IT'S A QUESTION that has been asked a thousand times: “I’m looking for a car, something not too big, cheap to run and reliable. What would you suggest?”
There are plenty of answers, but I will admit to being the guy who replies, “You can’t go too far wrong with a Corolla.”
I’ve seen them in the workshops I’ve worked in, various vintages, some pushing half a million kilometres, and yet the hardy little buggers just keep on going. You can neglect them, treat them badly, pound the life out of them and the damn things just keep coming back for more.
Longevity and reliability have been solid Corolla qualities from day one, qualities that have (it is fair to say) always been balanced by non-descript styling and unexciting dynamics. The Corolla may leave the enthusiast cold, but the badge's success in Australia (and worldwide) is proof that it appeals to the average motorist, at a grass-roots level, better than most.
The Corolla isn't a corner carving hot-shoe.
This was most evident on winding country roads where the wide spaced ratios of the four speed automatic and the engines torque deficit show most strongly. The Corolla’s electric power steering is numb, and just a touch too flighty to feel truly secure.
Body roll, a product of the soft suspension tune, is ever present and the Corolla when pushed will understeer. All up its easily controlled, predictable and unlikely to bite the average driver.
Plop the Corolla back into the shuffling grind of the city, and its relaxed approach makes a lot more sense. The role of daily commuter is tackled with relish.
Kept bubbling around town the Corolla feels willing, gear shifts are smooth and that electric steering comes into its own. Light and nimble, the Corolla is a breeze to slot into tight parking spaces.
Visibility for and aft is ample, and the high side windows allow a clear view over the shoulder.
The A pillar windows, like most cars fitted with same, work well on the far side of the dash, but don’t offer a huge benefit on the drivers side thanks to the added width of the pillar trims. Vision isn’t hampered excessively though.
Up the pace a little on the highway and the Corolla remains quiet and relaxed. With only four gears at its disposal the auto is quick to show up the 1.8-litre engines lack of low-down torque, and requires an extra dose of caution when considering overtaking at highway speeds.
Fuel economy is a claimed 7.3 l/100km for the four-speed automatic. With just one country jaunt and a week spent in city traffic, the test car returned 8.4 l/100km which sits well given the Corolla’s 9.4 l/100km official city consumption figure.
Tuned for comfort, the suspension works well in most situations. Again town duties are the Corolla’s forte and it's here that its compliant ride is particularly adept at dealing with broken tarmac and back-street speed-humps. There is a trade-off however.
Load the Corolla up with a full compliment of passengers and their luggage, and those same patches of broken tarmac and speed-humps will have the Corolla wallowing nervously.
Being the middle-of-the-range variant, the Conquest comes with a lengthy list of standard features.
Following an overdue and major safety upgrade at the start of this year, stability control, traction control (VSC) and a full suite of airbags have been added to the Conquest (and Levin ZR’s) list of standard equipment.
As a result, the Conquest’s safety arsenal now includes ABS, electronic brakeforce distribution, brake assist, traction control, VSC, front and side airbags for the front row, full-length curtain airbags and a knee airbag for the driver.
Traction control, VSC and the side and curtain airbag package are available as a $1500 option on the base model Corolla Ascent sedan and Corolla Levin SX hatch.
The centerpiece of the interior is without doubt, the (unique to the hatch) centre console. Starting high in the dash, the silver-finished console places the ventilation controls and gear shift high up and within easy reach of the steering wheel.
On the topic of steering wheels, the 2010 Conquest hatch receives a new leather-wrapped flat bottom number that has 'racing' written all over it. Unfortunately it feels too chunky and lumpy at hand, and the flat bottom is a nuisance for daily commuting.
There are electric windows all around, electrically-adjustable and folding wing mirrors, cruise control, and a trip-computer.
Bluetooth phone integration runs through the audio head unit. It proved stubborn to pair with some phones, but once set was trouble free.
Everything else, door trims, seats, and carpets wears basic black. The only exception being the door pulls and door handle combo, which have been designed as a one-piece silver slash in the middle of each door. The fact there’s a door pull rather than the now more usual armrest recess, is surprising in this market segment.
The six-speaker audio system is basic, but incorporates an MP3-compatible six-CD stacker, AM/FM tuner and auxiliary input for portable music players. Sound quality is decent, but reflects the price point of the car (don’t go looking for the Bose or Rockford Fosgate badges).
Typically for a Toyota, our test car displayed a level of fit and finish that was hard to fault. Screwed together impeccably, the only letdown where the front door trims which felt a little loose and would rattle over some road surfaces.
As a second car or daily commuter the Corolla is hard to ignore.
In fact the Corolla 'recipe' has been good enough to see it regularly challenge Holden's top selling Commodore, for it's place at the head of the monthly Australian sales chart.
The Corolla Conquest hatch automatic costs $26,500 plus on road costs, and if you can live without the outdated four-speed auto, then you'll gain two extra gears and save $2000 by ordering a manual.
With the small car sector becoming a hotbed of market action in recent years, the Corolla is under fire from some worthy, compelling and in some cases cheaper competitors. The Hyundai i30 is certainly worth a close look, as are the Mazda3, Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf.
At the end of the day, the Corolla continues to meet the needs and expectations of a wide demographic, arguably better than it's competitors. It offers its legion of fans a solution to the hum-drum daily transport needs of everyday life.
Quality, reliability, safety and ease of operation are all wrapped up in a package that has a reputation for solid resale-values. It's an enviable mix of attributes and the Corolla hatch, with its unique and more exciting interior, adds a little sparkle to the solid dependability that is a Corolla.
Recent international bad-press aside, the Corolla still has what it takes to be the dependable stalwart of Toyota’s passenger car lineup.