For such a small car the new Toyota Corolla has big boots to fill.
The best-selling passenger car both here and the world over, it has been a staple part of the diet for private buyers, corporate fleets and rental agencies. A lot of that success has been underpinned by its reputation for being a reliable and predictable vehicle, attractive to those who need to get from A to B while discouraging customers who prioritised style and driving dynamics ahead of running costs and resale value.
With this new model, Toyota hopes to retain loyal customers while attracting those who may have dismissed the model in the past.
Toyota Australia vice president Sean Hanley says the machine sets a “new benchmark” for the small car segment.
“It’s not just next-generation Corolla, in fact it’s next-generation Toyota,” he says.
“The new Corolla represents a significant step forward across the board... You need to rethink your image of Corolla, including its price.”
Rebooting its approach to the class in line with competitors and customer trends, Toyota dropped an entry-level Ascent model from its range by making the better-equipped Ascent Sport it’s entry point. The cheapest automatic model costs $24,370 plus on-road costs, around $4000 more than its predecessor. Standard kit includes 16-inch alloy wheels, an 8-inch touchscreen with a reversing camera, air conditioning, and comprehensive safety suite.
Mid-range Corolla SX models add blind spot monitoring, smart keys, navigation, a digital radio and more for $26,870 plus on-road costs.
The range-topping Corolla ZR brings 18-inch wheels, sports suspension, leather trim and more, including LED headlights and a premium JBL stereo for $30,370 plus on-road costs.
Servicing is a particularly strong point for the Corolla, which has shifted from six-month to 12-month, 15,000 kilometre service intervals capped at $175 per year for the first five years.
Toyota persists with a three-year, 100,000-kilometre warranty in the face of competition moving to longer guarantees. Ford and Mazda recently adopted five-year support programs, joining the likes of Hyundai, Mitsubishi, Honda, Kia, Skoda and Holden with lengthy after-service support structures.
Hanley says Toyota’s coverage is “adequate” and that the brand’s “practically bulletproof” reputation for quality means it has no plans to extend its warranty.
Based on a new platform shared with the Toyota Prius hybrid and C-HR baby SUV, the Corolla is lower, wider and longer than before. Fresh underpinnings allowed designers to shape a sleeker front end with shorter overhangs and a lower bonnet than the previous model.
The result might be the sharpest-looking Corolla yet, particularly in high-end ZR trim with its bigger wheels and low-profile tyres.
There’s a lean, predatory vibe to a front end home to focused headlamps, a wide mouth and panels pulled taut over a sharp-looking body.
Front occupants get plenty of room, with the driver benefiting from reach and height adjustment for the steering wheel.
The driving position is comfortable without offering occupants the chance to sit as low as VW’s Golf. Speaking of which, the Corolla’s interior presentation falls somewhat short of its German rival, which brings nicer materials and more impressive infotainment features.
The cheapest Corolla makes do with a plastic steering wheel and simple digital display in the driver’s cluster, while the range-topping Corolla ZR looks much better thanks to leather controls, contrasting stitching and a large colour display in the instrument binnacle.
It also features sports seats that would not look out of place in a performance car.
All three variants feature an 8-inch touchscreen that isn’t quite as intuitive as key rivals, in part because Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity are missing in action.
There’s only one USB port up front, though an inductive charging pad for the top two grades makes it easier to charge modern smartphones.
ON THE ROAD
Toyota pitches the new Corolla as a car you’ll want to drive.
Marketing material for the machine makes much of a lower centre of gravity, stronger body and revised suspension intended to make the machine more dynamic than before.
Taking inspiration from the Golf and Mazda3, the new Corolla features more responsive and fulsome steering than its predecessor, lending quicker reactions to driver input. It rides well, understandably erring toward ride comfort over ultimate body control, absorbing bumps with a little less fuss than some rivals.
The wheel loads up nicely in your hands when pressing on, letting you know how much grip there is - or isn’t - available on the front axle, as cheaper models are equipped with tyres which give up grip sooner than we'd like.
While it is certainly more rewarding to pilot than the last two generations, we wouldn’t say that the Corolla Ascent Sport is a dynamic benchmark for the class.
Enthusiasts will lean toward the ZR, with its crisp reactions brought by revised suspension and bigger wheels with less squish from the tyre sidewall. We’ll test the Corolla back-to-back with key rivals in coming months, but for now it is safe to say there are more driver-focused options out there, including Hyundai’s turbocharged i30 SR.
Under the bonnet
The standard engine in all three Corolla models is a 2.0-litre petrol unit which uses 6.0L/100km to produce 125kW and 200Nm outputs - at least in automatic form. The six-speed manual transmission only available in the cheapest Ascent Sport uses a touch more fuel, and Toyota naturally expects the majority of customers to take the two-pedal route.
Those who do will benefit from a world-first “direct shift” CVT transmission, which blends a mechanical first gear and torque converter similar to a conventional auto with an automated clutch pack and continuously variable transmission. The aim is to bring the initial response of a regular auto as found in cars such as the Mazda3 or Holden Commodore with the efficient flexibility of a CVT operating along a bandwidth of potential gear ratios.
It works well in practice, with a crisp step-off when moving away from rest, followed by a relatively seamless transmission to the CVT spectrum. Drivers keen for a spot of DIY shifting can pop it into a manual mode with 10 pre-selected ratios, using paddle shifters to work their way through simulated gears.
The engine itself is adequate, bringing a reasonable amount of punch even if it needs to be worked relatively hard to deliver its best. Quiet at a cruise, the motor is less than hushed under load, groaning audibly compared to quieter turbo rivals. Incoming rivals such as the new Ford Focus also use less fuel to make stronger outputs with much less effort.
Similar criticisims can be levelled toward an optional hybrid variant which sounds similarly throaty on the road while serving up even less potent performance.
Quiet at low speed, the hybrid feels a little snoozy on the open road owing to its extra weight and 35kW power deficit compared to the regular model.
Using a more conventional e-CVT transmission to drive the front wheels, the Hybrid drivetrain combines a naturally aspirated 1.8-litre engine which produces 72kW and 142Nm with a 53kW, 163Nm electric motor capable of 4.2L/100km fuel use.
The Corolla Hybrid’s combined 90kW peak is a little disappointing considering the outgoing model used a touch less fuel to make 10kW more than the newer variant. That doesn't feel like progress.
Unlike the Camry Hybrid, which brings a 20 per cent increase in power and 46 per cent reduction in fuel economy for a $2000 premium in Ascent Sport trim, the Corolla Hybrid option available across all three model grades for $1500 lands a 30 per cent fuel saving in combination with a reduction in power of 28 per cent.
Toyota says more than 40 per cent of Camry buyers currently choose the hybrid option, but it’s hard to see the Corolla matching that figure.
Even so, Toyota is on a mission to put people behind the wheel of hybrid machines - expect petrol-electric power to be a focus of upcoming marketing campaigns for the Corolla and new RAV4 small SUV due in 2019. The crossover is one of five new hybrid models due in the next 30 months, and the brand promises to make hybrid power available across all model lines by 2025.
Hanley says it will play an important role in the brand’s future, particularly as hybrid tech becomes increasingly affordable.
“We’re committed to increasing our hybrid mix, we’re committed to making hybrid attractive to the market, we’re committed to bringing it in at a competitive position,” he says.
“You can see the premium reducing. I don’t see that stopping.”
Toyota is confident the Corolla will receive a five star ANCAP safety rating thanks to its strong body, driver aids and seven airbags spread throughout the cabin.
Every model is equipped with autonomous emergency braking featuring pedestrian and cyclist detection systems, along with active cruise control and a camera capable of recognising speed limits.
The system works well in the real world - if you’re in a marked 60km/h zone that becomes a 100km/h highway, simply hold the increase speed button on the steering wheel and the cruise control will speed up to match the higher speed limit. It also works when slowing down - drop from an 80km/h to a 50km/h zone and all you need to do is hold the slower speed button for a moment. Naturally, you can also choose to set the car for higher or lower speeds than posted limits.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
Toyota has total confidence in the Corolla. Convinced it will retain its place as the best-selling passenger car in Australia, the brand does not believe the hatch will leapfrog the like of its HiLux ute to become the most popular car overall.
That could change when a sedan variant arrives, or if a Europe-esque carbon-based vehicle taxation system reaches our shores.
The manufacturer has good reason to be confident in the model, as it as elicits customer loyalty like few other models in this class.
Value-packed, safer and better to drive compared to its predecessor, the updated Corolla looms large as a default choice for thousands of Aussie drivers. But its compromised cargo and rear seat space, clunky infotainment system and flat engines might not be enough to attract customers loyal to other brands.
- Interested in buying Toyota Corolla? Visit our Toyota showroom for more information.