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The new Toyota Corolla took us aback when it arrived a few months ago. Far from familiar, its maker has driven the market's top-selling passenger car down a bolder path.
Its design is edgier, its handling sharper, its safety tech leads the class, and a hybrid drivetrain is available at all specification levels. And it’s more expensive. But if Toyota really wants to stake its claim as the best small car, it needs to get past the ageless champion – Volkswagen's Golf.
The German is getting on in years, with a new model not all that far away, but regular upgrades have kept this one fresh. And the fundamentals are still up-to-date, showing how advanced this iteration was when it arrived. 'Premium for the People' is the company's accurate tagline…
The contenders in this twin test are a little different, but in a way this gives you a better look at the market. It's the mid-range Corolla SX spec with its revised hybrid drivetrain option that Toyota hopes will become much more popular, against the entry-grade Golf Trendline 110TSI petrol.
Price and spec
The Corolla at this level with this powertrain costs $28,370 before on-road costs, compared to $27,490 for the Golf Trendline 110TSI with the DSG auto ($2500 less for a manual). Metallic paint is an extra $500 (VW) or $550 (Toyota).
Naturally, the entry Corolla Ascent Sport spec level with the hybrid engine can be had for less, at $25,870. You can also have either the Ascent Sport or SX grades with a regular 2.0-litre petrol engine for $1500 less than the petrol-electric models. Indeed, the Corolla SX petrol at $26,870 possibly lines up better against the Golf 110TSI Trendline. Anyway, onward…
Common equipment to both cars here includes an 8.0-inch touchscreen, Bluetooth phone and audio, cloth seats, seven airbags, autonomous emergency braking (AEB), reversing camera and 16-inch alloy wheels with a temporary spare.
The Golf alone gets App-Connect, meaning Apple CarPlay and Android Auto phone mirroring. It also has two more speakers than the Corolla.
But the Corolla earns its price premium of $900 with a longer list of features not found on the VW at this spec grade (next up is the Golf Comfortline at $29,750, which addresses some of this). These features include sat-nav, wireless phone charger, DAB+, button start, a proximity key, LED headlights and climate control.
It also gets an array of extra safety tech including lane-departure chime warning with an assisted steering function, blind-spot monitor, radar-guided adaptive cruise control and road sign assist. However, VW will sell you a $1500 Driver Assistance package that adds these features, as well as rear cross-traffic alert, auto parking, and scrollable drive modes (sans adaptive dampers).
This means if you option the Golf up with the same levels of active safety as the Toyota, it's a pricier offering. And even then it'd have less equipment, though the presence of App-Connect is a big bonus compared to the Toyota with its less user-friendly Toyota Link app-based service.
Winner: Corolla here, though it varies by spec levels throughout the ranges.
The Corolla makes an immediate impression because, unlike the Golf, it has a proximity-sensing key that unlocks the car as you approach, electric mirrors that unfold, and a starter button.
The layout is modern and the materials used will appeal to those who value tactility more than the old Corolla did.
The steering wheel is trimmed in nice leather-like material, the doors, console and seats are trimmed in hard-wearing cloth, the dash is injection-moulded, and there’s a restrained use of contrasting black and silver materials to lighten the ambience.
The wheel has audio- and voice-control buttons on the left spoke, and controls for the active cruise control and lane assist on the right spoke. The instruments are basic and clear, with a small portrait-oriented digital readout showing speed, fuel use, energy transfers and more.
There’s plenty of steering wheel and seat adjustment. Befitting Toyota’s sportier bent, the seating position is quite low and aggressive.
The main centre screen sits up nice and high, and is surrounded by shortcut buttons to take you straight to any section you want. Below this is a simple climate-control system, and below that is a Qi wireless phone-charging pad (my iPhone X fitted).
The screen defaults to a home interface that shows an enlarged map display, with smaller tiles to the left showing media and driving data, including a great live graphic that indicates which direction the motor energy is flowing: into the battery or augmenting the engine at the wheel.
The sat-nav system has SUNA live updates, and the voice control actually works really well if you ask it for directions or to place a call. The Bluetooth re-pairs rapidly as well. About the only issue is the stubborn absence of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration, despite the fact the US-market Corollas get them.
Storage is limited: the console is small, and the door pockets are best for 600ml bottles. The cabin lights are also cheap halogens instead of LEDs. The presence of an electric parking brake is a nice touch. Ditto in the Volkswagen.
While the design of the Corolla isn’t the last word in excitement, the Golf takes austerity to new heights. The only hints of glitz come from the lovely smartphone-esque touchscreen that sits flush into the fascia and allows swiping. It’s the same screen fitted to VWs twice the price. Oh, and the silver plastic upper door inserts, and chic frameless rear-view mirror.
Everything is laid out so functionally. There’s a vast amount of seat and wheel adjustments (anyone short of 8ft tall will be fine) and the material quality and tactility are at least a match for the Corolla. There are also bigger door pockets, which in typical style are flocked (coated in sound-deadening fabric).
The quality is absolutely bulletproof inside too. Like BMW it has a timeless quality, meaning it’ll age well. And no company can replicate the signature heavy thunk of the doors closing at this pricepoint.
You do notice some missing features, though. No sat-nav, wireless charging, button start. A manual AC system instead of climate control. At least the presence of CarPlay/Android gives you access to maps. And the screen clarity and reversing camera resolution are excellent.
It feels like a de-specified premium-ish car. Thing is, so does the new Corolla, which has moved quite a way upmarket.
If you plan on carrying more than two people with regularity, the Golf is also going to be a better bet. Its back seats have a little more leg room and head room than the Corolla’s, and the side windows are larger and therefore easier to see out of. It’s also the only car here with rear vents and coat hooks.
The Corolla’s back-seat packaging is an issue. It’s very small, below the class average, thereabouts with the tight Mazda 3 and miles behind something like a Honda Civic. Fine for kids (both cars have ISOFIX and top tethers) or for smaller adults. But Toyota seems to have concluded that most owners are rarely more than two-up. They’re probably right…
The boot space discrepancy is also marked. They both have space-saver spare wheels under the floor, but the Golf's loading space is deeper, the aperture wider, and the space between the wheel arches 50mm larger.
This is reflected in the litre-age. The Golf handles 380L, the Corolla just 217L, which is about the same as a Mazda 2. Sure, you can fold the back seats flat, but it's still seriously lacking in storage for luggage, a pram, a shopping spree etc.
Winner: Golf, just. What it lacks in flair it makes up for in usability.
The biggest areas of difference between this pair lie in their respective drivetrains. The Golf sports a small turbocharged petrol engine mated to a fuel- and weight-saving double-clutch DSG transmission, whereas the Corolla here features a revised petrol-electric hybrid set-up.
Toyota is set on making hybrid cars mainstream in Australia, forecasting about 20 per cent of Corollas sold here will feature this drivetrain. This complements the 40 per cent of Camry sales that are now of the hybrid version.
This petrol-electric hybrid drivetrain pairs a cheap and reliable 72kW/142Nm 1.8-litre engine running the Atkinson Cycle (better for fuel savings) with two generators, the main drive motor making 53kW/163Nm. Then there's a 6.5Ah nickel-metal hydride battery for energy storage, an e-CVT (transmission) and a new power control unit.
The combined system output actually drops 10kW over the old Corolla hybrid model to 90kW of power. On the upside, Toyota reckons this new version is quieter and smoother, and the $1500 premium over the regular petrol engine offering is lower than ever.
For background, said petrol option is a new 125kW/200Nm 2.0-litre naturally aspirated unit with electrically actuated ‘intelligent’ variable valve timing, matched to a CVT automatic with a smoother 10-speed sequential shifting mode.
The first reason to consider the hybrid is the cost impost. The regular petrol engine option uses a claimed 6.0 litres of petrol every 100km, compared to 4.2L/100km for the hybrid. If you drive 300km per week (15,600km per year), you'll cut your fuel use by about 280L per year.
At the current $1.60 per litre, that's $450. So on economics alone you'll make the $1500 premium back in 3.3 years (is it a coincidence that it's the same period as many leases?). If fuel prices spike, that time reduces.
The second reason is that the hybrid is actually a really nice unit, despite its modest outputs compared to the 2.0 petrol.
It's pretty simple to get your head around all the tech. Usually the engine drives the wheels with a little extra help from the electric motor. In reverse and at low urban speeds, the car can drive under silent electric power provided the battery array has charge.
The battery is charged up by the engine, via the motor/generator, instead of a wall plug, and the gearbox has a B-mode that ramps up the kinetic energy regeneration, sending it all into the battery pack to charge it more quickly.
My first test drive went a little like this: the first few minutes I drove the car in silent and zero-emission electric mode as I battled inner-city traffic, until the battery was nearly exhausted. However, once I applied 50 per cent throttle (in other words, stopped consciously trying to 'nurse' the car) and exceeded 60km/h, the petrol engine kicked in, and the car's screen said the maximum speed for EV mode had been exceeded.
At this point I cycled between the Eco and Performance modes, the latter of which tells the motor to add a little extra 'pep' to the car under acceleration, filling in the lack of bottom-end torque shown by the little 1.8 petrol engine. It's as responsive as it needs to be to overtake or jump off the lights.
The rest of the drive was all about messing with the modes. Within 30 minutes and use of B-mode I had filled the battery up past three-quarter capacity again thanks to the engine redirecting power to the generator. B-mode adds a little 'drag', meaning as you lift off the throttle the car slows by itself more quickly.
Of course, the pitch of the hybrid is the fact you don't really need to worry about any of this. Just stick the car into drive and go. Doing this, the fuel economy was still impressive.
My subsequent 150km route comprising urban, highway and dynamic driving with no restricted pedal application yielded 4.7L/100km (I used seven litres total). Given the 43L tank, the driving range is nearly 1000km between fill-ups. It also happily uses 91RON petrol.
The hybrid is happiest in daily urban commutes and stop-start traffic, where its fuel-economy advantage is most significant. There, its pep below 50km/h (thanks to the motor) and the smoothness of its revised CVT stand out, as does the very refined idle-stop system.
But unlike old hybrids, there are no real NVH issues when the engine kicks into life on the move either, nor are the regenerative brakes 'wooden' and lacking feel.
The best 0–100km/h dash we could muster was around 11 seconds, which isn't fast, but thankfully the CVT 'drone' is greatly reduced under load compared to the old model. You'll keep up with traffic and feel very relaxed cruising at highway speeds once you're there, sitting at 2000rpm doing 100km/h.
Once you lift off the throttle to slow down, the electric motor can actually power the ancillaries, meaning you can watch the car sitting at 90km/h with the engine switched off entirely until you reapply throttle again.
The reality is that hybrid tech is just a bridge to fully electric cars and as such will clearly 'date' quickly, but if you're someone who wants to reduce your well-to-wheel emissions and save some fuel money, it's a solution you can gravitate to now. And if you do more driving than the average person, the cost advantages stack up fast.
Now, to the Golf. One of the great things that Volkswagen has done with the current-generation model over its life cycle is improve the entry engine. The 1.4 turbo here makes 110kW of power at 5000rpm and a beefy 250Nm of torque from just off idle at 1500rpm. At launch a few years ago, the base engine had just 90kW.
This engine has none of the hybrid trickery of the Corolla, but it's a brilliant little unit for the price. Peak torque is available across a wide slab of the torque band (1500–3500rpm), giving it an effortless and muscular feel, and an urgent rolling response for overtaking. It's also extremely refined and quiet.
The DSG is one of the better versions, with precious little lag or delay between hitting the throttle and moving in your chosen direction, and once you're rolling it's peerless in terms of how quickly it shifts. Of all the variations of DSG, it's about the best. Just don't go stomping on the accelerator from standstill to avoid bogging down. A measured approach with gradual modulation is best.
It's much faster than the Corolla, with a 0–100km/h time of 8.2 seconds, and in many ways could actually be considered a 'warm' hatch (one short of proper hot-hatch status).
The company claims fuel use of 5.4L/100km, and over 183km at an average speed of 58km/h and with the same variations in style as the Corolla, I managed... 5.7L/100km. Given that included some hard, fast driving offsetting the freeway cruising, this is hugely impressive. It does demand premium petrol, though.
However, if you drive in stop/start urban environments for the most part, the hybrid's economy advantage over the conventional Golf widens.
It's really a horses for courses sort of thing determining which engine is better. The Golf is more frugal and punchy, but the Toyota is higher-tech and greener. Just. I'll give it to the Toyota on points, just because it's a little more interesting and suits the car's brief. These aren't performance models.
Winner: Hmmm... Tough. Maybe Toyota by a nose, just because it's something different.
Ride and handling
The new Corolla sits upon Toyota’s modular platform shared with the C-HR crossover and Prius. The company has made cars that sit on it lower, stiffer and overall more fun to drive, and this take is no exception.
There’s independent rear suspension, which doesn’t help the packaging but does improve roadholding. But more impressive is Toyota’s damper/spring tuning. The Corolla glides over cobbles and potholes really comfortably, isolating passengers by rounding off sharp inputs.
At the same time, the body control, meaning the car’s handling, is excellent. This Corolla actually likes corners, with sharp steering and a sense of agility. The battery system adds some weight, but the light platform helps reduce the impost. Thus it’s 114kg heavier than the VW.
To say this chassis could support a very sharp Corolla-based hot hatch is an understatement. There are very few more dynamically adept small cars around, which marks a sharp comparison with the old model. The brakes are also very responsive and aren’t as wooden as old hybrid regenerative set-ups.
There’s also an array of active safety features, including all-speed radar-guided active cruise control, and lane assist that's steering between road lines (best used on highways, where legally it must prompt you every 10 seconds or so to touch the wheel, but which worked fine 80 per cent of the time).
The Volkswagen Golf lacks these safety features as standard, but it’s still damn good to drive. Its ride over sharp inputs and corrugations remains benchmark, though the Corolla may just equal it in this department. Both are like affordable premium cars.
The Golf also ‘settles’ a little better after hits and elevation changes, meaning its dampers are a little better at ‘rebounding’ in controlled fashion. The Corolla is just as compliant, but the Golf just feels a little more composed and settled.
The VW is also a smidgen quieter, notably in terms of wind-noise suppression through the A- and C-pillars. Like the Corolla, its electric-assisted steering lacks feedback, but has a nice linear feel and is direct at all points of the wheel’s radius.
Toyota has clearly aimed to hit all the Golf’s benchmarks, and Toyota has pretty much nailed the brief. It’s splitting hairs. The VW wins just because of its slightly superior NVH levels and the fact its Continental tyres seemed a little grippier than the Corolla’s Dunlops.
Winner: Golf, again only just. And that’s saying something.
Servicing and warranty
Volkswagen's standard warranty is three years and unlimited distance, though at the moment it's offering five years on a promotional basis. The Toyota warranty is three years/100,000km. In today's landscape, our position is that a five-year warranty with roadside assist should be the minimum offer. Enough companies offer it.
The Golf has good servicing intervals, meaning you need to get your car checked every 12 months/15,000km. VW Australia's capped-price program means the first five visits at current rates will cost: $326, $522, $410, $740 and $326. This means after five years or 75,000km (whichever you hit first) it'll total $2324.
The Corolla has the same intervals as the Golf these days. The old model was 10,000km or six months, but this new breed requires work every 15,000km or 12 months. The first five services are all capped at $175 at Toyota's vast dealer network. That's $875 over the period. Helps offset the premium pricing, hey?
Winner: Toyota, despite the sub-par warranty.
Considering the Golf Trendline 110TSI is the older design here, and in the current generation one of the elder statesmen of the class, it’s a hell of a thing that it’s still better than its rivals. It remains the definition of an all-rounder; a nearly perfect offering at the price.
It’s also the only small car that would blend in equally well at a roadside motel and a Sofitel, such is its universal appeal. But – and this is a big development – the Corolla SX Hybrid has given us pause for thought here, even if the aspirational buyers out there may eschew its badge.
It drives nearly as well as the Golf, has more equipment for the money, and is so affordable to own and run. It also stands a good chance of introducing thousands of Australians every year to partial vehicle electrification. If only its back seat and boot packaging weren’t so ordinary.
The fact I’m genuinely torn between this pair might be considered a victory for the Corolla. Personally, I’m still inclined to go the Golf, with the Driver Assistance Pack fitted. Then again, if you don’t aspire to own a European car and rarely need rear seats or a big boot, then the Toyota may well be the better bet for you.
|Model||Toyota Corolla||Volkswagen Golf|
|Active cruise control||Yes||Option|
|Road sign assist||Yes||No|
|Side mirrors||Auto folding||Manual folding|
|Wheels||16-inch alloy||16-inch alloy|
|Notable options||-||$1500 Driver Assistance Pack|
|Model||Toyota Corolla||Volkswagen Golf|
|Engine||1.8 petrol||1.4 turbo petrol|
|Engine power||72kW @ 5200rpm||110kW @ 5000rpm|
|Engine torque||142Nm @ 3600rpm||250Nm @ 1500rpm|
|Electric drive motor||53kW/163Nm||–|
|Hybrid battery||Ni-MH, 6.5Ah||–|
|Fuel type||91RON min.||95RON min.|