Despite what many might believe to be a rather mundane choice in personal transport these days, the humble Toyota Corolla has been the undisputed champion of small car sales in Australia for 11 of the past 12 years.
That’s a remarkable achievement given the depth and quality of competition in the most hotly contested automotive segment in the world today. During 2011, the small car segment accounted for a massive 244,000 sales, or a staggering 24.2 per cent of all new cars sold in Australia over the twelve-month period. That was nearly double both the light car segment, and the equally hot compact SUV business.
Back to Corolla, which topped the national sales charts on no less than five separate months in 2011 – in January and from September through December, after production volumes had recovered after the Tsunami disaster in Japan. That said it had to settle for fourth spot overall in 2011 with 36,087 sales behind another small car, the Mazda 3, as well as the Holden Commodore and Toyota’s own HiLux ute.
With probably about a year or so before the next-generation Toyota Corolla is due locally, we've jumped into the current model to remind ourselves of what is it about Toyota’s Corolla that sways so many buyers to put it at the top of their shopping list among a plethora of world-class competition in the small car segment.
Toyota’s long-standing reputation for bulletproof reliability across its entire model range remains a core asset of the Japanese brand, but there are plenty of other sound reasons that might also convince buyers.
For starters, the current Toyota Corolla sedan isn’t really that small. Four adults can travel comfortably over a distance, and five, if you must. There’s also sufficient, if not quite generous, legroom for rear seat passengers by virtue of its flat floor, and the boot is positively huge. That includes space for a full-size spare wheel, too.
There are also plenty of intelligent storage spaces in the Corolla, including cupholders – front and rear – along with extra large door bins for water bottles, and the like. The centre storage bin is extra deep and able to swallow lots of bits and pieces, while there’s a dual compartment glove box, which comes in handy for flatter items such as phones and wallets.
There’s even a compartment in front of the rear vision mirror that will hold not one but two pairs of your favourite sunnies.
In terms of features, the base model Corolla Ascent we're testing is well equipped with a host of goodies and safety kit. Highlights include electrically operated windows and side mirrors, air-conditioning with pollen filter, Bluetooth hands-free phone and music capability with USB input, trip computer, telescopic and tilt steering wheel adjustment, remote central locking key and CD player with six speakers.
Typically Toyota is the fact that all the switchgear and instrument dials are well laid out, and dead easy to operate.
There’s a full suite of active and passive safety technology on board, including seven airbags, vehicle stability control (VSC) and traction control (TRC), anti-skid braking system (ABS), electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist.
It’s surprising how comfortable the fabric-upholstered seats are: they’ve got decent side and seat bolstering, to hold you in place during cornering, while extended stints behind the wheel won’t be a problem, either, as there’s plenty of volume in these pews for additional back support.
Even though the steering wheel is made of urethane, it’s semi-flat-bottomed with three spokes and thick enough to be considered sporty. It’s also well sculptured for grip and feel, too.
All Corolla sedan and hatch variants (with the exception of the top-spec Ultima, which gets a 2.0-litre engine) are powered by a 1.8-itre four-cylinder engine that produces 100kW of power and 175Nm of torque. Granted, it isn’t going to break any land speed records, but overall performance is respectable.
Throttle response is quick enough, and acceleration through the gears is sprightly, despite the less-than-contemporary four-speed automatic transmission option of our test car. Manual versions of Corolla come standard with a six-speed manual gearbox.
Expect at least a six-speed automatic to be available in the model range when the new Corolla debuts in 2012.
Gearchanges are nonetheless a relatively smooth affair on board the Corolla, with the transmission doing its best to minimise downshifts when accelerating uphill.
The Corolla offers a surprising degree of pliancy when it comes to ride quality, with all but the largest of potholes being absorbed by consistent damping from the car’s suspension.
The Corolla’s semi-independent rear suspension also provides good stability when turning into corners, and with minimal body roll on the more twisty sections of road. There's even reasonable amounts of grip from the Corolla Ascent's bog standard 15-inch tyres with which our car was shod.
Road noise is also well contained, even on the freeway or roughly surfaced roads.
Corolla uses an electric power steering system, which is also a feature across a range of Toyota and Lexus models, and is tuned to provide a nice weight through the steering wheel. Just don't expect it to provide the same level of steering finesse as a Mazda3's steering.
Even in automatic guise, the Corolla’s 1.8-litre engine is relatively frugal. After a week of mostly suburban kilometres running on E10 fuel, the car consumed no more than the factory fuel economy figure of 7.4L/100km.
Despite styling that is undeniably plain in comparison with competition such as the Ford Focus or Mazda3, the Toyota Corolla is an easy car to live with as a daily commuter. It’s also hard to argue with a model that’s still going strong after 10 generations of sales success.