather limited though, as it can only hold two paperback books stacked upright (plus a wallet or two) at its lower level and its upper area barely swallows a Nokia E71 and a Nokia 6300.

Toyota's arrival to the 2.0L segment may be somewhat tardy, and has a long way to go when it comes to making its mark in what seems to be a performance oriented arena. However, it offers creature comforts more common in its premium brand cousin, and its late arrival gives TMPC the opportunity to study its competition further instead of passing up on a growing segment.