Among ‘sports hybrid’ models the 2018 Toyota Corolla ZR Hybrid is the latest to join the short list. Not a shortlist of rivals, that is, but rather one with merely a few supercars on it.
The Corolla ZR Hybrid costs a tenth of the price of a BMW i8, for example, with both using a petrol-plus-electricity formula that then differs in sophistication, of course. But both are indeed the most economical in their respective $30K hatchback and $300K coupe classes.
What this all-new Toyota small car also does, however, is for the first time bring petrol-electric motoring both within reach of every buyer (it is optional even on the base Ascent Sport) and those who want a sexier big-wheeled, leather-lined flagship (as per this ZR).
So, can this fresh-generation Corolla join supercars in making hybrid technology sporty?
Glance at the above power and torque figures of this hybrid, and the answer to the question posed in the introduction is probably a resounding ‘no’ (though that’s the not the end of it…)
Where the petrol Corolla upgrades from a 1.8- to 2.0-litre four-cylinder with 125kW/200Nm, spending $1500 extra – at $25,870 plus on-road costs for Ascent Sport Hybrid, $28,370 (plus orc) for SX Hybrid and $31,870 (plus orc) for ZR Hybrid – buys a regression to just 90kW.
The hybrid retains a miserly 72kW/142Nm 1.8L, only to then boost it with a 53kW/163Nm electric motor. It isn’t advised to add those two totals together, and Toyota doesn’t quote torque combined, though the electric unit at least produces its figures instantly off the line.
It also buys a drop in combined-cycle fuel consumption, from the petrol Corolla’s 6.0 litres per 100 kilometres to the hybrid Corolla’s 4.2L/100km. That’s ahead of a last remaining diesel small car, the $30K Hyundai i30 Elite with a 100kW/300Nm 1.6-litre turbo-diesel four-cylinder delivering fuel consumption of 4.7L/100km. So, then, why buy hybrid over diesel; or why buy a sporty-spec hybrid at all? More investigation, then answers, start here.
THE INTERIOR | RATING: 3.5/5
Spending $2500 to move from Ascent Sport Hybrid to SX Hybrid adds goodies you may need, but the $3500 hop from SX Hybrid to ZR Hybrid introduces features you may want.
The first jump will buy digital radio and integrated satellite navigation – with excellent voice control including ‘one shot’ destination entry, though no Apple CarPlay/Android Auto smartophone mirroring – that is needed to lift the otherwise barren 8.0-inch touchscreen.
A leather-wrapped steering wheel, dual-zone climate control and wireless charging are nice additions, too, and it’s that mix of enhanced ambience and added usability that make that first upgrade worthwhile.
This ZR Hybrid is more curious in its additions. The highlight is the soft-touch door plastics missing from the lower model grades, all topped off by silver doorhandle trim and piano-black grabhandles to help the top Corolla feel decidedly more upmarket.
It will be nicer for rear-seat passengers, who are given rear air vents to at least offset a distinct lack of legroom – if not headroom – back there. It will also help with their luggage, because for only this specific ZR hybrid model grade, a space-saver spare wheel is deleted, with only an ‘goo’ repair kit installed that isn’t great for longer country trips as it can’t fix all deflated tyres. But as a result, the floor drops and volume lifts from a tiny 217 litres to 330L.
There are also sportier-looking bucket front seats with part-leather trim and heating, though the electrically adjustable driver’s seat of the older, dowdy Corolla ZR sedan is missing.
There’s decent-sounding eight-speaker JBL audio and a brilliant colour head-up display for the first time, too, as well as the adaptive cruise control standard across the range. Yet any form of parking sensors are missing, as is the electric sunroof available on the old ZR hatch.
At almost $32K before dealer delivery and government charges, the kit list is rather patchy.
Even so, however, the Corolla ZR Hybrid still manages to snare an above-average rating inside. While the Corolla SX Hybrid seems like the in-cabin sweet-spot, the fact remains – curious reasons or otherwise – that only this top-spec petrol-electric version gets the practical boot and rear air vents owners need, plus the upmarket cabin plastics buyers will likely want.
ON THE ROAD | RATING: 4.0/5
It is already clear that with just 90kW of power to push 1400kg of five-door hatchback via an automatic continuously-variable transmission (CVT), this Corolla ZR is unlikely to be the sports hybrid its aggressive new styling and chunky 18-inch alloy wheels might suggest it is.
And so it transpires. This new-generation Toyota leaps off the line in an excitable fashion typical of the instant torque produced by an electric motor, though it quickly tapers off into a feeling of smoothness and serenity rather than anything approaching sportiness. Actually, add a hill to the equation and ‘approaching slowness’ is more like it.
Any of the ‘warm’ hatchbacks costing around $30K – the Holden Astra RS-V and Hyundai i30 SR 1.6-litre turbo-petrol four-cylinder models most notably – would utterly humble the Corolla ZR Hybrid for response, engagement and performance, no question.
Yet this petrol-electric Toyota is also more than the sum of its parts.
It isn’t fast, but nor is it sluggish. Instead it feels eminently responsive and driveable. And all the while, even around town and with some freeway included, its on-test fuel consumption of 4.8L/100km was only 0.6L/100km off the combined-cycle claim. Where a Holden or Hyundai turbo-petrol tend to drink more around town, the Toyota relies on silent electric running often enough to see usage drop in traffic. And where do you spend the most time?
Sportiness is also about more than straight-line speed, and here the Corolla scores. Built on a new platform that uses a sophisticated multi-link independent rear suspension (IRS), and claims to focus in on driver enjoyment, the ZR Hybrid feels European in its slick manners.
The steering is light, yet wonderfully consistent and beautifully linear, as well as being sharp enough to navigate 90-degree turns without crossing arms. On the ZR’s 18-inch tyres the suspension allows smaller bumps to ripple to the cabin compared with the Ascent Sport and SX on 16s, yet that pales given the dominance of the aspects this set-up does so well – the worst surfaces are blotted, body control immaculate, firmness never descending to harshness.
If anything the 18s only serve to highlight the depth of dynamic talent inherent in every new Corolla. In particular, it adds extra grip to the sort of neutral handling balance that makes a driver think front and rear tyres are both being massaged into the surface evenly. Just go down a hillclimb in the slower hybrid, and finally some sportiness really, truly will be found.
ANCAP rating: 5 stars – this model scored 36.7 out of 38 possible points when tested by ANCAP in 2018.
Safety Features: Seven airbags, ABS and ESC, forward collision warning with autonomous emergency braking (AEB), reverse-view camera, blind-spot monitor and lane-departure warning with active lane-keep assistance.
WARRANTY AND SERVICING
Warranty: Three years/100,000km
Servicing: With annual or 15,000km intervals, Toyota’s capped-price servicing costs just $175 for each of the first five check-ups until five years or 75,000km, which is excellent.
RIVALS TO CONSIDER
The i30 Elite diesel is faster, and probably similarly frugal to this Corolla in mixed conditions. But it will drink more in gridlock traffic, right where the ZR Hybrid drops.
Likewise the 308 Touring Allure, which is more fun to drive than the Hyundai and equally as entertaining as this Toyota – but it also now comes in wagon only and is priced from $38K.
But for a combination of luxury and refinement mixed with still-excellent fuel economy, the Golf 110TSI Highline remains the standout performer for this coin, above diesel or hybrid.
- Hyundai i30 Elite diesel
- Peugeot 308 Touring Allure diesel
- Volkswagen Golf 110TSI Highline
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL RATING: 4.0/5
On the one hand the Corolla ZR Hybrid could be seen as expensive and slow, lacking some equipment up front and feeling too cramped in the rear seat.
But on the other hand this Toyota flagship delivers sterling efficiency, it feels upmarket inside and delivers benchmark active safety technology.
Every model grade delivers outstanding steering, ride and handling that haven’t been seen from this Hoover-iconic small car nameplate in decades, perhaps not since the late 1980s.
And it is for these reasons that, despite the performance deficit, enhanced efficiency now blends with driver enjoyment in any model grade to prove that this hybrid small car can at least be fun – if not sporty.
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