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Car reviews - Toyota - Corolla - ZR Hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Smooth, easy and effortless driving experience, build quality, plenty of grip, fantastic LED headlights, practical interior storage, economical
Room for improvement
Still not competitive dynamically, artificial steering, brakes and transmission feel, frustrating and disappointing on-board tech, lack of space for rear seat occupants

Gallery

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Toyota logo21 Jul 2015

Price and equipment

AT $28,990 plus on-road costs, our Corolla ZR was packed with standard equipment befitting its status as top of the Toyota small hatch range.

At our disposal were dual-zone automatic climate control, satellite navigation, heated part-leather seats, paddle-shifters for the automatic transmission, full-LED headlights, self-folding door mirrors, keyless entry and start, a reversing camera, Bluetooth audio streaming and an apps facility on the 7.0-inch touchscreen using a tethered smartphone.

Our test car was also fitted with the $1500 panoramic glass roof and fabric blackout blind.

Interior

Toyota has really brought the Corolla’s interior up-to-date with this mid-life facelift, most noticeably in this top-spec ZR model.

Finally, the touchscreen multimedia system is properly integrated with the dash and there is at least a workable multi-function display instead of an old-fashioned trip computer.

Unfortunately we found both frustrating to use and disappointingly old-tech in operation. For example, the voice control takes forever to register the driver’s command and then usually gets it wrong.

It also has a limited number of commands to choose from. The satellite navigation, while accurate in operation, has poor graphics and a clunky interface. For example Mazda, Hyundai and Kia do it far, far better than this.

Meanwhile the multi-function display in the instrument panel is a wasted opportunity, lacking a digital speedometer – annoying as the analogue one is hard to read – and apart from the fuel consumption screen, is full of pretty useless information. The world used to admire the Japanese for their electronics but we are sad to say that apart from quick and easy Bluetooth pairing, there is little to be admired here.

While we are having a whinge, the rear seat is not suitable for fully grown adults in terms of head or legroom (especially if sitting behind a similarly tall driver) and anyone approaching six foot (183cm) in height had better forget it unless they can tolerate a stooped posture and squashed knees. Behind rear passengers is one of the segment’s smallest boots, too.

The Corolla’s redemption comes with the fact both driver and front passenger are very comfortable, with supportive seats, good driving position, a well-positioned central armrest and a pleasantly sculpted sports steering wheel.

There is plenty of storage up-front 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.

Fit and finish is impeccable, the quality of trim and switchgear is high for this size and price of car and the design easy on the eye. On the move, it’s mostly quiet and refined inside too.

The Corolla’s wedge profile, slit-like rear windscreen and small rear windows contribute to some visibility issues when parking, making the parking sensors and reversing camera useful. One passenger joked that the largest window was in the ceiling.

Forward visibility is good and at night the LED headlights never fail to impress.

Engine and transmission

Driveline updates to the facelifted Corolla are all about fuel-efficiency, and we recorded an average of 6.8 litres per 100 kilometres during our week of mixed driving. That’s not bad considering the official combined figure is 6.1L/100km and the car came to us with just 200km on the clock.

Despite the sporty connotations, this is not an enthusiast’s car and Toyota does a great job of making the oily bits do their thing in the background without drawing attention to themselves. It makes for an effortless and smooth driving experience if little else.

An example of this is how the free-revving, 103kW/173Nm 1.8-litre four-cylinder petrol engine provides adequate thrust for the Corolla to never feel slow, without feeling rapid either. Only those paying close attention to how it sounds will notice the continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) occasionally pretending to have fixed ratios.

In oxymoronic marketing speak, Toyota refers to the Corolla’s transmission as a “7-speed CVT”.

In practice the paddle-shifters and manual gate on the selector do provide fast access to seven distinct ratios, but there is an artificial feel to how it works, with each manual change causing the expected drop in revs on up-shifts followed by a sudden flaring to higher revs.

Flicking from seventh gear back to automatic mode causes revs to drop further, giving the impression of a ‘secret’ eighth gear. In automatic mode, there is a mixture of typical CVT flaring and simulated stepped shifts.

As the car was so new, the transmission logic could still have been learning.

Our advice is just to leave the car in automatic mode and let it do the job in the background, just as Toyota intended.

Ride and handling

Befitting its sporty appearance, the Corolla ZR’s ride is quite firm. Impacts on urban potholes and speed humps are felt sharply rather than being soaked up by the initial suspension travel as mastered by European cars like the Volkswagen Golf, Peugeot 308 and Ford Focus, resulting in jarred occupants.

At higher speeds the Corolla feels much more compliant and very stable, while road and suspension noise is mostly muted.

Because it resists bodyroll well, the Corolla provides plenty of confidence tipping into fast corners and sharp turns – and the funky looking 17-inch wheels and tyres do a great job of gripping the road.

Feedback through the seat of the pants is plentiful, although the artificial steering feel numbs any sensations that might be trying to come up through from the front wheels. Imagine turning a steering wheel attached to a rubber shaft that provides little initial resistance before loading up as the rubber gains tension and you are half way to understanding how this car feels to steer.

Like the steering, the brake feel is odd and unnatural, but instead of rubber, the material that comes to mind is wood.

On a twisty road the rear tyres stay stubbornly planted as the front breaks away into understeer, which happens predictably and is caught rather abruptly by the electronic stability control. However unlike some Toyota systems, at least it does not seem to have the over-correction problem of trying to correct a slide while the driver is simultaneously responding.

The Corolla ZR can be hustled along a twisty road fairly briskly but it is not exactly satisfying and we found our confidence and enjoyment ebbing away toward the end of the handling section of our road test route, whereas a better handling car encourages the driver to push harder as their smile gets wider.

We likened the disparity between the Corolla’s looks and driving experience to the difference between images used to advertise fast-food outlets and what they actually serve up.

While it is better than Corollas past, nobody buys one of these for its sporty and rewarding driving experience. It is more about getting from A to B with the minimum of fuss, and the Corolla nails that brief.

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 3 years or 60,000km.

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

Verdict

We have said it before and we will say it again: In the mainstream small-car market the top-spec variant is rarely the sweet spot of the range. The lower grades have an honesty and a purity about them and this aggressive looking, big-wheeled Corolla seems to dilute rather than enhance the enduring qualities of this small Japanese hatch.

On the other hand it feels thoroughly modern inside and out and is a large leap for a facelift in that respect. Value for money is a given, considering how much luxury gear you get at the price.

But we can’t help but feel that some of these luxuries are undercooked and technology for its own sake – or at least showroom bragging rights. A Mazda3 or Hyundai i30 to name a couple have far superior multimedia set-ups.

Then there is the sporty styling. This car could be mistaken for a hot – or at least warm – hatch owing to its looks and then drives like a normal Corolla but with slightly uncomfortable urban ride quality. But then plenty of people go to the shops in head-to-toe sporting attire, don’t they?Toyota has always appealed to the rational side of the decision-making process and this Corolla is no different. But in trying to appeal to the emotional side with the styling and technology, the company has failed.

While there is no doubt the updated Corolla is Toyota’s best yet and will no doubt continue to sell like hot cakes, the ZR variant is not the best Corolla and you can do better for the money.

Save yourself a few grand and buy a base- or mid-spec Corolla variant. Look elsewhere – such as a Mazda3 – if you want dynamics to match the looks and on-board technology that lives up to its promises.

Rivals

Mazda3 SP25 GT from $29,790 plus on-road costs
Sharp handling, a great interior, comprehensive equipment and a punchy 2.5-litre petrol engine driving through Mazda’s excellent six-speed automatic, make it easy to justify the Mazda3’s small extra outlay over the Corolla.

Kia Cerato Si from $28,990 plus on-road costs
Since Hyundai facelifted the i30 range and skewed up-spec models towards diesel drivetrains, it has been harder to make like-for-like comparisons with top-end Corollas. Sister company Kia however has the compelling and sharp-suited Cerato, generously equipped, a dynamic equal to the Corolla and with a seven-year warranty to boot.

Volkswagen Golf 90TSI Comfortline from $28,140 plus on-road costs
Class-leader for refinement meets classless European appeal. But to match the Corolla ZR’s spec you will have to consult the options list.

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