Without meaning to be trite, the Toyota Corolla is often perceived as a car purchased more from habit than out of desire. As the most popular passenger vehicle on sale, it’s renowned for delivering its millions of owners trouble-free motoring, but little more.
There’s nothing wrong with that, and in making the new-generation model, Toyota would be forgiven for just sticking to the formula that’s served it so well. ‘Rolling the arm over’. But it’s gone and done something much bolder instead: it’s made the Corolla desirable.
Its lower, wider stance and more curvaceous, stylised lines give the Corolla road presence it has rarely had before. Given how many hundreds of thousands of these will sell here over the next handful of years, that’s a good thing for owners and wider society alike!
As ever, much of the talk around this new model’s recent launch centred on the pricier variations with all the nice extras, and the laudably affordable petrol-electric hybrid drivetrain available on all variants, at a trend-setting premium of only $1500.
This review takes a different path, focusing on the base-level car: the Ascent Sport, painted flat white, fitted with a manual gearbox. The price of entry is $22,870 before on-road costs. The old fleet-friendly Ascent has been ditched as the nameplate moves upmarket.
How so? Well, the new Ascent Sport costs $1660 more than the outgoing version, and $2680 more than the previous base car – though it’s worth noting that the Ascent Sport’s RRP is about in line with the equivalent ‘tier two’ Mazda 3 Maxx Sport specification grade. It also undercuts the entry Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf – even though the latter pair can in actuality be had for less. Over its life cycle, Toyota will obviously roll out drive-away campaign deals on the Corolla to match. Call it a ‘new-launch premium’ phase.
There’s a fair argument that the Corolla’s famously high resale values offset this, as do its unusually low maintenance costs. There’s also the established notion that a market leader doesn’t require ‘challenger’ pricing. It’s your money, so you can decide on that aspect.
What we can objectively say is that Toyota at least has not scrimped on occupant protection. Beyond the full suite of airbags and five-star ANCAP crash rating, the Ascent Sport also gets a long list of technologies that fall under the Toyota Safety Sense umbrella.
These include autonomous emergency braking (AEB) that works at all legal speeds, adaptive cruise control, road-sign assist, lane-departure alert, and a lane-trace assist system that helps physically keep the car in the lane if your mind wanders.
Other standard equipment includes LED headlights with sensors that switch off the high beams automatically when oncoming traffic is detected, 16-inch alloy wheels, a digital trip computer, an electronic park brake, reversing camera and an 8.0-inch touchscreen.
That’s not a vast list of creature comforts – delve into the full list here, and see what the $2500-pricier Corolla SX adds for the premium – but there’s little doubt the front portion of the cabin is a cut above the old model’s.
The urethane steering wheel doesn’t feel cheap, and the integration of its cruise control and audio buttons is intuitive. The instruments are simple, and the digital trip computer off to the side gives you the long-needed digital speedometer.
The seats are trimmed in basic cloth but offer ample levels of adjustment, and are distinctly more comfortable and supportive. Also, the fascia layout is contemporary: a mounted tablet screen above a slick digital AC readout, all operated by premium-feeling buttons and dials.
Tasteful materials are used, from soft plastic and cloth on key touchpoints, to the sparse use of glossy black contrast panels. There are also notable clever storage areas such as the phone cubby below the fascia. So far, so good.
There are issues with the infotainment, though. To its credit, the Bluetooth phone and media streaming system seems to re-pair rapidly every time, and the home menu on the touchscreen lets you intuitively ‘shortcut’ key functions.
But there’s a lot missing. Satellite navigation isn’t standard until you buy the auto-only Corolla SX. No big deal, per se. But there’s also no Apple CarPlay/Android Auto integration, unlike US-market Corollas. There’s only the comparatively clunky Toyota Link system, integrated voice recognition, Siri Eyes Free and Miracast.
This all means you can’t control maps on the car’s touchscreen. Making this worse, the design of the interior limits obvious locations for a typical smartphone mount, with its sunken-in style of air vents, and absence of flat or smooth ‘sticking’ surfaces.
If a driver wants directions to somewhere and they don’t have sat-nav, the best phone-mirroring systems or obvious phone cradle points beyond – at best – a clunky windscreen suction mount, what are they to do exactly?
Toyota’s solution is to charge $1000 for the dealer to install satellite navigation (packaged with privacy glass) for you, which is what this writer calls excessive. Our message to the company: it’s not too late to correct this oversight…
The downsides continue through to the back seats which, as we flagged at the launch, offer occupants less head room and knee room than is common. Anyone over 180cm will feel very hemmed in, though kids will be fine. ISOFIX child-seat attachment points are fitted.
Further denting the practicality is the shallow boot, which is demonstrably less accommodating than what’s offered in any competitor we can think of. On the plus side, the Ascent Sport does get a full-size spare wheel, whereas the others get either a temporary speed-limit unit or a patch kit.
Still, if you want a small hatch that carries four adults and their gear, a Honda Civic will serve your needs far better than the Corolla. Here’s hoping the as-yet unreleased new sedan version rectifies some of these downsides.
With that whingeing now out of the way, it’s time to turn to areas where the Corolla shines. Because, while you’d be forgiven for doubting it, I actually thoroughly like this car and would recommend it to many people, caveats notwithstanding.
The real hero here is Toyota’s new global, modular ‘TNGA’ architecture or platform, underpinning the Corolla as well as the C-HR crossover and Prius, a weird-looking hybrid that’s starting to look bereft of any reason to exist in its current form.
Like Volkswagen’s MQB, this platform can be stretched and shaped and ‘top-hatted’ with various body styles, which hastens development times and cuts costs. What’s good for us is that Toyota’s engineers have built theirs to ride and handle with Germanic excellence, too.
The stiffer Corolla has MacPherson strut front suspension, which is par for the course, but there’s also multi-link independent suspension at the rear. While this clearly doesn’t help with cabin packaging, it does issue a statement of intent.
And would you believe it, the Corolla has perhaps the smoothest, most cushioning ride quality in the class. Potholes, cobbles, corrugations and speed bumps are absorbed and dispatched while occupants simply sit in serene isolation. We aren’t exaggerating here.
At the same time, the body settles quickly after undulations, and the overall handling against cornering loads is sensational, meaning the car feels hunkered down and agile. And while the electric-assisted steering is vague, it’s also very direct from centre.
Tyre- and wind-noise suppression is not quite at class-leading level, but the Corolla is certainly quieter than a Mazda 3. This means it’s comfortable and composed, while also capable of being fun. Which is an engineering home-run we’d expect more of Ford or VW.
The new base petrol engine is also excellent. Rather than join the downsized capacity, turbocharged brigade, Toyota’s choice is a direct-injected 2.0-litre unit making 125kW of peak power at 6600rpm and 200Nm of max torque (pulling power) at 4400rpm.
While it lacks the surge of low-down oomph from just above idle inherent to the aforementioned fleet of small turbo rivals, it’s smooth and refined under load and delivers what it has in linear fashion, sufficient for a circa 8.5sec 0–100km/h dash.
Crucially, the engine can also run on the cheapest 91RON petrol. Toyota claims combined-cycle fuel use of 6.0L/100km, whereas our combined loop returned a very reasonable 7.4L/100km achieved with no real effort. The tank measures 50L to the brim.
Our tester sported the manual gearbox only available at this base grade, and while its throw is a little vaguer than some, it’s nice that Toyota offers it. Moreover, the electronically controlled rev-matching system and Hold mode, which stops the car from rolling when the clutch is engaged at idle, make it as pain-free as possible.
It also adds a level of pep and engagement to the engine. Commendably, the automatic that most people will opt for only costs $1500 more. It’s a CVT, but has a novel torque converter on the dedicated launch gear, enabling crisper take-off. There’s also a 10-gear manual mode controlled by paddles. It’s good.
The other ace up Toyota’s sleeve is running costs. TNGA allows longer servicing intervals of 12 months or 15,000km, with the first handful of visits capped to just $175 a pop. That goes a long way to offsetting the ordinary warranty term of three years/100,000km.
So that’s a look at the 2018 Toyota Corolla Ascent Sport. In some ways this is a topsy-turvy take on an icon, one that improves the dynamism, design and tech levels out of sight, but also offers compromised cabin space, infotainment and entry pricing. What a world!
All of this said, we’re not going to kick a brand for being bold, and while we’re happy to flag those areas of concern, we’re more inclined to embrace this car for the things it does, and does so well. Be informed, but also intrigued. Toyota’s taken a turn for the better.