It’s a fact that budget orientated sedans are not the sort of cars to get petrolheads excited. However, they are the automotive equivalent of the trusty Leatherman. Their practicality, sturdy yet economical drivetrains and long-term ownership propositions make them the sensible choice for all sorts of buyers out there, including young families, empty nesters, as well as serving as the needs of ride-share fleets.
We’ve extensively sampled the budget-beating Toyota Corolla Quest as part of our long-term test fleet and subjected the 1,8 Exclusive with the six-speed manual to our road-test regimen in the May 2020 issue. Since then, this current-generation Quest has earned its second-consecutive win in the CAR Top 12 Awards and plenty of other accolades besides.
Like the Volkswagen Polo Vivo, Toyota HiAce and Nissan NP300 have shown, re-engineering an old favourite to lower costs and slot it in below a sophisticated replacement makes a lot of sense in South Africa. It’s a tough effort to beat, yet, the new Honda Ballade – also a recent member of our long-term test fleet – looks poised to challenge the Quest at its own game.
Built in India, with a host of standard equipment and a healthy dose of refinement, the Honda represents real upscale value at the lower end of the four door spectrum. Does the Ballade, now riding on the same platform as the Jazz/Fit hatchback, possess the polish to snatch a win from its rival? Let’s find out …
With transversely mounted engines up front and front-wheel drive, both are slightly nose heavy with near 60:40 front-to-rear weight distribution. Yet, it’s the Quest that looks better proportioned. It’s the larger car overall and sits wider, longer and lower than the Ballade. Both ride on 16-inch alloy wheels with 55-profile sidewalls but the Quest receives slightly wider 205-section Continental PremiumContact 2 rubber versus the Honda’s more eco-orientated 185 Yokohama BluEarth tyres.
Considering both vehicles are destined for a life as rental cars, fleet fodder and family hold-alls, it’s relevant that each features a large, evenly shaped boot that’s easy to pack, as well as comfortable, spacious rear quarters. In terms of rear-passenger comfort, the Quest offers a 100 mm longer wheelbase and should easily best the Ballade in terms of practicality but this is somewhat undone by the Toyota’s chunky front seats that eat into rear cabin space.
The Ballade is cleverly packaged for its smaller dimensions and is more capacious in terms of rear legroom with 790 mm versus the 693 mm in the Quest. It also has the important addition of rear-facing air vents which are available on the cheaper Comfort and Elegance models. Uber mobile, anyone? The Ballade boasts softer cushioned seats wrapped in premium-feeling leather. For taller passengers, the Ballade pips its rival again, offering 924 mm of headroom rather than 876 mm in the Corolla Quest.
When it comes to packing space, the Toyota is the better option with a deeper boot presenting a usable 416 litres with the seatbacks in place and an impressive 1 112 litres with the 60:40 split bench folded flat. The Honda’s rear seat sadly does not fold flat to enlarge the already substantial 400 litres of packing space and this could be a real deal breaker for buyers who need the versatility of transporting longer objects.
Their loading heights are roughly the same and the boot apertures and shapes are uniform; they’re ideally geared to carry large items, suitcases and the like.
Duke it out
In nearly all memorable middleweight brawls, the fighters are equally matched on paper and this is certainly true of our opponents here. Both sedans represent the flagship models within their respective ranges and are powered by naturally aspirated four-cylinder engines driving the front wheels via continually variable transmissions (CVT). The Ballade’s 1,5-litre mill produces 89 kW and 145 N.m and is just one kilowatt up on its forebear, with maximum torque delivered 100 r/min lower than before.
The Quest’s tried-and-trusted 1,8-litre inline four hits marginally harder to the tune of 14 kW and 28 N.m. As per most variable-valve timed engines, the Corolla Quest’s 1,8-litre engine is free-revving but does need to be wound up a bit to provide its best performance. The CVT works smoothly and intuitively and, with the Sport mode activated, it sustains revs for maximum performance.
Thankfully, in its built-to-cost regimen, it doesn’t seem as if Toyota has removed much noise-deadening material, as the engine remains relatively refined all the way to its redline at 6 200 r/min. We were impressed to see this two-pedal Quest run the zero to 100 km/h sprint in just 9,80 seconds. However, that benchmark remains a tad slower than the manual that completed our acceleration test in 9,58 seconds last year.
The dual-overhead cam unit found on the Honda is less refined and becomes raucous when pushed towards the top end as it’s made to work harder. Repeated efforts brought the 100 km/h sprint time down to a respectable if somewhat tardy 10,81 seconds, despite being a significant 150 kg lighter than the Corolla Quest.
When assessing family sedans, handling characteristics seldom carry much weight but these two are neat counters to one another. With a suspension setup biased towards comfort around town and at cruising speeds, the Ballade is supremely composed for a vehicle of its ilk. The ride is excellent and it absorbs road scars with aplomb, no doubt aided by its lack of weight. It does, however, struggle to settle in corners when pushing on, not feeling as sorted as the Toyota when thrown around into bends.
The electrically assisted steering maintains a light, direct feel at all speeds and the wheel is wrapped in quality leather for a superb finish. The Quest, similarly, has a composed, level ride, except for it being marginally on the firmer side. With its heftier steering feel and extra mass, the Quest feels the more planted of the two but wind noise and tyre roar are higher than in the Ballade. It’s the Honda that gets the nod for sheer refinement, though.
The gloves are off
As previously mentioned, both are range-topping models and as you would expect, each offers more than acceptable levels of standard features for the outlay: automatic climate control, rake and reach steering adjustment, multifunction steering wheel controls, cruise control, Bluetooth connectivity, keyless access with push-button start, LED daytime running lights, rear parking sensors and touchscreen infotainment systems.
The Honda does have a few more features, though, including a sunroof, automatic headlamps and a digital cluster over the Corolla Quest. Inside, the Honda impresses the most where perceived interior build quality is superior to that of the Toyota. Its eight-inch touchscreen infotainment system is clearer and easier to use and has both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay functionality.
The analogue instrument binnacle of the Quest is clear to read although ordinary to look at, and the infotainment system – think previous-generation Hilux – with touch controls rather than physical buttons can be frustrating to operate at times. It does cover all of the necessary bases but does not execute quite as well as the Honda.
On the safety front, both feature essentials such as ABS with EBD with disc brakes all round. Ultimately, there’s little to separate the two on braking performance, as both cars ably pull their punches, returning 100 km/h to zero stop times in the 3,0-second range. The Ballade averaged 3,05 seconds in our 10-stop test, netting it a good rating.
The Quest just edged it with an average time of 3,03 seconds. Our testers mentioned that during the punishing braking test, the softer suspension of the Honda allowed its rear end to go light, while the Quest never missed a beat. Neither car will drink you out of house and home, either, with the Ballade sipping 6,10 L/100 km on our fuel run and the Corolla Quest 6,60 L/100 km.
Like the VW Polo Vivo and previous-generation Corolla Quest, it has been proven time and again in arduous CAR comparison tests that a re-engineered product can be an excellent vehicle in its own right. The current Quest proves the theory once again. However, it’s not by a country mile, instead, it takes this Uber-sedan win by a whisker. Considering its keen pricing, we question why buyers would fork out the extra R51 700 to buy the cheapest new Corolla 1,8 XS manual, when the Quest offers everything fleet and family buyers could want.
Placing second is the Ballade, simply because of the extra R62 200 outlay. We remain big fans of Honda’s middle-child sedan thanks to its superior ride comfort, impressive rear passenger space and the high-quality cabin. It performs admirably, is economical, rides well, is compact on the outside but big on the inside, and has a great five-year/200 000 km warranty package. However, price is a major consideration in this segment and the RS model is just too expensive next to the South African-built Quest. Although we’re yet to test it, the smart money could be lurking lower down the range with the Elegance model for better value. At R375 400, it sacrifices the sunroof, rear spoiler, leather seats, LED headlamps and not much else.
Having said that, these two products are so evenly matched, you couldn’t go wrong with either and we wouldn’t blame you for relying on your brand allegiance to make the final call.
Honda Ballade 1,5 RS CVT
Price: R406 100
0-100 km/h: 10,81 seconds
Top speed: N/A
Power: 89 kW
Torque: 145 N.m
CAR fuel index: 6,6 L/100 km
CO2: 131 g/km
Toyota Corolla Quest 1,8 Exclusive CVT
Price: R349 100
0-100 km/h: 10,2 seconds
Top speed: 195 km/h
Power: 103 kW
Torque: 173 N.m
CAR fuel index: 7,6 L/100 km
CO2: 150 g/km