Car reviews - Toyota - Corolla
Sporty looks, excellent dash presentation, high-level safety equipment standard across range, broader availability of hybrid technology
Room for improvement
Cramped rear seat compartment, too big a compromise made with cargo space, no smartphone mirroring, no headline improvements with hybrid performance
Toyota positions Corolla hatch as a premium appliance with new generation
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9 Aug 2018
By TERRY MARTIN
THE Toyota Corolla comes with a lot of baggage and this new 12th generation brings with it a curriculum vitae that points to the nameplate being the world’s best-selling car – with more than 45 million sold over half a century – and Australia’s best-selling passenger car.
Up until recently, Corolla has also routinely figured as one of Australia’s top-selling models outright, although in the past year or so it has deferred to a couple of big one-tonne utilities – Toyota’s own HiLux and Ford’s Australian-developed Ranger.
The SUV juggernaut is yet to catch up with Toyota’s mighty small car, but slowing sales, a shrinking segment and the overwhelming force behind the high-riding genre point to an overtaking move at some point.
Unless, of course, a seismic shift occurs, perhaps brought on by a striking new appearance, wholesale interior redesign, class- and brand-leading technology and, not least of all, an engineering overhaul that promises to transform the driving experience and turn what has long been referred to as ‘whitegoods on wheels’ into a premium appliance.
The all-new Corolla hatch has arrived.
Toyota Australia insists it has no plans to add a new baseline Ascent to its all-new Corolla range, pointing to the fact that its opening ‘Level 2’ variant – Ascent Sport – accounted for 60 per cent of sales with the outgoing range, compared to 20 per cent for the fleet-oriented entry model.
So here we have what looks to be easily the most visually appealing, accomplished and highly specified Corolla model range in its 51-year history.
We applaud the fact that such a high degree of safety equipment is now fitted standard, but pushing up to around $27,000 (once on-road costs are factored in) for the expected volume-selling CVT version of Ascent Sport will serve as a psychological barrier for some buyers, who perhaps care less about collision avoidance technology than they do with the headline dollar figure and with features that bring instant gratification.
On the latter, the new Corolla is immediately engaging with its modern styling, sportier stance and, no matter which variant you choose, the upmarket interior, quality fit and finish, cosseting feel and impressive dashboard presentation, particularly the multilayered design and big central touchscreen.
There is a lot to like, with some uncommon attention to detail in terms of convenience features on every model – illuminated vanity mirrors for the driver and front passenger, automatic up/down operation for all four windows, nicely damped stalks attached to the steering wheel, to name just three.
Yet at the same time we were also left wondering about some things that weren’t there.
The unavailability of smartphone mirroring such as Apple CarPlay functionality across the range is the obvious one, while other items we might have expected, but didn’t find, were soon noted.
These include the absence of leather casings on the ‘Level 2’ Ascent Sport steering wheel and transmission shift lever, electric seat adjustment (fore/aft travel and seat height, for example) on the top-spec ZR, more than one USB and auxiliary input at the entry level, soft plastic trim on the upper door portions of Ascent Sport and SX, and rear air vents for Ascent Sport and SX, too.
The rear compartment is surprisingly tight given the longer wheelbase and extra body width that lead to claims of the new-generation Corolla being more spacious.
The outboard seatbacks are generously sized and comfortable, and some scalloping in the roof lining means the height is acceptable for taller occupants. But legroom is lacking and, most notably, the thick portion above each rear window is much too close for comfort when sitting upright.
We reserve our biggest disappointment in the packaging of Corolla XII for the cargo compartment, which has a high-mounted floor and, coupled with the lower roofline, leaves only 217 litres for all variants that carry a spare wheel.
The 60/40 split-fold seatbacks can liberate more luggage space but, in overall terms, it just isn’t enough.
Oddly, Ascent Sport petrol is the only variant with a full-size spare wheel, leaving most others with a temporary solution – even the SX, which has the same 16-inch wheel and tyre specification.
The top-spec ZR hybrid goes without a spare wheel altogether, relying on a tyre repair kit and therefore allowing the cargo floor to be lowered and increase the available space to 333L.
But this is still less than in the previous model – which offered 360L – and may come as cold comfort to owners when faced with a puncture.
It’s also worth noting that roadside assistance is not included in the standard warranty.
Looking forward, rather than behind, is where the new Corolla really impresses.
In all variants, the front seats are comfortable and well bolstered, finding a perfect driving position is easily attainable via full seat height and steering column adjustment, the critical switchgear is close to hand (much of it on the steering wheel) and the main gauges are clearly presented, particularly so with the big 7.0-inch digital display in the ZR’s instrumental binnacle.
The head-up display in the ZR is also a welcome inclusion, working effectively and serving as a constant reminder of how far Corolla has come. The traffic sign recognition system is a case in point, picking up prevailing speed limits with a relatively high degree of accuracy and gently noting any driver transgressions – that is, when the overly zealous audible warnings are muted.
For us, the highlight of our first drive in the new-generation Corolla comes with its improved dynamics, moving from what we’ve previously described as a means from “getting from A to B with a minimum of fuss” to a more sophisticated and well-rounded set-up.
The car exhibits good balance and control when the roads start winding, sitting relatively flat, delivering predictable and confident front-wheel-drive handling characteristics and, in terms of tyre grip, high levels from the 18-inch Dunlop SP Sport Maxx rubber on ZR and middling amounts from the 16-inch Dunlop Enasave hoops on Ascent Sport.
The steering feels much improved over its predecessor, happily free of kickback at the wheel or rattle through the rack over the roads we encountered, while the brakes were up the task as well.
The ride quality is excellent, on the firm side with ZR and more forgiving in the lower-series cars, while palpable improvements in refinement were blighted only by tyre roar over coarse bitumen – particularly with the 18-inch set, but also noted on the 16s.
In around-town and easy-going conditions, the new 125kW/200Nm 2.0-litre petrol engine and revised 1.8-litre petrol-electric hybrid both perform with smoothness and efficiency.
Now available at every grade, the hybrid powertrain has less power (90kW) and a slightly inferior official fuel consumption figure (4.2L/10km) compared to the previous standalone model, but across a variety of conditions on our first drive we were impressed with its general refinement, eager acceleration in stop-start traffic, and moderate consumption, the latter coming in at 5.8L/100km.
The built-up environment is its clear comfort zone, as steep inclines on the open road left us feeling a little short-changed in terms of pulling power and responsiveness.
The 2.0-litre engine, on the other hand, has more power at its disposal and operates neatly with its revised CVT, which uses a mechanical launch gear to make it feel more like a conventional automatic gearbox from a standing start.
It does achieve the brief in removing some of the artificial sensation that comes with some CVTs, like a rubber band being stretched when planting the foot from a standing start, and feels more natural as you pick up speed.
Driven sedately, whether in the city or out of town, the combination works well. It’s only when looking to press on and drive the Corolla in a sporting manner that the CVT still feels unnatural – at one point, flaring up high in the rev range unexpectedly – compared to a more conventional transmission. The engine is also quite noisy up around the 5450rpm redline.
Toyota Australia describes this car as setting a new benchmark in class and representing not just the next-generation Corolla but “next-generation Toyota”.
It may continue to be the top-selling model, but, based on this first encounter, Corolla does not reach the same heights overall as other top-flight sub-$40,000 mass-market small cars, such as the Mazda3 and Volkswagen Golf.
It is closer, though. And certainly more of a premium appliance than ever before.
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