2016 Toyota Corolla ZR Review

The updated 2015 Toyota Corolla hatchback improves in almost all the important areas.

The 2015 Toyota Corolla, the latest iteration of Australia's top-selling car, introduces a range of substantial updates halfway through the current hatchback model’s life cycle, and the changes have definitely been for the better.

The amendments include a split model range in terms of the way the Toyota Corolla hatch looks – the entry-level Ascent and Ascent Sport variants appear identical to the refreshed Toyota Auris from Europe, while the sportier SX and flagship ZR (as tested here) have more aggressive styling similar to the Scion iM from the US.

The ZR model loses the Levin name and it also costs $1000 less than it did previously when equipped with an automatic gearbox. The previous model could be had with a manual transmission, but the 2015 version starts at $28,990 plus on-road costs, and is only available with a continuously variable transmission (CVT).

There are other changes to the standard gear, too, including that extroverted body kit, new bi-LED headlamps, fresh 17-inch alloy wheels, a new 7.0-inch touchscreen media system, and a 4.2-inch colour info screen for the driver. The existing heated seats (with driver’s seat electric lumbar support), auto-dimming rear-view mirror, keyless entry and push-button start, and electronic folding side mirrors all remain standard.

Also still standard is the Corolla’s seven-airbag safety kit (dual front, front side and full-length curtain, as well as driver’s knee protection) and five-star ANCAP crash rating. However, there are no advanced active safety assistance systems (such as autonomous emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring, lane keeping assistance or rear cross-traffic alert) as standard, and nor can you option any of those items (you can get some in the Mazda 3).

Read our full pricing and specifications story on the 2015 Toyota Corolla hatch.

While we don’t judge cars on how they look here at CarAdvice, the general consensus of those in the office was that although the Corolla hatch still lacks the refined appearance of major rivals such as the Mazda 3 and Volkswagen Golf, the revisions have sharpened up the appeal of the Japanese model.

Exterior appearance may be what buyers will ultimately judge a car on, but it’s inside the cabin that the new Corolla hatch has taken its biggest strides.

The biggest change is that new media system which dominates the cockpit, and the new sculpted piano black surround is more modern and attractive than the setup in the previous model.

The usability of the screen itself is very good despite the fact there’s no clever rotary dial system, and nor can you dial contacts or input navigation details while the car is moving. However, there’s a decent voice control system for that, or the option of calling a help line to get assistance: at $2.97 per call.

While it isn’t the best infotainment system we’ve used (the Mazda 3 is the class leader), it is clear, simple to use and a massive improvement on the fiddly, aftermarket style unit that was previously offered.

The cockpit itself gets other changes – the instrument cluster is tidier, and the addition of the driver info screen brightens it up, though disappointingly there is no digital speed readout.

There are new controls for the air-conditioning that feel higher quality, with blue-lit instruments that look clean and clear, but the cabin is still quite dark at night. Our car also had an optional panoramic glass roof ($1500), which lets a lot of light into the cabin – that helps in the daytime…

As for space and comfort, the Corolla remains thoughtfully – if not generously – packaged.

There are plenty of storage options through the cabin, including a new hidey-hole for your smartphone in front of the gear-shifter. The door pockets are decent, but the Corolla remains quite tight for back-seat space: headroom is limited due to the glass roof, and knee room could be better, too.

The boot, as well, isn't the best in the class. There is only 280 litres of capacity, which is less than some cars the class below, and well short of the leaders in this class (the Kia Cerato hatch has a claimed 421 litres of luggage room, and it hides a full-size spare where the Corolla has a space-saver).

While the cosmetic changes all enhance the appeal of the Corolla, there have been some big changes under the skin, too.

Toyota claims it has focused on making the Corolla hatch more comfortable, efficient and enjoyable to drive, and based on our time in the car (following our recent long-term stint in the previous top-spec Levin ZR), we can confirm this model is indeed better than the one it replaces – and markedly so.

Changes have been made to the front shock absorbers, while the stabiliser bushes and coils have been adapted to make the car ride more comfortably, as well as improve the car’s handling stability. The rear torsion beam suspension has also been retuned for the same effect.

It definitely rides with better compliance than it did previously. The suspension absorbs initial sharp impacts quite well, particularly at lower speeds – over speed-humps, for example. It can still buck or thump a little at the rear over road joins, though, and while it is improved it still doesn’t have the level of compliance of, say, a VW Golf, Ford Focus or Peugeot 308.

The steering has been fettled, too – the electric system has been remapped for better linearity in the amount of weight that is offered as speeds rise. Previously we’ve found the Corolla hatch’s steering could load up and feel too heavy around town: not any more, as this revised setup is nice and light when it should be, and gains a reasonable amount of heft the quicker you get moving.

That said, there’s no extra power available. The Corolla retains its existing 1.8-litre four-cylinder petrol engine with 103kW of power and 173Nm of torque, but fuel consumption has dipped by 8 per cent for models fitted with the CVT, now consuming a claimed 6.1 litres per 100km – impressive for a naturally-aspirated engine, and well better than, say, the 1.8-litre petrol Hyundai i30 (7.3L/100km). Across a mix of highway and city driving in the Corolla hatch we saw 7.6L/100km.

The engine and CVT combine well for the most part, with good response under light to mid throttle application, but it can be a little sluggish to react under sudden pedal pressure at lower speeds. Toyota says it has revised the transmission case for the CVT to reduce noise and vibration, and it has had an effect on the cabin ambience, with less of that fuzzy droning sound. There is, however, still a lot of road roar on coarse-chip surfaces.

While Toyota has a strong reputation for reliability, it remains one of the less generous in terms of its ownership incentives.

There’s a three-year, 100,000km warranty (rivals have up to seven years with unlimited kilometres), and the Corolla is covered by a three-year capped-price service program that requires maintenance every six months or 10,000km (whichever occurs first). Each visit costs $140. That's cheap, but the length of cover isn’t nearly as good as the class-leaders: Holden and Hyundai, for example, offer lifetime capped-price maintenance.

There’s a lot to like about the new-look Toyota Corolla, and the ZR model tested here makes a much stronger argument than it has in the past. It’s a considerably nicer car than the model it replaces in nearly all facets.

Click the Photos tab above for more images by Mitchell Oke.