Tipping point: Is the lack of a diesel engine in the all-new Toyota Innova a sign of things to come?

A few days ago the all-new Toyota Innova broke cover during its global debut in Indonesia. Weeks prior to the launch a series of teaser posts were revealed to the public that alluded to some of the new features that could be found.

However, despite the new Innova’s laundry list of updates and features nothing is more talked about and as controversial as the lack of a diesel engine option.

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The Innova is King

Let’s put some things into perspective first. The Innova has always been and will continue to (probably) be an important vehicle for Toyota. The Asia Pacific region buys the Innova in huge numbers because it’s become the quintessential Toyota; dependable, presentable, practical, and classless in the sense that it is neither pure luxury nor economy.

In the Philippines, the Innova has become unbeatable in its segment. No other MPV/AUV ever came close. In fact, the Innova is responsible for the dwindling demand for both the Crosswind and Adventure.

At the heart of its success are a few key ingredients: space, practicality, reliability, affordability, and a diesel engine. There’s no disputing the former traits, but the latter is the crown jewel of the Innova simply because Filipinos love diesel vehicles.

2023 Toyota Innova Oped Inline

“Mas mura at matipid kasi ang diesel”

Putting the Innova aside for a while, if one were to look at the (recent) past and present vehicle line-ups of brands, the one thing that stands out is the overwhelming discrepancy of diesel versus gasoline offerings. It’s simple, really. For the longest time diesel was more affordable than gasoline.

The price difference between diesel and gasoline per liter used to be sizable, and it had been that way not just for years but for decades. Manufacturers knew this and stuffed their vehicle offerings with diesel engines just to be able to meet the never-ending demand.

Another way manufacturers took advantage of the “diesel craze” was by putting premium pricing on diesel-powered cars. Even if they were more expensive, nobody cared because in the past it was cheaper to fuel up and diesel engines were also rather efficient.

Having said that, despite the many cost-saving and reliability benefits that diesel engines offer, there is one huge setback. Diesel as a fuel is not (as) refined as gasoline, therefore it’s dirtier. To put it further, it isn’t uncommon to see a diesel vehicle smoke belching whether new or old. So yes, using that type of fuel is generally more harmful to the environment.

Now, having established the Philippines as a diesel-hungry nation, it’s time to point out that the honeymoon between “dirty diesel” and the Filipino is for all intents and purposes, over.

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Diesel prices and the rise of EVs

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected everyone’s lives in some shape, way, or form. In motoring, its biggest effect has been the sudden reversal of the fuel prices between gasoline and diesel. Yes, both have steadily risen and dropped in price over the course of 2022, but diesel prices long-jumped over gasoline and have stayed more expensive throughout the year.

Fluctuating fuel prices have also jolted the local automotive industry to fast-track the adaptation of Hybrids and EVs. Just this year, Hybrids and EVs (finally) got recognition in the court of public and private opinion, and an EV law has been written up giving more incentives to those who own them. The motoring public in general has been keener to understand the technology as opposed to dismissing them as “sorcery or witchcraft or wizardry”. Fortunately, there isn’t a need to go to Hogwarts to figure it out, what with all the information available online.

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Is Toyota veering away from Diesel?

All the things mentioned above are the small but significant changes to our world that have brought us to what I think is the “Tipping Point” of diesel engines.

When Toyota teased the all-new Innova as a hybrid-powered vehicle it was quite surprising. I personally thought it was a bold move that will have huge implications on the automotive landscape locally. The Innova’s stature is so high in the Philippines that if Toyota decided to sell a convertible version people would probably still buy it in droves.

Yet when we wrote about the Indonesia launch and the fact that Toyota killed off the diesel engines of the Innova, people started dusting off their pitchforks. So why would Toyota do that to the “beloved” Innova? I simply think it’s because of the aforementioned series of (unfortunate) events.

I also have the sneaking suspicion that Toyota is planning to make a play locally. Earlier I mentioned how brands in the Philippines are still diesel-dominant. While some have introduced Hybrids and EVs, most of the “big boys” are pussyfooting at the idea and are non-commital about their EV and Hybrid futures.

No confirmation has been given whether or not Toyota Motor Philippines (TMP) will adopt the Hybrid-only Innova, but it would be foolish for them not to because it presents them with a golden opportunity to “checkmate” their rivals by boldly shifting the paradigm of a tried and tested product like the Innova.

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Possible setbacks

As enticing as it is for Toyota to get ahead of the competition, it does have its own set of challenges. First is the fact that local Innova supply is assembled in the Sta. Rosa plant, which means if TMP goes hybrid only, the plant will have to be retooled which costs a lot of money. If they want to save money, then can strike a deal with Toyota Indonesia to supply the Philippines, but that might mean cutting the jobs of those who made the previous Innova; talk about tough decisions, eh?

Next up is the burning question of what it means for the rest of the Toyota diesel engine powerhouses such as the Hilux and Fortuner. I think the answer to that question is basic: TMP would be willing to gamble the Innova nameplate as a full hybrid. The brand needs an established badge to generate noise, and nothing is “noisier” than a Hybrid Innova.

TMP is so big it can afford to risk the Innova on such a gamble while the rest of the local automotive scene is eager to grab their popcorn and watch if the gamble pays off. If it works, then I would assume that Hybrid powertrains for the Fortuner and Hilux will be in the works, followed shortly by an industry-wide adaptation.

Could we see a Terra Hybrid? A Navara Hybrid? A D-Max Hybrid? A mu-X Hybrid? It’s possible, and it could be coming sooner than most people think.

Mark my words, Toyota has laid down the gauntlet that the diesel’s days are numbered.

Pablo Salapantan

Pablo Salapantan

Pablo's first word was probably "Car", and this has developed into a personal passion that has consumed his professional life as well.

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