I have a confession to make. I've always thought the Toyota Corolla was a boring car that people bought if they didn't know much about cars.
Not that it's a bad vehicle. In fact, it's always been rather good. But like most Toyota models of years past, the Corolla covered most bases adequately, but never stood out in any one area.
The all-new 12th-generation Corolla aims to change that, only just landing on the Australian market a month or so ago and claiming to offer a much-improved drive experience, more technology, and a higher-quality cabin.
Here on test we have the mid-range SX Hybrid priced from $28,370 before on-road costs – just $1500 more than the petrol-only version. The vehicle you see here is finished in Oxide Bronze mica, which asks for an additional $550, bringing the as-tested ticket to $28,920 plus ORCs.
Standard from the base model are full-LED headlights with auto high-beam, 16-inch alloy wheels, an 8.0-inch colour touchscreen with Toyota Link app connectivity, autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian and cyclist monitoring, adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go, lane-keep assist, speed sign recognition, a rear-view camera, and a 4.2-inch driver's information display.
Opting for a hybrid adds dual-zone climate control and keyless entry with push-button start, while the step up to the SX bolsters the spec sheet with privacy glass, 'premium' leatherette steering wheel, blind-spot monitoring, Qi wireless phone charger, DAB+ digital radio, along with satellite navigation with SUNA live traffic updates.
It's comprehensively equipped, particularly for this pricepoint, and it's not like Toyota has just thrown stuff in to compensate for a budget-feeling cabin either, because for the most part the Corolla feels properly premium.
The dashboard is trimmed in yielding soft-touch plastics, and the LCD climate controls with analogue knobs to adjust the temperature are a nice touch. Additionally, the silver-trimmed switchgear on the dash feel nice to the touch and are well damped for a feeling of solidity.
Ahead of the driver in the SX and ZR is the 'premium' leather-look multifunction steering wheel. It doesn't look or feel particularly sporty, but it feels nice in the hand and ergonomically sound, with all the buttons and switches for various functions positioned where you'd expect.
It's a shame Toyota has reserved softer door trims for the flagship ZR, because other than the contrast between the dash and door trims, the Corolla's cockpit is beautifully executed.
Sitting atop the dash is the free-standing tablet-style 8.0-inch touchscreen navigation system, which gets native satellite navigation from the SX and above – and available as an option on the base Ascent Sport.
There's also DAB+ digital radio, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, and access to various menus and graphics that display the direction of power through the hybrid system.
However, there's no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto available in Australia, despite it being available on US-market models. Toyota's local division has indicated smartphone mirroring is "under consideration" for our market, though hasn't made any other official announcements as yet.
The system itself works well, is responsive to inputs in a timely manner, and is quick to snap through menus. Additionally, the native voice-control system generally works quite well too.
One minor complaint is the relative lack of storage: up front, only the cupholders and an average-size centre bin, while the door pockets aren't that big. The glovebox is decent, though.
Moving into the back, the Corolla isn't the last word on passenger accommodation, but there's enough room to comfortably fit two adults in the back. Head and leg room, even behind a taller driver, are fine for above-average passengers, though rear air vents remain exclusive to the top-shelf ZR.
There's still a fold-down centre armrest, though, and a small cubby behind the centre console where the rear air vents would normally be.
Arguably the Corolla's biggest shortfall, at least in terms of the interior, is the tiny boot. Toyota quotes just 217L with the second row in place, which is tiny for not only the small car class, but also the segment below.
There's also no figure quoted for when the back seats are folded, though the area is completely flat. However, the load lip and floor are quite high, which could make stowing heavier items a little difficult – the chunky rear bumper might get in the way, too. Under the boot floor is a space-saver spare wheel.
So, practicality isn't the new Corolla's strong point, but what about on the road?
Power in the Corolla Hybrid comes from a 72kW/142Nm 1.8-litre Atkinson cycle four-cylinder petrol engine paired with two electric motor generators – the main drive motor makes 53kW/163Nm. Toyota claims a system power output of 90kW, though doesn't quote a combined torque figure.
The powertrain is hooked up to a 6.5Ah nickel-metal hydride battery pack, while drive is sent to the front wheels via an e-CVT and revised power control unit compared to the previous model.
Without getting too much into the technical mumbo jumbo, the new hybrid system is down 10kW on the outgoing car and claimed fuel use is up by 0.1L/100km. However, Toyota claims the new system offers improved drivability and refinement – and it's not wrong.
The availability of the electric motor's torque from a standstill means the hybrid is pretty enthusiastic off the line. Once moving, the petrol engine will inevitably cut in, with timing dependent on how hard you hit the throttle.
It may not set the world on fire in terms of performance, but the Corolla's hybrid system is seamless in its operation, with a smooth transition from electric-only to petrol power. Additionally, the system is able to run in full-EV mode at low speeds or for short distances as a coasting-style function.
This reviewer was constantly challenging himself to use the petrol engine as little as possible, and the Corolla consistently relied on electric power alone for short distances once on the move, even at speeds of 80km/h and above.
In order to keep enough power in the battery for full-electric driving, the Corolla uses regenerative braking in addition to charging from the petrol engine, and also has a dedicated brake-waste-energy regeneration mode.
Toyota claims the hybrid uses 4.2L/100km on the combined cycle, and over more than 640km of mixed driving we managed an indicated 4.7L/100km, which is genuinely impressive for real-world driving. It also runs happily on 91RON unleaded.
It's not just an econo-box either. Thanks to its modular TNGA underpinnings – shared with the C-HR crossover and Prius hybrid – the new Corolla is lower, wider and stiffer than its predecessor, meaning it's a lot more fun to throw around the bends.
Sure, the hybrid powertrain hasn't been designed for high-performance driving, though the Corolla turns in with accuracy while offering a damped and direct feel through the steering wheel.
It handles with a level of maturity and balance normally associated with something like a Volkswagen Golf, though still manages to offer a ride that is nothing short of fantastic, gliding over just about every imperfection without fuss.
We also appreciated the stacks of driver-assistance tech on board as well. The adaptive cruise-control system worked flawlessly even in stop/start peak-hour traffic, and the lane-keep and blind-spot systems are of the less-intrusive variety that are helpful without being overbearing.
There's still room for improvement, though. Over coarser surfaces, the tyres can get a little noisy, and the same can be said for the petrol engine when you really hammer it. It's also missing front and rear parking sensors in any grade, though you can option them as accessories.
As for ownership, the Corolla is covered by Toyota's three-year/100,000km warranty, which still lags behind rival brands like Honda and Mazda with their five-year programs. However, the Toyota is dirt cheap to service, requiring maintenance every 12 months or 15,000km, with the first five visits asking for $175 a pop.
There's also no denying the Corolla's long-running reputation for reliability, strong resale values, and access to Toyota's wide-reaching national dealer network.
All told, the Corolla SX Hybrid is a mighty impressive step up from the previous generation in terms of cabin quality, efficiency and technology.
Those who have associated the nameplate with an uninspiring driving experience and a basic cabin – compared to its rivals – should definitely have a look at the new one, because you'll be as pleasantly surprised as this reviewer was.
It's not perfect by any means. The boot is tiny, some nicer comfort features and trims are reserved for top-spec models, and it won't satisfy those who like a bit of oomph. However, the Corolla Hybrid is a genuinely impressive vehicle that has excellent real-world economy and all the latest safety tech as standard.
Considering you can get into one for under $30K, it's great value for money too, and backed by one of the best reputations for reliability in the business.
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