Toyota could have a hard road ahead trying to keep its number one-selling hatchback at the top of the ladder. Even though the Corolla is a staple car on the Australian market, having been on sale here for 51 years and taking number one spot for the last five, there’s competition that’s just itching to take its place.
South Korean carmaker Hyundai has begun a renewed assault on the compact car segment with its i30 that won last year’s Drive Car of the Year, and current second place-runner Mazda will be eyeing off top spot when it launches its new sharp-looking Mazda3 next year.
But Toyota has an ace up its sleeve with an all-new Corolla that’s arriving in August 2018. It hasn’t hit southern soil yet but we attended the first media drive of the hatch in San Diego, California, driving a similar spec car to what we’ll get.
Vehicle Style: Small hatchback
Price: From $24,800 (estimated)
Engine/trans: 126kW/205Nm 2.0 litre 4cyl petrol | 6sp manual, CVT
Our test was limited to driving only the new 2.0-litre naturally-aspirated four-cylinder engine, which we’ll get here in the same spec with either a six-speed manual or CVT transmission.
The new 1.8-litre-powered hybrid model isn’t slated for the US yet, so we were limited to driving only the 2.0-litre.
Built on the brand’s new TNGA platform, Toyota says it has greater design freedom to bring a more premium (European) inspired looking hatch with more powerful and efficient drivetrains, as well as improved ride and handling via a lower centre of gravity that will be ‘fun to drive’ and help in tuning a potential hot hatch to take on the i30 N and Volkswagen Golf GTI.
Marketing jibber-jabber aside, the new Corolla will prove a serious contender with striking looks and class-leading safety technology as standard across the range. Now hold your breath, because there’s a lot of it.
Toyota’s ‘Safety Sense 2’ brings autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian and cyclist detection, adaptive radar cruise control, lane departure warning, automatic lane keeping assist, blind spot monitoring, lane tracing assist for hands-on assisted driving in traffic and on highways, road sign recognition which can decipher give way, stop, do not enter and speed limit signs, (and developed and tested in Australian conditions), automatic dipping highbeam lights, a reversing camera and seven airbags - to every model.
Toyota isn’t talking prices yet but says it expects the new model to remain competitive to the market and not far from where the current entry-level Corolla Ascent starts, which is $23,850 driveaway. The current competition is priced closer to $30,000 with the equivalent kit and doesn’t have features like road sign recognition and lane tracing.
The 1.8-litre engine available across the current range will be replaced with either the new 2.0-litre engine or a revised version of the 1.8-litre hybrid that produces more power with improved efficiency. Customers will choose from three model grades available with either drivetrain for more freedom (and simplicity) of choice.
An all-new interior brings a simpler and cleaner design with less buttons and less clutter of shapes and joins. The central 8.0-inch floating infotainment screen is the base for most commands and looks like other contemporary tablet-stuck-on-the-dash-style systems. Unfortunately, the resolution in the models we tested wasn’t great and lacked a glossy appearance that sucked away vibrancy. Also, Apple CarPlay, which Toyota has finally begun to roll-out and will be available on the US models at launch won’t arrive in Australia – though Toyota says it is ‘testing the technology’ for implementation down under.
The lack of CarPlay on launch is disappointing given it will be available elsewhere in the world and the improvement that mirroring technology can make to the basic - and usually clunky - software design of most manufacturer’s operating systems is its main benefit. But there’s some neat new gear coming like wireless phone charging and a colour heads-up display.
Otherwise, the interior is smart and easy to use, including an array of steering-wheel buttons for the safety systems like adaptive cruise control, and though fabric replaces a mix of fibre and leather trim that looks sharp in the top-spec variant, all models were comfortable over longer trips.
Nicer materials on the dash and door panels also elevate towards a more premium feeling than before and slightly larger interior dimensions of increased width and length give rear-seat occupants decent legroom. The boot will be either too small or well-sized when it lands here depending on if Toyota fits a real spare wheel or an emergency inflator kit, the latter lowering the boot floor significantly for a competitive-sized space.
ON THE ROAD
The new engine is lively and enthusiasts will appreciate its energetic response that has shades of character found in early 1990s 2.0-litre twin-cam Corollas. And the new six-speed manual with rev-matching is just as engaging, and while not as sharp as the automatic rev-matching in hot hatches, it will give casual enthusiasts added fun.
While it’s not a hot hatch, it is a successful attempt at producing a warm model that will quench the affordable sports car thirst below more expensive hot hatches – something rivals like the Honda Civic RS didn’t really do with its less engaging CVT-only transmission.
Power has grown slightly over the old lump to 126kW and 205Nm, and while not matching the i30 SR's 150kW and 250Nm the power delivery is linear and smooth, with a nice grunty pick-up out of corners. Toyota says its new hatch is lighter but won't say by how much yet.
With the driveline available from the base model up it also provides a sharp price for a fun-to-drive car (Toyota isn’t fibbing), though the top-spec variant looks particularly catching in the new metallic blue or black paint with larger alloy wheels – all gear we’re likely to see.
The elastic engine blends with a dynamic ride that reacts positively to quick changes in direction but is also compliant and soaks up finer and harsher bumps on poor roads. The large alloys didn’t glide as smoothly as the taller profile tyres on the base model but weren't too firm.
A new multi-link suspension setup in the rear eclipses the usual economic torsion beam setup and makes easier tuning for the forgiving but planted ride when pushing, while torque vectoring on the front wheels acts to reduce understeer and seemed to work when provoked.
The new CVT also showed promise with its world-first ‘launch gear’ that uses a real cog before engaging the usual belt-and-pulley system. It provides for sharper take off and conventional first-gear-feel acceleration that’s great in traffic and for an effortless getaway. Flicked into manual mode beyond the launch gear's effective range, the engineers have implanted a solid thunk to gear changes from the paddle shifters that belies some of the CVT's gearless inner workings.
Both steering and braking were sharp and accurate, and for what we could test of Safety Sense 2, the adaptive cruise control and lane keeping assist held an accurate distance to leading traffic while quickly picking up lines for automatic lane keeping assist. Lane keeping assist also deciphers kerbs and gutters, not just line markings, and it did this more times than not.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
First impressions are that Toyota has thrown everything including the kitchen sink at its new sales leader and with pinpoint accuracy to the areas that matter. The only glaring omission is Apple CarPlay that younger buyers, attracted to this sharp-looking hatch, will want to have. But with that in the pipeline, Toyota looks set to release another hit.
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