The top-spec Corolla has plenty to offer but struggles to justify its price against cheaper siblings and strong rivals.
The 11th-generation Toyota Corolla has continued the model's long history of being loved locally, and is a strong contender to become the best-selling car of the year.
To find out if the new hatchback’s range-topper continues the positive traits of its cheaper siblings, we tested the Levin ZR.
At $28,490 list price – $32,415 as tested with continuously variable transmission ($2000), ZR-exclusive panoramic glass roof ($1500) and metallic paint ($425) – the top-spec Toyota Corolla Levin ZR is $8500 more than the entry-level Ascent.
The Corolla Levin ZR is, however, brimming with additional features above the penultimate $25,990 Levin SX model.
The extensive list includes adaptive xenon headlights with automatic high beam function, dual-zone automatic climate control, heated front sports seats, leather upholstery, driver’s power lumbar support, keyless entry and start, heated and auto-folding side mirrors, and auto-dimming rear view mirror.
These join standard items of note such as 17-inch alloy wheels, front fog lights, privacy glass, reversing camera and satellite navigation. A six-speaker audio system with 6.1-inch touchscreen and Bluetooth and USB/AUX/iPod connectivity is also included.
While trim specifications may vary across the hatch’s range, the Levin ZR’s 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine and standard six-speed manual, or optional seven-speed CVT, are consistent throughout.
Producing 103kW at 6400rpm and 173Nm at 4000rpm, the Levin ZR is down on power and torque compared with most of its key competitors employing identically sized engines. The Hyundai i30 delivers 110kW and 178Nm, the Honda Civic 104kW and 174Nm. It beats lower-grade versions of the Nissan Pulsar powered by a 96kW 1.8 but the cheaper ST-S and comparably priced SSS hatches derive 140kW and 240Nm from a 1.6-litre turbo.
And while the Corolla wins the power battle against the 1.4-litre turbocharged Volkswagen Golf 90TSI by 13kW, the Japanese hatch loses the torque war, with the German producing an extra 27Nm, from a more usable 1400rpm.
In CarAdvice’s recent small hatch mega test, though – which saw 500km covered over two days – the Corolla Levin ZR returned 9.8L/100km to the i30’s 9.1L/100km and Civic’s 8.9L/100km. All three, however, were blitzed by the Golf’s 7.9L/100km result.
The Corolla’s engine tackles relaxed transit around busy streets and tight laneways well when sitting below 2500-3000rpm, yet is flexible enough to be quite spirited and keen higher up in the rev band beyond 4500rpm. When pushed hard, though, engine noise and harshness do increase with revs.
The CVT gearbox is also loud. And while it does a reasonable job of trying to keep the engine in its happiest range in most situations, this comes with the cost of being indecisive, particularly at low speeds.
Flick the transmission into the paddle shift-operated sport mode, however, and the CVT is transformed into a far more dynamic piece of hardware with seven clearly defined pre-set ‘gears’ on offer. Driven this way, the Toyota Corolla becomes far more characterful and fun, without matching the handling excellence of rivals such as the Mazda 3, Ford Focus and Holden Cruze.
The entry-level Ascent hatch presents drivers with sound body control, helped by 16-inch wheels and tall profile tyres. The ZR’s one-inch-larger diameter and half-inch-wider wheels with thinner profile 215/45 R17 Michelin Primacy HP tyres, however, deliver good grip on smooth roads but seem to affect ride quality.
The Levin ZR hits bumps firmly with little damping provided but then dips and rolls as its softer springs take over. Oddly, the top-spec Corolla needs to be either more softly damped to bring more refinement to the ride or more firmly sprung to reduce the amount of roll and deliver a more performance-oriented drive.
The electro-mechanical power steering is consistently light but vague on-centre, hindering precise positioning of the Corolla in general driving. It maintains accuracy once loaded up, though, and ably chases down corners picked out by those guiding the well-sized and comfortable leather-wrapped multi-function steering wheel.
Inside, the ZR is a confronting combination of shapes and themes and not as visually pleasing as the exterior. Circular items such as the instrument binnacle gauges, dash-end air vents, high-mounted tweeter speakers and climate control dials are jarringly dispersed among sharper angles of the centre console, twin square central air vents and the odd-fitting digital clock.
Soft-touch material, pleasant feeling plastics and chrome details aim to improve the interior ambience, though the small and retro-fit-looking sat-nav screen and toy-like steering wheel buttons don’t live up to the Levin ZR’s $28k-plus price tag.
Flat and unsupportive rear seats, and the smallest boot in its class at 280 litres, also don’t help comparisons with the likes of the Golf, Civic and i30 that bring greater all-round comfort and practicality.
The Corolla is competitively priced in terms of servicing, though, covered under Toyota’s three-year/60,000km capped-price program. At $130 for the first six services, scheduled every six-months or 10,000kms, the hatch will cost a total of $780 for the first 36 months of ownership – less than the Mazda 3 and Ford Focus over the same period.
The Toyota Corolla Levin ZR will satisfy those who simply want to own the most featured-filled version of the reputable hatchback, though it’s neither better to drive nor quicker than cheaper variants.
Its value against a number of rival small cars at that price point is not so strong, either, and for those who can stretch another $1500 it’s possible to get into the Volkswagen Golf 103TSI that sets benchmarks in a number of areas to be the best hatch in class.