I can’t believe it’s a Corolla.
Those were the six words that continued over and over again in my mind as we punted the 12th-generation Corolla through the city streets of San Diego earlier this month. Not only is the new Corolla good-looking – a miracle in its own right – it now has the substance to take the fight right to the Volkswagen Golf and Mazda 3.
The Toyota Corolla is the world’s best-selling car. With about 45 million sales to date, one Corolla has been built and sold somewhere in the world every 37 seconds. Of that 45 million, the company estimates around 30 million are still in operation today. There have been more than 1.4 million Corollas bought and sold in Australia, accounting for around one in five Toyotas sold here. It has remained Australia’s best-selling passenger car for the past five years.
For all those reasons, no-one ever expects the Corolla to be anything but regular. The default choice for those too bored or conservative to look elsewhere. The Toyota Corolla has for years sold on its reputation as a solid and reliable workhorse that will do the job, but may bore some to death in the process. Now, though, that is all about to change.
We have heard for years that Toyota, under the watchful eye of car-loving CEO, Akio Toyoda, is gearing for change. It will be exciting again. We have heard that it will no longer make whitegoods on wheels. Well, we stopped holding our breath some time ago, but with the 86 came some indication of that future, then it was the years of teasing us with the upcoming Supra, and now the car we least expected to be thrilled about is actually the most accomplished car from the Japanese giant in decades.
The new Toyota Corolla is simply excellent. It’s hard to give a car much bigger praise than that in as few words. When the hatch arrives in August, it will put the likes of the Mazda 3 on serious notice, because it challenges the core ‘zoom zoom’ nature of its popular Japanese rival.
The reason being that while it may not be the most dynamically capable car in its class, it doesn’t matter. It is this writer’s opinion that it is now the best all-rounder you can buy in the extremely competitive small-car segment. It drives well, it rides well, it has class-leading active safety, it looks good inside and out, and most importantly, you actually want to drive it out of choice rather than necessity.
Toyota has taken a huge risk with the new Corolla. It could’ve just as easily produced another reliable workhorse with excellent durability and called it a day. It would no doubt have sold well regardless, but instead, it has thrown away its conservative styling and gone for something bold. A design that makes the previous-generation Corolla look positively archaic.
It has taken a two-generation design step in one single go, and while we all love to sit here and complain about the Japanese being slow and conservative, here you have proof that occasionally, somewhere in Toyota City, there is a heart and love of cars that extends beyond just numbers on an Excel spreadsheet.
Jump inside and the cabin has been substantially upgraded. The interior fit and finish are first-rate, and while it can’t match the exterior’s bold and modern styling, it does a good job of bringing the Corolla to the modern age. The tactility of the surfaces no longer feels cheap or harsh, the seats, front and rear, are comfortable, and there is more leg, knee and head room in the back seat than before. There are nice treatments throughout the cabin that help break up the black, and even the air-conditioning dials feel and turn with a level of precision like they belong in an Audi rather than a Toyota.
All models get an 8.0-inch infotainment system that follows the trend from Audi and Mercedes with a tablet-style display. It works well, and in the North American market also has Apple CarPlay (and Amazon Alexa), but for Australia that will come later – because, believe it or not, apparently CarPlay needs to be market-tested for Australia… You know, because our iPhones are different to their iPhones.
Looks and interior aside, the package in and of itself will be formidable. No, there are no small-capacity turbochargers, and yes, the continuously variable transmission (CVT) remains, but in both cases there have been significant enough improvements that make the Corolla more fun to drive than ever before.
There will be a naturally aspirated four-cylinder 2.0-litre petrol and a hybrid version of the new Corolla. Unlike before, the hybrid will be offered in all three grades for a yet to be determined – but not significant – price increase. Although we only got to drive the 2.0-litre four, we can confidently say that it’s the one to go for.
The new 2.0-litre engine is a big step up over the old, now with 126kW of power and 205Nm of torque, which compares favourably to the current car’s 103kW and 173Nm. Fuel economy figures are said to be improved, however official figures remain unconfirmed for now.
Perhaps the only advantage of the hybrid model is the apparent electric-only range (yet to be confirmed), but Toyota says it will be long enough to see the average owner be able to commute 50 per cent of the time on electricity only. That doesn’t mean it will have a long range (it still uses an ancient nickel hydride battery pack), more that it will be able to continuously switch between electricity and its internal-combustion engine.
Whichever powertrain you end up with, the drive experience is improved thanks to the new TNGA platform that underpins the Corolla (and CH-R). The far more modern architecture sees the Corolla now deliver a 60 per cent increase in torsional rigidity, with the car now 40mm longer and 25mm lower, while the cowl height has been lowered by 47mm compared to the current car.
Toyota will also offer a manual transmission, with rev-matching, believe it or not. We drove it, and it was okay, but not amazing enough to make it a viable option. So, for the first time in history, we are recommending a CVT over a manual. The reason? The new CVT has what is called a launch gear – a physical gear that will work at speeds of up to around 45km/h, which takes away all that we dislike about an elastic CVT and makes taking off from the lights so much more rewarding.
Look, it doesn’t really make sense why Toyota has decided to put a complicated CVT transmission in conjunction with an actual physical gear, instead of just, you know, a normal gearbox like what you’ll find in a Mazda 3 or Hyundai i30. But to the Japanese company’s credit, its insane pursuit of reducing fuel economy – even by a few measly per cent – has resulted in this compromise of a Frankenstein gearbox that actually works rather well.
On the move, the Corolla is quick enough to be interesting, but not exactly in warm-hatch territory. Official 0–100km/h figures are not yet available, but the chief engineer told us it is around 8.6 seconds for the 2.0-litre when combined with a CVT. So, it’s not fast, but it is fast enough.
We took the Corolla through some twisty roads on the outskirts of San Diego and found the chassis and dynamics to be rather surprising, with excellent turn-in, brake feel and overall cornering ability. However, it is let down by its tyres in that regard. For the average Corolla buyer, it’s more than will ever be required.
Ride comfort is commendable on the smaller 16-inch alloy wheels, with good rebound and excellent absorption of bumpy roads, but as you go up in size towards the 18s, it can get a little jittery. We can’t tell for sure how the car will behave on our roads until we get to drive it locally, but for now, we can say it’s very reasonable.
Saving the best for last, the reason why the new Toyota Corolla will provide a serious challenge to its competitors is the list of standard safety features that will come across the entire range.
Every single new Corolla will come standard with Toyota Safety Sense 2, making it the first car in Toyota’s range to get the technology, which actually betters that of nearly all Lexus models as well.
The new Safety Sense system brings a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection and autonomous emergency braking, adaptive cruise control and lane-departure alert with steering assist and automatic high beam. There is also lane-tracing assist, designed to help turn the vehicle on the highway or in heavy traffic to aid in ‘reducing driver burden’. Additionally, an intuitive road-sign-assist package will be offered that is capable of identifying certain stop, give way, do not enter and speed-limit signs. Yes, all of that, standard.
It’s not just a basic AEB system then, because the Corolla can also detect pedestrians and other vehicles at night, and gains the ability to detect cyclists in daytime. This is a level of tech that you will struggle to find standard on high-end European vehicles.
In reality, the safety tech works well, but if you’re expecting the Corolla to drive itself completely, you might be a little disappointed. We let go of the wheel multiple times to see what the Corolla would do, and found it capable of steering itself around bends and braking to avoid obstacles without much hassle. However, when we found ourselves on roads with confusing line markings or tight bends, the Corolla gave up and handed back control with a series of audible warnings.
The idea isn’t autonomous driving – the idea is active safety so that if you get distracted, the car will likely intervene to help prevent an accident if necessary. It’s important to praise Toyota here for offering so much active safety tech standard on even the base-model Corolla. Not only does it make Australia’s favourite car super safe, but if you consider that these cars in five or six years' time will be on the second-hand market and likely in the hands of young first-time drivers, it will undoubtedly save some lives during its long existence.
When all is said and done, we are positively surprised with the new Toyota Corolla. Whereas in the past it has been a solid but conservative choice, it’s now not only nice to look at, but also fun to drive. Its safety package gives it an edge that its rivals will have to match to have a chance to compete fairly.
Pricing remains to be confirmed for now, but if Toyota can keep the pricing in line with the current cars (starting around $21K for the manual), then we suspect the popularity of Australia’s favourite passenger car will only rise.
Still, we can't believe it's a Corolla.