Car reviews - Toyota - Corolla - Ascent Sport Hybrid hatch
Extremely efficient, great to drive, well-equipped, super smooth, slick interior, unique in its segment
Room for improvement
Small boot, cramped rear quarters, no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, power down but weight up
Value-packed, efficient Toyota Corolla Ascent Sport hybrid renders Prius C obsolete
29 Oct 2018
A NEW Toyota Corolla is always big news and biggest of all this time around is the fact every variant of the latest 12th-generation hatch range is available with a hybrid drivetrain.
This means it is possible to purchase an incredibly well-equipped, thoroughly modern hybrid-powered car for $25,870 plus on-road costs. Brand new.
And you know what? It’s really good.
So where’s the catch? We spent a week living with one to find out.
Price and equipment
As mentioned in the Overview, Toyota asks $25,870 plus on-road costs for the Corolla hybrid in base Ascent Sport trim. That’s $1500 more than the automatic petrol equivalent.
For context, the previous-generation Corolla range included a standalone hybrid variant priced at $26,990 before on-roads, and it was a pretty well-equipped little thing.
But Toyota has gone to town with the 12th-generation Corolla, equipping the entry-level Ascent Sport with a long list of standard active safety and driver assistance features including adaptive cruise control, autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian and cyclist detection, lane-keeping assistance, speed limit recognition and automatic high beam.
LED headlights and tail-lights, daytime running lights and rear foglights are also included, as are seven airbags, a reversing camera, electronic stability control, ABS brakes and brake assist. Wheels are 16-inch alloy items, with a space-saver spare (the petrol Ascent Sport has a full-size spare, though).
In addition to all the safety fare, standard kit on Ascent Sport variants includes an 8.0-inch touchscreen multimedia unit with Toyota Link apps, Bluetooth connectivity, voice recognition with Siri eyes-free functionality and USB/auxiliary ports, a 4.2-inch colour multi-function trip computer display, an electronic park brake, electric windows, heated exterior mirrors, driver’s seat height adjustment a multi-function steering wheel and six-speaker audio setup.
Being a hybrid, our car also came with dual-zone climate control and keyless entry/start.
Apart from the lack of sat-nav, the equipment list of the new Ascent Sport hybrid looks like great value compared with the previous petrol-electric Corolla.
As such, owners of the old Corolla hybrid will likely tick the $1000 satellite navigation option that is bundled with rear privacy glass. All up, their new car will still cost $120 less than they paid for the one they are trading in.
We’re calling it. This is the best Toyota interior in decades. It’s far from the segment’s most spacious and the boot is insultingly tiny, but the rest is largely good news.
For example, the seat fabric – with contrast stitching – is way nicer than found in most lower-spec small cars and the front seats are really comfortable. There’s a urethane steering wheel, but it was so inoffensive compared with others we have used that our attention was only drawn to its lack of leather wrapping when referring to the spec sheet.
Door trims are all hard plastic, but that’s good enough for smaller Audis these days. There’s plenty of pleasant soft-touch stuff almost everywhere else and where there isn’t, the hard plastics feel respectably solid with well-chosen textures. It feels modern and upmarket enough without being over-wrought and all hangs together exceptionally well.
Toyota has really raised its switchgear game, with a consistent tactility across the board, no clutter and logical grouping of controls. Its latest multi-function steering wheel design is one of the best, too. It’s refreshing. We especially liked the dual-zone climate control panel for its simplicity, clarity and satisfying click action of the rotary temperature dials.
Embracing the tombstone style touchscreen trend with enthusiasm, Toyota has plonked a generous and glossy 8.0-inch screen high in the centre of the Corolla dash, embedded in a huge bezel featuring two control knobs and an octet of tiny rectangular shortcut buttons that reminded us of a 1980s TV remote.
If you’re used to the Toyota multimedia system layout and operation, little adjustment is required, and you will appreciate the crisper graphics and much-improved voice recognition. Like us, you might wonder why the layout of the voice command screen hasn’t changed and therefore provides no indication of how much this functionality has moved on.
But compared with rivals from Subaru, Hyundai, Honda or Volkswagen, the Corolla’s system is still clunky in operation and lacking in features.
Also, the Ascent Sport’s lack of both sat-nav and smartphone mirroring means you’re lost without a phone mount or stumping up for the $1000 navigation option – although the latter does include rear privacy glass as well. On the upside, audio quality is sensational for the segment.
Toyota has listened and installed a vastly improved multi-function trip computer that includes a digital speed readout, with other information easy to find via the logically laid-out steering wheel buttons.
Oddly enough, the Corolla Ascent Sport hybrid has a regular rev-counter in the instrument pack rather than the typical charge/eco/power meter found in almost every other electrified vehicle.
Introduced for this Corolla, Toyota’s road sign recognition is excellent and beeps loudly to admonish the driver who dares to flout the law. Unfortunately, the only times it did this to us were while we were using the adaptive cruise control, which although vastly improved compared with the brand’s previous efforts, still runs away wildly on inclines. We cannot fathom why a system that is connected to the brakes allows this to happen. Toyota, please fix this.
Better is the lane-keep assist but still, the system in an i30 works much better.
Cabin storage is strong, with a big glovebox helping make up for the woeful boot capacity along with a generous bin beneath the front central armrest, a logical phone resting place beside a USB socket and capacious cup-holders. The door bins aren’t great for holding bottles, but are still reasonably big.
Rear passengers get a single map pocket and C-HR style cup-holders in the doors plus another pair in a central fold-down armrest. There’s no ceiling-mounted sunglasses holder, though.
What rear passengers do not get is legroom. Toyota has not managed to move the Corolla hatcback’s game forward much on that front, but at least there is now more headroom and visibility through the deeper windows is much better for a less claustrophobic feel.
But it is boot space that really lets the Corolla down. It is unfathomably small. The previous Corolla hatch was average at 360 litres but this new one has just 217L. That’s light car territory and absolutely inadequate. The top-spec ZR hybrid does away with the spare wheel, but there’s still only 333L of space in there. We thought the Impreza’s boot was small at 345L. What a ridiculous step backward.
On the move, the Corolla cabin is quiet enough for its size, with only the coarsest of country roads introducing untoward rumble. The transition between electric and petrol drive can occasionally be jarring and the petrol engine regularly sounds as though it is revving higher than feels natural.
But at least the unusual presence of a rev-counter means you can visually verify what the engine is doing.
Engine and transmission
The new Corolla’s hybrid system uses a revised 1.8-litre Atkinson Cycle petrol engine that in conjunction with a motor-generator, drives the front wheels through an electric continuously variable automatic transmission (or e-CVT for short). Toyota claims to have revised all the electric drive bits, including the power control unit and nickel-metal hydride battery pack.
Oddly, the total combined maximum power output is 10kW lower than the previous-gen Corolla hybrid at 90kW. The petrol engine develops 72kW of power and 142Nm of torque and the electric drive motor produces 53kW/163Nm.
But compared with previous-generation Toyota hybrids, we felt as though the Corolla used electricity a lot more of the tine. We were amazed at how much of a fairly long suburban road journey was achieved under battery power alone. Likewise, school zones, traffic jams and car parks.
Response is instantaneous, and there is a delightful vigour to step-off or roll-on acceleration at urban and suburban speeds that lends the Corolla an enjoyable point-and-squirt character that suits its nimble handling.
It’s not so impressive when asked to accelerate from higher speeds, though, as the output figures suggest. On quicker twisty roads, overtaking or on hills the petrol engine regularly felt as though it was working and revving hard. But cruising along the motorway at 110km/h is effortless and relaxed.
Regenerative braking is a lot less aggressive than many electrified models, but once accustomed there is some joy to be had from the momentum-maintaining sensation of coasting along. We found the brake pedal feel to be impressively natural, too.
As alluded to in the interior section, the transition between electric-only and assisted petrol power was not always seamless, especially compared with the more powerful and better-insulated Camry hybrid we drove prior. But considering the technology Toyota has packed into this small car, it’s forgivable and preferable to the pure petrol or diesel experience.
Despite the power decrease, the new Corolla hybrid’s official combined-cycle fuel consumption has increased slightly to 4.2 litres per 100km (up 0.1L). Probably because it weights 35kg more than its predecessor.
We averaged 4.6L/100km during our week-long test of suburban errand-running, dynamic testing and a motorway haul, which is pretty good and way better than you’d achieve in a petrol-only small car. It got even better on a long free-flowing journey, during which our Corolla consumed just 3.4L/100km.
You might achieve similar figures in one of the few surviving diesel small cars such as the Hyundai i30, but the Corolla hybrid’s smoothness, quietness and responsiveness – plus the feel-good factor of gliding along on electricity alone – makes oil-burners at this end of the market look positively obsolete.
Ride and handling
No doubt about it, our Corolla rode beautifully and provided impressive isolation from poorly maintained roads in a way that put many larger cars to shame.
It’s also wonderfully nimble and direct around town, with the quick and accurate steering matched perfectly to the equally responsive petrol-electric drivetrain.
As a result, we found the Corolla an absolute joy to drive, enough for us to work around its lack of cabin and boot space when we had much more practical vehicles through our garage.
Everything hangs together well as speeds rise and roads become more challenging, coping admirably with rippled patchwork country lanes and mid-corner dips or ridges without corrupting the steering or bouncing off-line.
Grip from the eco-focussed Dunlops of our car was sufficient in the dry conditions of our test and everything felt predictable and controllable, even though feel through the well-weighted steering was fairly anaesthetised.
Overall, this car is a revelation after the dull dynamics of every previous Corolla in living memory but not enough to cloud our judgement, for there’s still nowhere near the level of involvement enjoyed by a Mazda3 driver, for example.
Still, for the kind of driving most people will do in their Corolla, this thing is an absolute ripper.
Safety and servicing
ANCAP awarded the entire Toyota Corolla line-up a full five stars for crash-test safety in 2018, where it scored 96 per cent for adult occupant protection, 83 per cent for child occupant protection, 86 per cent for pedestrian protection and 76 per cent for safety assist technologies.
Every Corolla comes with seven airbags, electronic stability control, adaptive cruise control, ABS brakes, automatic headlights with adaptive high beams, reversing camera, lane-departure warning and lane-keep assist.
Toyota is one of the stragglers still offering a three-year, 100,000km factory warranty, although the hybrid’s battery pack is covered for eight years and 160,000km.
The 12th-generation Toyota Corolla finally deserves to sell on merit rather than being the dependable default go-to small car the nameplate has represented for decades.
In hybrid guise it represents something unique in a crowded segment, with much more than excellent efficiency going for it but a superior driving experience that is well worth the $1500 premium, especially given there’s some worthwhile extra standard kit to sweeten the deal.
We absolutely loved getting about in the Corolla, which has to be a first for Toyota’s ever-popular small car. And it’s well equipped, with a more than pleasant interior, which breaks more new ground for the Japanese giant.
Cramped rear quarters we can forgive, as there are other offenders out there in the small hatch segment. But the serious lack of boot space is sadly unforgivable.
That’s a shame, because Toyota can’t really fix this until the 13th-gen model arrives in around seven years.
Hopefully by that time it has fixed the cruise control as well.
Hyundai i30 Active diesel automatic from $26,090 plus on-road costs
Brilliantly spacious and practical, excellent infotainment, a punchy and efficient diesel drivetrain, a generally well-resolved feel and strong five-year warranty offering make it really hard to overlook the excellent all-rounder that is the i30.
Subaru Imprea 2.0i-L from $24,690 plus on-road costs
A likeable, good-value small car. The cabin is huge, although like the Corolla there is a small boot. The petrol boxer engine is not as efficient or convincing as the Corolla hybrid setup, but all-wheel drive is standard and the multimedia system is one of the best in the business.
Honda Civic VTi-S from $24,490 plus on-road costs
If you want an impossibly large boot from your small-segment hatch, the Civic is your car. It’s also pleasant to drive, has a reasonably high standard equipment and a general sense of quality and robustness about it. As good as Honda’s 1.8-litre naturally aspirated engine is, it is outclassed by the Toyota hybrid.
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