Car reviews - Toyota - Corolla - ZR Hybrid hatch
Communicative chassis, balanced steering, smooth ride, real-world efficiency, premium interior
Room for improvement
Needs more power, CVT niggles, tight second row, key equipment omissions, not much else…
Toyota’s Corolla sheds its cardigan in dynamic 12th-generation ZR Hybrid form
11 Feb 2019
THERE are three certainties in life: death, taxes and the Toyota Corolla being comparable to white goods … but not anymore. No, immortality is still not a thing, and governments haven’t stopped lining their pockets. Instead, Australia’s best-selling small car has had a massive change of heart.
The Corolla now rides on Toyota’s TNGA platform, and if its Camry and C-HR siblings are anything to go by, that can only mean good things for driver engagement. So, is the hatchback finally ready to mix it with the best in its class? We test its ZR Hybrid flagship to find out.
Price and equipment
Priced from $31,790 before on-road costs, the ZR Hybrid only commands a $1500 premium over its naturally aspirated sibling, making it an affordable way to get into a petrol-electric vehicle.
Our test car is finished with Crystal Pearl premium paintwork, which is a $550 option. As such, the price as tested is $32,340.
Standard equipment includes 18-inch alloy wheels wrapped in 225/40 tyres, disc brakes (283mm ventilated front, 265mm solid rear) dusk-sensing bi-LED headlights, LED foglights, daytime running lights and tail-lights; auto-folding side mirrors with heating, rear privacy glass and a tyre repair kit.
Inside, an 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system, satellite navigation with live traffic, digital radio, an eight-speaker JBL sound system, Bluetooth connectivity, an auxiliary input, two USB ports, a 12V power outlet, wireless smartphone charging, a 7.0-inch multi-information display, a windshield-projected colour head-up display, dual-zone climate control, front sports seats with heating and power-operated driver lumbar support, a leather-trimmed gear selector and steering wheel, leather-accented and Ultrasuede upholstery, an electric park brake with auto-hold, keyless entry and start, ambient lighting and an auto-dimming rearview mirror feature.
While this all sounds very well and good for the price, the ZR Hybrid is missing a few pieces of kit that are found in most of its rivals.
Namely, front and rear parking sensors, a sunroof, power-operated front seats with ventilation, rear cross-traffic alert and park assist are among the notable omissions.
Considering it excels in so many other areas, it is disappointing that the ZR Hybrid isn’t the most comprehensive package on the market.
No need to adjust your sets, this is a Corolla! Toyota has lifted its interior game with the right mix of soft-touch materials and a simplified cockpit that make for a stunning effort.
Specifically, black artificial leather trims the dashboard and middle door inserts, with it highlighted by sporty red stitching, while high-quality plastics cover the binnacle and upper front doors. It’s all very nice.
While the choice of materials may take some time to appreciate, what won’t is the ZR Hybrid’s front sports seats. You’d think they were pinched from a sportscar; they look that damn good!
Aesthetics aren’t the only pleasing thing about them, with great levels of support on offer and their Ultrasuede upholstery providing plenty of grip, while red leather accents add to that special feeling.
As good as the front row is, those sitting on the rear bench aren’t going to enjoy themselves as much. Sitting behind our 184cm driving position, legroom is very tight, and toe-room is even tighter.
Headroom is also opportunistic, while sitting three occupants abreast proves uncomfortable. However, it is ingress and egress that are less than dignified due to the rear doors’ small apertures.
Measuring in at 4375mm long, 1790mm wide and 1435mm tall with a 2640mm wheelbase, the ZR Hybrid provides 333L of cargo capacity – 116L more than any other Corolla variant due its lack of a full-size or space-saver speed wheel, with it instead coming with a tyre repair kit.
When its 60/40 split-fold rear bench is stowed, storage volume increases to 659L – a mediocre effort in this class.
Tech lovers should be pleased with the Corolla’s efforts, but its 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system does feel a step behind most in the functionality stakes, even if it’s less like the third-party-style head unit found in other Toyota models.
Similarly, the 7.0-inch multi-information display has its limitations, but the colour head-up display is a winner, doing everything you’d want and more.
Engine and transmission
The ZR Hybrid is motivated by two power sources: a 1.8-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder petrol engine that runs on the Atkinson Cycle and produces 72kW at 5200rpm and 142Nm at 3600rpm, and a 53kW/163Nm electric motor. This pairing’s combined power output is 90kW.
Being a series-parallel hybrid, the ZR Hybrid features a nickel-metal hydride battery pack that is charged via regenerative braking, while it exclusively sends drive to its front wheels via a specially developed ’10-speed’ continuously variable transmission (CVT).
In our experience, the charge level always remains above 60 per cent, with the ZR Hybrid able to recuperate energy at a pace that means it is never without electric power. This is perfect in urban environments where it is able to emit zero emissions in stop-start traffic. So long as you resist the temptation to bury the accelerator, silent motoring is achievable at the most common of speeds.
In a way, the ZR Hybrid reshapes you as a driver, with rev-heads gently encouraged to cool their jets as it offers up its best performance when driven calmly. However, in situations where a little extra get up and go is required, shifting its 1400kg kerb weight doesn’t exactly occur at pace. Tackle a steep hill and it labours, with speed slowly gathering, even with full application of the throttle.
A lot of this disappointment is derived from the CVT, which continues to be performance-sapping. The beauty of the ZR Hybrid’s electric power is it comes without the transmission’s shortcomings. However, when petrol power kicks in, so do those dreaded three letters. It never wants to explore the upper reaches, preferring to keep engine speeds around 4000rpm and stunting any momentum.
The ZR Hybrid’s three driving modes – Eco, Normal and Sport – alter powertrain and drivetrain settings on the move but do little to improve performance. An additional mode, dubbed EV, makes exclusive use of the electric motor at lower speeds and under light throttle inputs. However, it doesn’t change the fact that this set-up needs more power and less CVT to truly mix it with the best.
Toyota claims the ZR Hybrid’s fuel consumption on the combined cycle test is 4.2 litres per 100 kilometres, while carbon dioxide emissions have been tested at 97 grams per kilometre. During our time with it, we are averaging a stunningly good 5.1L/100km, even with driving heavily skewed towards city commutes over extended highway runs. Make no mistake, this is a proven hybrid.
Ride and handling
The Corolla’s suspension set-up consists of MacPherson-strut front and trailing-wishbone rear axles, while its rack-and-pinion power steering is electrically assisted. While this is very much run of the mill, the way in which the ZR Hybrid stacks up dynamically is not. When most people think sportscar, Mazda’s MX-5 and BMW’s M4 come to mind, but there’s a new aspirant in town…
It’s hard to believe: can a Corolla really be this good to drive? As it turns it out, it certainly can. Its steering is bang-on, with a level of sharpness that places it at the forefront of its class. To make matters even better, it’s well-weighted, too, proving to be a delight in hand. However, its feel is truly something else, with the chassis communicating to the driver everything that’s happening.
The suspension is also brilliant. While it may be at odds with the Corolla’s sporty character, its tune is on the softer side, proving to be more than comfortable around town. Suppleness is the key word here, with uneven and unsealed surfaces dealt with aplomb, although the rear end can become unsettled over sharper bumps and potholes. Either way, it still recovers from impacts quickly.
This combination makes the Corolla really, really fun to drive, with it keen to be thrown into corners at speed. It just grips and goes, failing to break a sweat as you push it harder and harder.
Body roll is kept to a minimum, while the ZR Hybrid’s low ride height makes it feel all that more connected to the road. It is just that tight and composed, it’s hard to believe the badge on the bonnet.
Toyota’s TNGA platform has laid some incredible foundations for the Corolla. It just makes you wonder what its Gazoo Racing division could do with it.
We’re not holding our breath, but a proper torque-convertor automatic transmission and a turbocharged engine would make the previously bland model one hell of a hot hatch. If Hyundai can do it with the i30 N, anything’s possible.
Safety and servicing
The Australasian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP) awarded the entire Corolla hatchback range a five-star safety rating in August 2018. It scored 96, 83 and 86 per cent in the adult, child and pedestrian protection categories, while safety assist testing returned a result of 76 per cent.
Advanced driver-assist systems in the ZR Hybrid extend to autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian and cyclist detection, lane-keep, steering and hill-start assist; blind-spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control, high-beam assist, speed sign recognition and a reversing camera.
Other safety equipment includes seven airbags (dual front, side and curtain, plus driver’s knee), anti-skid brakes (ABS), electronic brake-force distribution (EBD), brake assist, and the usual electronic stability and traction control systems.
As with all Toyota models, the Corolla comes with a three-year/100,000km warranty, while service intervals for the ZR Hybrid are every 12 months or 15,000km, whichever comes first.
It is okay if you weren’t expecting this, because neither were we; the Corolla is finally a really good buy. After generations of criticism for being bland, it has stepped up to the plate with a dynamic effort that owners can be proud of.
At the time, it has not lost sight of what made it the best-selling passenger car in Australia, with the real-world hybrid efficiency of the ZR Hybrid flagship continuing to be unmatched in its class while being more accessible than before.
The prospect of where Toyota goes from here is tantalising. Does it give the people what they want and finally develop a Corolla hot hatch? Given that the ZR Hybrid shows it needs more power and a better transmission, we certainly hope so.
Hyundai i30 Premium diesel (from $35,490 before on-road costs)
Making the case against the Corolla with its high-quality cabin, roomy interior and large boot, the i30 is let down by its firm suspension tune and coarse engine under load.
Peugeot 308 Allure diesel (from $35,990 before on-road costs)
Challenging the Corolla with its fuel efficiency, fun handling and mostly pleasant ride, the 308 is also compromised by its clunky infotainment system and lack of rear legroom.
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Model release date: 1 August 2018
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