The skinny: Flaunting a fresh facelift, the top-grade Corolla ZR also gets a price haircut to sharpen its value proposition. And it's still doing it right, because the Corolla is not only the dominant badge in the small car segment, but is currently Australia's top selling car.
Do the changes go far enough though to keep it there at the top of the table? Does the predictable Corolla still have what it takes to fend off competition from sharper-handling, more powerful and more highly-specced alternatives in the segment?
After a week behind the wheel we can tell that the basic Corolla formula hasn’t been messed with, but the incremental improvements add up to a better car.
Vehicle Style: Small five-door hatchback
Price: $28,990 (plus on-roads)
Engine/trans: 103kW/173Nm 1.8 4cyl | CVT automatic
Fuel Economy claimed: 6.1 l/100km | tested: 9.0 l/100km
Tweaked in June with a razor-sharp new style, added standard equipment, revised suspension and improved fuel efficiency, Toyota’s top-tier small hatch the Corolla ZR also got a full $1000 lopped off its asking price.
Now, at $28,990, it represents superb value against many of its high-grade Korean, Japanese and European rivals. We took one for a week-long loan to see if its many improvements help - or hurt - its everyday liveability.
- Standard equipment: Heated front seats, leather upholstery, trip computer, cruise control, bi-LED headlamps, LED daytime running lamps and tail lamps, 17-inch alloy wheels, electrically-folding heated wing mirrors, auto-dimming rear view mirror, reversing camera.
- Infotainment: 7-inch colour touchscreen display, satellite navigation with traffic update, AM/FM/CD player, USB/aux inputs, Bluetooth phone and audio.
- Luggage space: 280L minimum, 1120L maximum.
Straight away, the first thing you notice is that big new screen. Unlike the one that came before it, the Corolla ZR’s new 7-inch touchscreen infotainment system is more smoothly integrated with the dashboard, and looks quite upmarket.
The graphics are clear and the capacitive shortcut buttons either side of the screen look classy, but we’re sure the absence of a physical volume knob may rub some owners the wrong way. (Call me a traditionalist, but when you want to quickly raise the volume (or shut it down), buttons just aren’t quite ideal.)
Being a touchscreen the interface is easy to learn, though we have to admit that Mazda’s MZD-Connect infotainment system is far more polished - not just in the way it appears, but in the way it functions as well.
Connectivity options include a USB port, 3.5mm aux cable and Bluetooth phone and audio streaming. Sat-nav is standard on the ZR, and includes live traffic updates.
Other changes include a multifunction driver display between the speedometer and tachometer, significantly modernising the appearance of the Corolla’s dash.
Both of the analogue ‘clocks’ now sit in their own individual buckets. There’s a higher-quality sheen to the presentation on the whole, and you see it in other cabin elements as well.
The climate control block is completely new for example, and finally ditches Toyota’s ever-so-retro green backlighting for a cooler, more contemporary blue.
The digital clock of the last model (another green-tinged horror) has been shifted next to the infotainment display and also gets blue backlighting.
Another nice touch are the turbine-like gimball air-vents, which ape those of the Audi A3 and look a lot flashier than the circular flaps that preceded them.
A covered compartment at the base of the centre stack contains the seat heater controls, USB port and also has enough space left over for your phone - or even a larger “phablet”.
As for cabin comfort, the Corolla is about middle of the pack.
The leather-accented seats are supportive and quite well bolstered up front, but rear seat isn’t so commodious.
With less-than-ideal knee-room for taller adults, the cushions are flat and could do with more under-thigh support. Rear air-vents are not available on the Corolla either.
Headroom is also limited in the rear when equipped, as was our tester, with the optional panoramic glass sunroof ($1500).
There are no excuses for the limited boot space, however. At 280L, the Corolla’s trunk is just plain undersized compared to most of its rivals.
ON THE ROAD
- Engine: 103kW/173Nm 1.8 litre naturally-aspirated petrol inline four
- Transmission: CVT with 7 ratio presets, front-wheel drive
- Suspension: MacPherson strut front, torsion-beam rear
- Brakes: 275mm ventilated front rotors, 259mm solid rear rotors
- Steering: Electrically-assisted
There are no changes to the Corolla’s venerable 1.8 litre petrol engine, which soldiers on with 103kW of power and 173Nm of torque being fed to the front wheels via a CVT “Multi-Drive” gearbox.
It is, for the most part, rather dull. Oh how we pine for the days when Corollas had a spring in their step.
The CVT attempts its best impersonation of a conventional automatic and rises through seven fixed ratios when you floor the accelerator, but otherwise it performs like a typical CVT - with doughy response to sudden demands for power.
Steering wheel-mounted paddles provide a manual override, but there’s little point using them. The CVT may be snoozy, but it’s effective enough for day-to-day motoring.
Personally though, I wish they hadn’t nixed the manual from the ZR’s spec sheet.
Our tester didn’t seem to return particularly stellar fuel consumption either. Toyota claims the 2015 Corolla range is thriftier than before with the CVT needing 6.1 l/100km on the combined cycle, but our real-world average of 9.0 l/100km is pretty far from that number.
And it’s not like we were hooning either. Like we said, CVT Corollas don’t really get the blood pumping.
But that’s not for a lack of effort on Toyota’s part. MY15 models get a retuned suspension with firmer dampers for better initial roll resistance, plus new bushings and bearings for better steering feel and ride comfort.
And while it does feel a little sharper through the wheel, it’s no performance hatch. The roll rate is reduced, yes, but it will list over and kneel on the outside front wheel on a long sweeping corner.
The handling balance is biased toward understeer. It’s tuned to be safe and predictable, not thrilling on a twisty road.
To its credit, the Corolla ZR is comfortable on road. The suspension ably filters out most road imperfections, and road noise is relatively muted.
Even on the flashy 17-inch alloys of the ZR, the 215-section Michelin Primacy tyres do a good job of suppressing tyre roar, even on coarse surfaces. Mazda could learn a few lessons from Toyota here.
ANCAP rating: 5-Stars - this model scored 34.88 out of 37 possible points.
Safety features: Stability control, ABS, EBD, brake assist and traction control are standard across the range, along with seven airbags (dual front, front side, full-length curtain and driver’s knee) and pretensioning front seatbelts.
A reversing camera is standard, but parking sensors aren’t available - not even on the ZR range-topper tested here. Same too with higher-tech gear like autonomous emergency braking or blind spot monitoring.
RIVALS TO CONSIDER
How competitive is the small hatch segment? Get this, there are OVER TWENTY distinct five-door hatchback models available in Australia - many of them very, very good indeed.
We don’t have enough space to go through all of them, but here’s a list of the best:
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
The Corolla excels at being average. There really is nothing remarkable about what it is and what it does. It looks a heck of a lot sharper now, but fundamentally it’s the same ol’ Corolla experience underneath.
But is that a bad thing? Clearly not - Corollas sell because they’re a known quantity; smart, well-packaged and, above all, trusted. That's why they're the top-selling car in the country.
There are no nasty surprises in store for anyone who purchases a Corolla. It might not cling to a curvy road like a hot hatch, but it's a fuss-free and pleasant experience at the wheel.
For the ZR model here, there are some clear debits: the lack of rear air-vents being one, the unavailability of parking sensors on a range-topping model being the other.
Oh, and the boot space. It’s fine for a week’s worth of shopping, but a large pram and a backpack or two would max it out.
But that’s about it, and given this is a top-spec model that retails for well under $30k (with an automatic as standard, no less), it’s difficult to argue about the value proposition.
It’s good buying, for sure. Exciting? Not in the slightest.
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