2019 Toyota Corolla review

Australian first drive

The new Toyota Corolla should remain the market’s most popular passenger car, but it doesn’t follow the established script. Perfect? Not quite. But we admire the boldness.

There aren’t many more significant car launches than a new Toyota Corolla. ‘New’ being the optimal word this time, given so few components are carried over from the old model.

This is the 12th generation of the world’s top-selling car, with a staggering 45 million finding homes since 1967, 1.5 million of these in Australia alone. A good proportion of these are still out there, too.

While most iterations in this enviable generational cycle have traded on bulletproof reliability and affordability, there are more aspirational – additional – attributes this time around. This Corolla looks great, is brimming with safety tech, and drives with verve and dynamism. At a slight premium.

The fleet-focused Ascent grade has been ditched in a surprise move, while the Ascent Sport entry car’s $22,870 list price is seven per cent higher than before. Toyota says buyers are gravitating to higher-grade cars in the pursuit of greater safety tech. It’s a worthy aim.

On one hand, the price of entry is higher than its rivals, including the Hyundai i30 and Mazda 3. On the other, even the entry-grade Corolla is laudably well-equipped. The fact Toyota fully expects it to remain Australia’s most popular passenger car says a lot about Australia in 2018.

Toyota calls the cabin more comfortable, refined and upmarket. It’s a bit wider, for one, while the slimmer dash is made of more premium materials than before, especially on higher grades. The seats are also super-supportive and well-bolstered.

The design of the wheel and fascia is entirely overhauled, the de rigeur ‘floating’ tablet screen defines the look, while higher-grade models and all the hybrids have a new 7.0-inch digital instrument display. There’s even a head-up display on the top-grade ZR.

On the downside, the lack of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto may rankle with some buyers who prefer this to Toyota’s UI, especially given the base car lacks sat-nav (it's a $1000 option). There's also the fact that the Ascent Sport and SX grades have harder door trims than the deluxe ZR.

Beyond this, the sleeker body reduces head room slightly up front, but it’s the rear where the first issue rears its head. The rear leg room and head room just aren't very good, and the storage space is limited. It’s below par in this area, which is something to note if you regularly carry four adults.

While all models get 60:40 split-folding back seats, the boot is quite shallow and small by class standards. The Ascent Sport 2.0 petrol has a full-size spare wheel, while the others have a temporary unit. In the case of the ZR hybrid flagship, a patch kit liberates a deeper boot.

One area where the new Corolla absolutely shines is safety tech, though the ANCAP crash rating is not yet published (Toyota expects five stars). Every variant gets seven airbags, a reversing camera, active cruise control that mirrors the car ahead and can bring the car to a full stop, and autonomous emergency braking (AEB) with pedestrian and cyclist detection.

“The new Corolla hatch brings unprecedented levels of advanced safety technology to the small car class with an array of active driver assistance and passive protection features,” Toyota reckons. It’s not wrong.

As we flagged earlier, there’s a decent array of standard equipment thrown in, even on the base car. The ($22,870–$25,870) Ascent Sport gets LED headlights, alloy wheels, an 8.0-inch touchscreen, digital speedo and an electric park brake. The Hybrid version adds climate control and a proximity key.

For another $2400–$2500, the SX grade (petrol CVT or Hybrid) adds privacy glass, climate control, a Qi wireless phone charger, sat-nav, DAB+ digital radio, a nicer steering wheel and blind-spot monitoring. Well worth the jump, we’d say.

Another $3500 gets you the ZR spec, which adds leather/suede seats, bigger digital instruments, a HUD, premium JBL audio system and ambient cabin lighting. It also has better-looking 18-inch wheels, with the trade-off being the firmer ride quality over bad road surfaces. Your call.

On paper, the SX looks like the sweet spot. For more information, read all about the Toyota Corolla's pricing and specs here.

Under the sleeker, swooping and far more aggressive exterior design – offset by standard LED headlights and alloy wheels – is the same modular ‘TNGA’ platform as you’ll find beneath the C-HR crossover and Prius hybrid.

This makes it lower, wider, stiffer and altogether happier negotiating corners, which it does with the sort of vigour you’d expect of a VW Golf – generally with the same smooth, well-damped Germanic ride quality until you step up to the range-topper on its grippier, lower-profile tyres.

We’re not jesting, this Corolla is genuinely good to throw around. It even loses the old torsion beam rear suspension in favour of a multi-link set-up, and has various settings for its electric-assisted steering system, and throttle.

There are two engines at launch, a new 2.0-litre naturally aspirated petrol engine with greater thermal efficiency, variable valve timing and direct injection, and a $1500 petrol-electric hybrid option that’s now available on all three spec levels, and is expected to account for one-in-five sales.

The ‘Toyota Dynamic Force’ petrol engine walks all over the old 1.8-litre unit. Its 125kW and 200Nm peak outputs are up 21 per cent and 16 per cent respectively. At the same time it uses less fuel, with a manufacturer claim of 6L/100km. It’ll also run on Australia’s entry 91RON petrol.

While the Mazda 3’s 2.5-litre makes more power and torque, this engine is a big step up for the Corolla. It’s engaging and offers excellent rolling response and ‘punch’ out of corners – above par for a base car, and there or thereabouts once you climb higher up the range.

The Ascent Sport grade can be optioned with a well-judged new six-speed manual gearbox with electronic rev-matching, lest you stuff up your downshifts. But the main gearbox on all the 2.0-litre petrols will be the new automatic. It’s a CVT, but not as we know it.

There’s a 10-speed sequential shifting mode with paddles for manual override, but more interestingly it has a torque converter for the fixed launch gear, meaning it takes off like a conventional AT before shifting across to the pulley-driven CVT at higher engine speed.

Theoretically, this enables all the fuel savings of a CVT without the slurring behaviour of some other units of this type. In reality, it gives you sharper and crisper take-offs, even up hills, making the car more decisive and engaging. It’s clever engineering.

But it’s the hybrid that is the hero, in lieu of a hot-hatch derivative. Its $1500 premium is very reasonable, and it’s available across the range. Small wonder Toyota projects it’ll account for 20 per cent of sales, equating to thousands of units each year.

It pairs a modified 72kW/142Nm 1.8-litre engine running the Atkinson Cycle (better for fuel savings) with two motor generators (the main drive motor makes 53kW/163Nm), a 6.5Ah nickel-metal hydride battery, e-CVT and a new power control unit.

On paper, the combined system output actually drops 10kW over the old model, to 90kW. And the fuel consumption grows from 4.1L/100km to 4.2L/100km, a result of bigger tyres, Toyota claims.

On the upside, as with the new Camry Hybrid, it’s quieter and more refined than before, has a dedicated brake-waste-energy regeneration mode to charge the battery, and runs short distances (at low speeds) as an EV.

We averaged 5.1L/100km without really trying, and found the electric motor’s assistance gave the small petrol engine enough extra boost for hills etc. The point of all this is that the Corolla is taking petrol-electric tech mainstream in a way we’ve never had in Australia. That’s a worthy cause, right?

To the ownership credentials. You can be guaranteed of excellent resale value, but on the other hand Toyota’s standard three-year warranty is lagging behind many rivals. It’s very affordable to service, with improved 12-month/15,000km intervals priced at $175 a pop for the first five visits.

So, the verdict. The 12th generation of Toyota’s staple is not without foibles, but fundamentally we congratulate the emboldened company for taking some risks here.

By making hybrid technology more affordable and taking a leading position in both active safety technologies and rounded driving dynamics, Toyota has launched a Corolla you might want to buy for reasons that go beyond basic common sense.

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