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Car reviews - Toyota - Corolla - hybrid

Our Opinion

We like
Real-world fuel economy, super-smooth drivetrain, standard equipment, interior storage, premium feel
Room for improvement
Rear seat not roomy enough, laggy touchscreen, lack of digital speedo, needs better tyres

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Toyota logo2 Sep 2016

By HAITHAM RAZAGUI

Price and equipment

TOYOTA offers the Corolla Hybrid in a single, hatch-only specification at $26,990 plus on-road costs, positioned between the upper-mid-spec $25,490 SX and flagship $28,990 ZR, but inheriting many of the latter’s luxuries.

Equipment highlights include auto-levelling LED headlights, LED daytime running lights, dual-zone climate control, keyless entry and start, a 7.0-inch touchscreen with satellite navigation with SUNA live traffic updates, Toyota Link internet connectivity, full Bluetooth/USB/iPod connectivity and reversing camera.

Also standard are black cloth trim, 16-inch alloy wheels and a choice of eight exterior colours. We never really missed the more expensive ZR’s heated part-leather seats, paddle-shifters or self-folding door mirrors. We did miss the flagship’s parking sensors, though.

Considering the cost saving over the ZR, the significant driveline upgrade and related fuel consumption benefits, the Hybrid represents great value. It also makes the Prius-badged Toyota hybrids look pricey, with the smaller Yaris-based Prius C priced between $22,990 and $25,990 and the bigger new Prius that ranges from $34,990 to $42,990.

Interior

Last year Toyota gave the Corolla a much-needed interior makeover as part of a mid-life facelift and the Hybrid benefits from that.

The touchscreen multimedia system is well integrated with the dash, complimenting the colour multi-function trip computer display between the Hybrid-specific instrument pack that replaces the rev-counter with a power meter indicating how much energy is being used under acceleration and while cruising, or returned to the batteries under deceleration.

Quality materials are used throughout, and even the harder plastics used lower down feel solid and nicely textured. Soft-touch surfaces and a suede-like stitched swathe from below the digital climate control panel to above the glovebox add further touches of class to compliment the piano black and technical-looking metallic dashboard decorations.

We found the Prius-esque tiny transmission selector weird, though. It looks freakishly small sprouting like a toadstool from the acres of black plastic usually occupied by the leather gaiter of a normal-sized lever in petrol models.

The satellite navigation, while accurate in operation, has poor graphics, a clunky interface and the touchscreen is generally about a second behind the driver in terms of response. Voice control isn’t even worth using, but Bluetooth pairing is a cinch and both telephone and entertainment sound quality are pretty good.

The trip computer panel still lacks a digital speedometer – although at least in the Hybrid the analogue unit is easier to read than other Corollas – and apart from the fuel consumption screen and occasional sat-nav directions, is full of pretty useless information.

Considering the hybrid drivetrain battery is located beneath the rear seat, we found it more suitable for fully-grown adults in terms of head- and leg-room than the ZR variant we tested a year ago.

However, this is still not a car for those with infants, for the space required to install a modern rear-facing infant seat means the front passenger seat must be positioned in a way that squashes all but most vertically challenged. Apart from that, fitting the child-carrier is easy due to the presence of Isofix anchorages and a sensibly located top tether.

The battery positioning has thankfully not robbed space from what is one of the segment’s smallest boots at 360 litres, but it easily swallowed a chunky pushchair and other child-related rubbish. The irony.

Best news comes from up front, where both driver and front passenger (provided no infant seat is installed) are very comfortable, with supportive seats, good driving position, a well-positioned central armrest and a pleasantly sculpted and premium-feeling steering wheel.

There is plenty of storage too, with generous door bins shaped to accommodate 1.5-litre drinks bottles, two perfectly sized cupholders, a decent sized glovebox, large central bin and other enclosures for small items. Rear passengers get big door bins as well, along with a cubby where the rear air-conditioning vents should be and a pair of cupholders in the central armrest.

Overall fit and finish is impeccable and on the move, it’s quiet and refined, with the main intrusion being the faint rustle of wind noise.

The Corolla’s wedge profile, slit-like rear windscreen and small rear windows contribute to some visibility issues when parking, making the reversing camera useful and the lack of parking sensors a bit annoying.

Forward visibility is good and at night the LED were great on high-beam but didn’t cast quite enough light on low beam.

Engine and transmission

The Corolla Hybrid pairs a 1.8-litre four-cylinder Atkinson cycle petrol engine with an electric motor for a combined output of 100kW of power and 207Nm of torque, compared with 103kW/173Nm from the standard petrol-only Corolla.

Adding the batteries, motors and cabling results in a 55kg weight increase over the Corolla ZR, which is more than overcome by the instant responses and additional 34Nm of torque that make for a zippier around-town experience plus super-smooth acceleration and cruising.

While the Hybrid’s petrol-electric drivetrain does not transform the Corolla into a firecracker, the additional performance is noticeable and despite the use of a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), we only got the engine close to screaming with our right foot to the floor as the speedometer passed 110km/h.

It is one of those drivetrains that excels in normal driving scenarios and only starts to struggle when subjected to abnormal conditions. The only real flaw was a reticence to accelerate up steep inclines from a standing start because it always tries to take off on electric power alone, with throttle inputs or road speed dictating when the engine kicks in.

As a result, more pressure on the accelerator pedal than feels natural is required in the hill-start scenario, although hitting the Power Mode button beside the transmission selector helps.

Day-to-day, the drivetrain is an absolute peach for its smoothness and refinement. It glides around quietly like a large luxury car and is far quieter in the Corolla than it is in the Prius. We rarely noticed the transition between electric-only and petrol-assisted modes and the surge of low-down electric torque made the Corolla pleasantly responsive in almost all situations.

Even better, this drivetrain is substantially more efficient than the already impressive straight-petrol Corolla. We recorded an average of 4.8 litres per 100 kilometres in our week of mixed driving, with a peak of 5.2L/100km during a combination of lead-foot urban driving and our dynamic back-road thrash. The official combined figure is 4.1L/100km. For comparison, our week with the non-hybrid ZR variant resulted in 6.8L/100km.

Just consider this: Most competitors offer a diesel option that is priced at least $2000 higher than the equivalent petrol but more fuel-efficient.

But the Corolla Hybrid is effectively a no-cost engine upgrade that delivers diesel-like efficiency but unlike a diesel, provides more silence and refinement.

To us that makes it a no-brainer.

Ride and handling

Compared with the Corolla ZR, which rides on sporty 17-inch wheels, the Hybrid has 16-inch alloys that help provide a pleasantly compliant ride in all circumstances that perfectly matches the smooth-natured drivetrain.

Even on the worst surface of our road test route, the Corolla remained unflustered and comfortable, an impressive feat that much more expensive vehicles struggle to achieve. The coarsest of coarse-chip bitumen resulted in hardly any additional road noise entering the cabin. A lot of Lexus has rubbed off on the humble Corolla.

Unique to the Hybrid is a double-wishbone rear suspension setup that promises better dynamics and Toyota makes much of this variant’s bigger brakes too, but we suspect the main reason for this is to help cope with the demands of increased weight.

It is never going to win any awards for dynamics but the Corolla Hybrid’s accurate steering and good forward vision provide a decent dose of confidence when tipping into fast corners and sharp turns, then delivers ample feedback through the seat of the pants.

We found steering feel to be less artificial than the ZR, apart from during direction changes such as chicanes or roundabouts when it enters a twilight zone of floaty vagueness around the straight-ahead before meating up again as more lock is applied.

But when driving enthusiastically the Hybrid’s Michelin Energy tyres emit a hell of a howl well before the point that they start to let go. We felt for the occupants of a house beside one particularly fast corner, who must have expected a car to enter their living room at any moment. Meanwhile in the Corolla everything felt perfectly under control with nary a flicker from the light that indicates the safety electronics have intervened.

On that note, the stability and traction control lights are fairly redundant because the system, in typical Toyota fashion, shuts down any over-exuberance like a dog owner’s firm tug on the leash of a wayward canine.

Learn to play within those limits, however, and the Corolla Hybrid does not disgrace itself at all, providing plenty of agility and predictability, with the fancy rear suspension setup helping it track faithfully around rutted, potholed corners without even a hint of skittishness.

The brakes are powerful, too, if a bit suddenly grabby under harder applications. As expected from a hybrid with regenerative braking, the pedal feel is odd and unnatural, but in the Corolla there is an odd pulsating through the pedal at all times that felt similar to driving with warped discs. It was not exactly the same feeling and we took delivery of the car with just 500km on the clock, so it must just be a vagary of the Corolla Hybrid system.

As we have said before, nobody buys a Corolla for its sporty and rewarding driving experience. It is more about getting from A to B with the minimum of fuss, and the smooth, comfortable Hybrid nails that brief far better than any other variant.

Safety and servicing

ANCAP gave the pre-facelift Corolla hatch a maximum five-star safety rating, with an overall score of 35.25 out of 37. The frontal offset test score was 15.25 out of 16, while 15 out of 16 was awarded for its side impact and pole tests. Whiplash and pedestrian protection were both deemed “acceptable”.

Dual frontal, side chest and side curtain and driver’s knee airbags are standard, along with anti-lock brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution, electronic stability control and seat belt reminders for all seats. The front seatbelts are fitted with pre-tensioners.

Service intervals are every six months or 10,000km and under Toyota’s capped-price servicing scheme, the first six scheduled services cost $140 each when carried out within the first three years or 60,000km.

The Corolla is covered by a three-year, 100,000km warranty.

Verdict

Toyota has always appealed to the rational side of the decision-making process and the Corolla Hybrid’s value proposition and fuel consumption advantages will win over many who buy with their head over their heart.

Not only will those who do be endlessly rewarded by a well-equipped and fuel-efficient hatchback, they will enjoy its quietness, smoothness and comfort. These qualities combine to make the Corolla Hybrid feel like something expensive and premium and in fact, it does better at those things than many cars that are expensive and premium.

The Hybrid is by far the best Corolla, and we’d be disappointed if it didn’t single-handedly support a spike in Australian hybrid sales.

Rivals

Hyundai i30 Active CRDi automatic from $26,350 plus on-road costs
Amazingly, the Toyota beats this Hyundai on standard equipment and fuel-efficiency.

Peugeot 308 Active automatic from $26,890 plus on-road costs
A stylish and frugal petrol alternative to the Corolla, but the Japanese car is better value.

Mazda3 Touring from $25,290 plus on-road costs
A facelift has just been revealed, but if dynamics and style take priority over fuel consumption and comfort the Mazda3 makes a strong Corolla Hybrid competitor.

Volkswagen Golf 92TSI Trendline from $26,840 plus on-road costs
We used to call this class-leader for refinement but the Corolla Hybrid probably nixes it and the Toyota Hybrid Synergy Drive brand has a much more robust reputation on emissions.

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