Space is a wonderful thing to have. Australia’s biggest cities are fast running out of it as McMansions dominate shrinking land packages in suburban fringes, while city centres feature ever-taller apartment living. The squeeze is on.
The automotive world is almost the exact opposite though as each generation of new car gets bigger. More space and more power are the mantra of advertising claims around the world.
It comes as no surprise then to find that Australia’s favourite small car, the Corolla, isn't a small car at all. In fact the current Corolla sedan, which is larger than the hatch model it shares its name with, is almost as big as a Camry from twenty years ago.
Vehicle Style: Small sedan
Price: $21,240 (plus on-roads)
Engine/trans: 103kW/173Nm 1.8-litre 4cyl petrol | 6sp manual
Fuel Economy Claimed: 6.8 l/100km | Tested: 8.2 l/100km
The Corolla sedan’s three-model range starts here, with the Ascent manual, and though it’s no longer a sub $20k bargain, at $21,240 before on roads, the Corolla Ascent sedan shouldn't bust the budget.
That’s likely to be crucially important for families looking for usable space in a smallish package with the protection of a new car warranty. But with brands like Hyundai and Kia embarrassing Toyota’s standard warranty protection, and higher levels of standard features in a Ford Focus or Hyundai Elantra, can Corolla hang onto its lead?
- Standard Equipment: Fabric seat trim, air conditioning, remote central locking, power windows, multi-function instrument panel display, urethane steering wheel, 15-inch steel wheel with full wheel covers
- Infotainment: 7.0-inch touchscreen, CD player, AM/FM radio, USB and Aux inputs, Bluetooth connectivity, six-speaker audio
- Cargo Volume: 470 litres, expandable via 60:60 split fold rear seat
Toyota won’t let go of some of its good old fashioned features, and for some buyers that's exactly what they expect.
Though it’s been smartened up slightly since its 2013 debut with a more integrated centre stack, and new 7.0-inch touchscreen infotainment, logic still dictates the layout with blissfully simple ventilation controls, and of course the ubiquitous Toyota LCD clock in the dash.
Some features irk slightly. For example you can close the outboard air vents, though not completely, but the centre vents can’t be closed, meaning that if you’d like to restrict airflow for any reason you’ll either need to direct them towards another passenger or shut the whole system off, and rear passengers go without dedicated vents.
Simple, robust fabric trim and a urethane steering wheel are built to be used and abused, and of course the extended wheelbase makes the Corolla sedan incredibly roomy with no risk of cramped rear seat passengers and enough flexibility for child seats, cargo, or adult passengers.
The boot is also a handy size and 470 litres. That’s a little bigger than you’ll find in a Hyundai Elantra and a lot bigger than a Mazda3 sedan. Cabin storage via the centre console, glovebox, and centre stack is decent, though not class-beating, but Toyota at least still serves up generous door pockets.
ON THE ROAD
- Engine: 103kW/173Nm 1.8-litre naturally aspirated petrol four-cylinder
- Transmission: Six-speed manual, front wheel drive
- Suspension: MacPherson strut front, torsion beam rear
- Brakes: 275mm ventilated front discs, 259mm solid rear discs
- Steering: Electrically assisted power steering, 10.8m turning circle
- Towing Capacity: 1300kg braked, 450kg unbraked
You won’t set the world alight with the Corolla’s engine but it’s a moderate example of what can be found in its class. The 1.8 litre four-cylinder engine produces 103kw of power and 173Nm of torque, and is free from turbocharging or anything too high tech, which will hopefully make it long lasting and reliable.
Even when paired with a six-speed manual the Corolla doesn't pretend to be a driver's car. The gear change is smooth and light, but the shift gate is loose and indistinct, meaning if you’re not paying attention it’s all too easy to pick the wrong gear.
Similarly the clutch is entirely numb - there’s no feel for what’s going on under your left foot, great in terms of isolation, but tricky to get right, particularly on hill starts. That may not pose a problem for experienced drivers, but those new behind the wheel may not enjoy the experience.
Toyota has made some changes for the 2017 model year to the Corolla sedan’s suspension tune, with larger diameter dampers and more rigid suspension mounts designed to improve on-road stability.
Without a back-to-back drive of the older version, the changes can be hard to pick. The Corolla is a little improved, particularly over choppy roads, but at freeway speeds there’s still room for more straight-line stability, and things like steering accuracy and driver enjoyment do not fall on the Corolla’s radar.
Toyota has also made an effort to improve road noise insulation, but yet again the changes are minimal, not distinct and some of the coarse-chip road covering favoured by Australian councils will stir up plenty of cabin noise, taking the calm out of long distance cruises.
ANCAP Rating: 5 Stars - The Corolla sedan scored 34.88 out of 37 possible points when tested in 2014. Note: Corolla hatch has its own unique ANCAP score.
Safety Features: Standard features include seven airbags (dual front, front side, full-length curtain, driver’s knee), electronic stability and traction control, ABS brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution and brake assist, load-limiting front seatbelt pretensioners, reversing camera.
The Corolla Ascent sedan can be optioned with an extra Safety Pack which includes automatic high-beam, lane-departure warning, pre-collision warning and autonomous emergency braking as well as 15-inch alloy wheels for $1500.
WARRANTY AND SERVICING
Warranty: Three years/100,000km
Servicing: The Toyota Service Advantage program offers capped price servicing with intervals set at six months/10,000km up to 36 months or 60,000km (whichever comes first). Each service is set at $140 for eligible customers with some terms, conditions, and exclusions applied.
RIVALS TO CONSIDER
The current Hyundai Elantra arrived with a nicer interior than generations that preceded it, and though still conservative it is modern, spacious, and crucially for Australian customers, particularly those outside of built up areas, Hyundai tunes its suspension to suit local conditions making it a much sharper drive.
Despite a low-slung stance, the new Honda Civic offers huge amounts of interior space, as well as innovative storage solutions, and a well thought-out infotainment system with clever interface options to suit all types of users. Base models aren’t too exciting to drive, but if you can stretch to one of the turbo models the Civic is a very decent small sedan.
With a few years under its belt, the Kia Cerato may not look as fresh as newer competitors, but there’s a solid small sedan at its core - not quite as spacious as the Corolla in the rear seat, but offered with a strong features list, and often sharp driveaway pricing deals.
The Ford Focus might be the ‘unicorn’ of this group - a hatch will be easy to find but if it's a sedan you’re after you may need to search a little harder. Sales figures show the Focus isn’t a frontrunner, but that’s no reflection on the vehicle itself which drives well and is very well equipped.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
Relying on the strength of its reputation for reliability, and its position as a fleet favourite, the Toyota Corolla has fallen behind fresher competitors, particularly those that have gone after the Australian desire for near-premium vehicles.
You can buy better equipped, better handling small cars, but Corolla - like the Honda Civic - does big things with a reasonably small footprint, making it a good option for drivers that need to carry growing teens, or adult passengers, but still have budget considerations.
No, Corolla isn't the best drive in its segment, though that’s unlikely to be an issue - you know what you’re going to get with this car, like the Corolla before it, and the one before that, and that is low-frills, low-fuss motoring that covers the essentials without bamboozling with trinkets and accoutrements.
MORE: Toyota News and Reviews
VISIT THE SHOWROOM: Toyota Corolla - Prices, Features, and Specifications