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Car reviews - Toyota - Corolla - Levin SX hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Ease, efficiency, value, lane-change indicators, value, driving position, CVT, performance, economy, handling, roadholding, practicality
Room for improvement
No auxiliary digital speedo, tight front seat legroom, tight rear seat for class nowadays, dashboard’s low-rent look

30 Nov 2012

HOW refreshing to see the Corolla Hatch finally re-embracing its Japanese heritage.

Neat and contemporary though they were, the most recent two generations adopted a Euro-flavoured internationalism that left a rather dull aftertaste.

There was little national identity beyond the familiar nameplate – and even that was dropped for Auris globally except here and in New Zealand, to distance new from old.

Maybe that’s why the bold and bolshie Mazda3 has eclipsed the Corolla in recent years. Not trying to feel German, look French, or fit Americans, it’s as Japanese as they come.

Clearly, however, Toyota has had a change of heart.

The 11th generation you see here has something of its 1980s predecessors’ sharpness, with a styling language that definitely has a Nagoya accent. Too bad about the Hyundai i30-esque rear-end though – an embarrassing coincidence for both companies.

Lighter, stronger and lower than before, the Corolla Hatch sits closer to the ground for improved aerodynamics and better dynamics. And it is noticeable the moment you turn the key.

Driven in mid-range $25,990 Levin SX guise – a sporty model aimed at Mazda3 Maxx Sport, Ford Focus Trend, and Volkswagen Golf 90TSi buyers who generally choose their wheels – the Toyota plays the part surprisingly well.

Considering the engine’s a 1.8-litre carryover, a torsion beam is in place of the others’ more sophisticated multi-link rear end, and an unsexy continuously variable transmission (CVT) stands in for the high-tech dual-clutch gearboxes found in the Golf and Focus, the Corolla Hatch is a better drive than it has any right to be. Heck, we’ll go as far as saying it’s fun to drive.

The engine, for instance, feels lively, raspy and utterly robust, combining a readiness to rev freely with a fairly fat wad of torque down low to keep things moving along effortlessly.

Unlike most CVTs we’ve tested, this one does a fine job masking the slurring endemic with this sort of transmission, using seven ‘fake’ steps as ratio points for the engine to rifle through.

So, in everyday commuting conditions you’d be hard-pressed to even guess there isn’t a torque-converter gearbox dishing out drive to the front wheels.

Step-off performance is well up to class standards, with responsive acceleration there for the (over) taking when needed. This is a big step up on the old Corolla Hatch’s outmoded four-speed auto.

However, mash down hard on the gas pedal and the CVT-trademark rev-build-up and drone will be obvious, but the delay is only momentary, and the sheer lack of mechanical inertia means that drivers may need to back off quickly if they’re not to be breaking the speed limits.

Nevertheless, just in case you want even quicker down changes, Toyota fits a ‘Sport’ button that does just that, and holds on to the appropriate stepped ratio longer – all the way up to the red line, in fact.

But while it works well on fast open switchbacks, around town the engine can become tryingly raucous in this mode. It won’t engage ‘top’ gear either only when out of Sport will the 100km/h cruise slip from a peaky 3000rpm to a tad under 2000rpm.

To sum up, this is one of the better CVT drivetrains in everyday scenarios – and better than VW’s laggy DSGs around town – but the latter is more dynamic when you’re in the mood to play.

Speaking of which, the Levin SX – complete with new electric power steering – handles with a flat, confident attitude that completely betrays the Corolla’s Florence Nightingale reputation.

Armed with sharp yet fluid steering inputs, the Toyota turns into an entertaining cornerer, displaying masses of body control yet is light enough on its feet to kick the tail out if really pushed.

Otherwise, it grips the road with rabid determination, and stops with similar resolution. For a car designed as an agile and easy city commuter, the Corolla is also at home on the highways and back roads.

The flipside? Here’s why multi-links work better, Toyota. Through rougher corners, on more uneven surfaces, or just barrelling along a gravel track, the Levin’s rear tended to feel a little skittish, jiggling about a bit like a tea-bagger – but still not enough for it to skip off the chosen line due to the trigger-happy traction control tech.

Plus, the ride – though well damped and generally well controlled – does err ever so slightly on the firm side at times.

Annoyingly, the Corolla’s Auris twin in Europe ditches the torsion beam, and we know that cost constraints are the reason why, but Australians deserve the best that’s available, and this isn’t it.

Ultimately, and factoring the low-profile Levin SX’s 215/45R17 rubber, tyre and road-noise intrusion finds its way into the cabin, but a back-to-back drive with a previous-gen Corolla revealed the degree of progress Toyota’s made in terms of interior refinement.

Frankly, on first acquaintance, the newcomer’s cabin is underwhelming.

Sitting slightly lower to the ground than before, it immediately feels smaller than, say, a Focus or Cruze hatch. And quite a lot more downmarket too, since the Levin SX is awash swathes of black plastic trim.

In the best old-school Japanese tradition, the slabby fascia is a mess of shapes and textures, with only the dash top and door cappings finished in anything resembling soft-touch surfaces. Look below the vent controls – there are literally rows of blanks to remind you what’s not fitted to your car.

But the truth is that the Corolla’s dash looks and feels cheaper than it is actually is.

The layout is incredibly simple and logical. The controls are exactly where you expect them to be. And on closer inspection, there are interesting contrasting textures, the fit and finish is first rate and nothing rattles or falls off.

And what appears like a cheap mess of incoherent shapes at first actually coalesce in an agreeable form the longer you take it all in – though the best way to appreciate how stylish the layout really is from the back-seat perspective … which is slightly nuts. We fear folk expecting Golf lushness will take one look and then leave.

It would be their loss, because the Levin SX’s driving position is one of its strongest points, thanks to bolstered sports seat that provides lots of comfort and support.

Also delightful is the handsome and tactile tilt/telescopic three-spoke leather wheel, ahead of an elegant set of analogue dials ensconcing a quite comprehensive trip computer layout. Note, however, that there is no auxiliary digital speedometer.

No one will feel intimidated by the impressive array of new tech either. GPS operation? Easy. Audio streaming? Simple. Bluetooth connectivity? Child’s play the lot! Toyota clearly knows how to make people feel confident.

Too bad, then, that the multimedia screen’s graphics look like they’re Windows 95 rejects, while the unit’s integration is ham-fisted, with unsightly gaps and a lack of regard for flush finishing.

Side and rear vision isn’t great, but at this spec level Toyota fits a reverse camera, so it isn’t as bad as some other small cars.

Where the latest Corolla falls is in front passenger space. Longer-legged folk might find that the protruding (though consequently large) glovebox might foul knees, so try before you buy.

Otherwise, and as has long been typical with this company’s products, there is absolutely ample storage for bottles, cups, phones, and other bits of detritus people drive with.

The rear seat area is a quite a dark and dingy place, and isn’t helped by doors that aren’t especially big and don’t open wide

The outboard backrest and cushion are OK for adults, but the centre position is tight, while there are no air vents to help alleviate the stuffiness.

And yes, while Toyota helpfully fits grab handles, map pockets and a couple of small storage areas in the doors, the fold-down centre armrest (with built-in cupholders) sits too low and at an odd angle.

Further back, the boot is a mixed blessing – wide and long, and with child-seat anchorage points immediately behind the backrests for minimal cargo intrusion, but shallow (even though only a space-saver is sited below) due to the high floor. Again, there are more bountiful competitors in this class.

But few top it equipment-wise for the money.

For your $26K, the Levin SX manual includes all the aforementioned media, navigation and connectivity features, as well as that handy reverse camera, and tops that with a full suite of airbags, an emergency brake signal, a rear (as well as front) seatbelt warning buzzer, hill-start assist on the CVT, those 215/45R17 tyres and alloy wheels, electric windows, power mirrors, air-conditioning, and remote central locking.

So, 46 years after the first KE10s trickled into the country from Japan, the Corolla is still going strong.

This latest iteration looks great, drives better than we had any right to expect, and does a reasonable – if not class-leading – job in accommodating people inside.

But it’s also worth remembering how reliable these vehicles are, how low their running costs are, how high their resale values are, and how well-built they are.

This has long been the Japanese way, and also the Corolla way. We’re glad Toyota has had the sense to embrace and express its heritage again.

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