Some days I can’t see the tail end of a particular test car quickly enough, or send it packing to its corporate owner quickly enough. That’s certainly not the case after a solid week with the 2019 Toyota Corolla ZR hatchback. I warmed to it, could easily live with it, and I straight up like it.
And the CarAdvice collective ought to be sick of it by now. Since this 12th
-generation Corolla lobbed globally in April 2018, we've reviewed a number of variants in isolation, celebrated its goodness during Winners Circle 2018, thrown it up against its key competitors and in comparisons, and even dissected the range at launch and through the garage. We've driven the heck out of the Corolla. There shouldn’t be much left, good or bad, to unearth.
But there is. Having differentiated much of the current range, I’ve discovered that the non-hybrid range-topper ZR ($30,370 list) is my personal favourite.
One in three Corollas sold is a hybrid. That's a hugely impressive accolade for mainstream petrol-electric penetration. Bravo.
But the obvious flipside, of course, is that the other two-thirds of Australia's second-most-popular passenger car remains good old internal combustion, using a sole 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine and, in the vast majority of examples sold, a CVT automatic transmission. After a week living with the 'regular' Corolla, I'm reminded of just how unflappable, enjoyable and thoroughly well sorted this stalwart powertrain combination is, and how often its goodness gets somewhat suppressed in the review narrative.
In the last-generation Corolla was a charming little 1.8-litre naturally aspirated four that was cheap to run, nigh on bulletproof, and returned a satisfyingly raucous and properly sporty note let off its chain – even if it grew terribly long in the tooth and lacked the torquey drivability of a growing number of force-induced competitors.
In opting to increase capacity to 2.0 litres in the new car rather than downsizing and turbocharging, as is the trend, the Corolla gets the best of two worlds. Power is up a significant and noticeable 21 per cent to 125kW, while the 16 per cent lift in torque to 200Nm – comparable with many heavier medium-sized SUVs – fattens up the mid-range without losing any of the hard-revving, rorty character that’s long been a hallmark of Toyota’s small cars.
The ZR is no hot hatch, nor pretends to want to be. But this 2.0-litre is keenly responsive, amply energetic, and yet maintains some of that good old soul and character of the old engine in what's too commonly a soulless small-car segment.
I still approach continuously variable transmissions (CVTs) with Luddite-like trepidation, but this latest iteration does an impressive job of eradicating age-old foibles of this pulley system design. It ‘fakes’ 10 forward ratios so convincingly that the old continuously variable powertrain whine, where it’d pin engine RPM to a sweet spot and mask the sense of seat-of-the-pants acceleration, is almost non-existent. There’s just clean, seamless acceleration from a standstill, notable and satisfying upshifts, and none of that unpolished grumpiness still apparent in dual-clutched rival formats.
There is a trade-off. Naturally aspirated engines can fluctuate wildly in real-world fuel consumption depending on driving style and environment, and in our week of mostly urban runabout driving, the advertised best figure of 6.0L/100km rose at times well into the eights, recovering to more favourable numbers during leisurely highway cruises few urbanite owners might regularly do during the daily commute. The saving grace is that, unlike many turbo engines, the Corolla happily drinks low-rent 91RON unleaded day in, day out.
Yes, we like the 1.8-litre hybrid too, and have dissected the various powertrain merits in our range comparison. I just personally prefer the extra herbs – 35kW of power, an official ‘unknown’ in torque – and vibe of the 2.0-litre. Goodness that shouldn’t be disregarded by buyers swooned by more favourable (by 1.8L per 100km) advertised fuel consumption in the hybrid that, of course, commands an extra $1500 upfront outlay.
The Corolla looks its best, and looks ‘right’, on the ZR-spec 18-inch wheels. It’s too nose- and bum-heavy design in profile, very bulky around the arches viewed from most angles, to wear those putty 16-inch wheels fitted to the low-spec Ascent Sport and mid-range SX. It's a cagey strategy: I'm sure those big wheels alone are responsible for upselling a great many ZRs on the showroom floor.
The lower-profile 18-inch tyres also add a little more satisfying edge to the Corolla’s driving experience; one we’ve consistently rated in this new generation – with its new TNGA architecture – as being lithe in character and possessing one of the finest ride-comfort tunes in the small-car business. We’re not talking corner-carving hot hatch histrionics here – the quality in play is instead an impressive resolve of all-round depth that brings a real sense of premiumness to the mainstream, relatively affordable small-car segment.
So steering is nice, light and clear, it irons out the urban bumps with aplomb, it’s dynamically surefooted and responsive, and there’s more gusto and polish in the motivational department. Around town, it’s a joyful little daily driver, with core qualities I could easily live with for the long-haul ownership experience. However, that said, it’s not all rose-lined picket fences along Corolla Street…
“(Bing Bong) You’re now entering a school zone,” chimes the safety police from beneath the dashboard.
I’m all for safety consciousness, but the Corolla, like a growing number of new vehicles, too often trips over into the 'excessive nannying' zone. This isn't a great issue if, unlike the Corolla, systems are easily switched off by a confident and competent driver at his/her whim. Nor is it a problem if safety warning protocols are helpful and accurate, and that's not always the case with this particular Toyota system.
School-zone warnings are helpful. But not at midnight. Or Sunday afternoon. Or when you're not in a school zone. Or, mystifyingly, just after you've passed through what's otherwise obviously a school zone without any system notification.
The same clumsy inaccuracy applies to the speed-sign recognition system. Again, school zones: the camera's fine for picking up a 40km/h part of the signage, but doesn't register the time-of-day advice of when it does and doesn't apply (midnight, Sunday afternoons, et al).
Further, the camera system speed advice often contradicts the hard data-based speed advice that is concurrently displayed in the infotainment screen. Occasionally, and disconcertingly, it'll display speed-limit advice that's higher than the actual signposted limit.
Cabin-wise, the top-spec ZR is, as you might expect, the Corolla at its most impressive. This applies particularly to the seats, which look overtly sporty for a mild hatchback though are surprisingly comfy, even long-hauling. It’s a nice interior treatment – a pleasant place to spend time in, decent rather than great, with the general ambience let down by busy, downmarket displays and some clunky user interface.
The driver and infotainment screens, in particular, could be slicker and crisper. Instead, they're fussy, needlessly busy and garishly coloured. Yes, it presents a digital speedo in the head-up display, though if you're wearing polarised eyewear, the display all but disappears.
Then there's the infotainment system itself, one that exists in its own Toyota Link app ecosystem and doesn't mirror Apple or Android smartphones, and is a topic of much conjecture at CarAdvice. Supporters say that once you're set up and subscribed, it works an absolute dream. Detractors charge that its user-subscription-type format is impractical – particularly in instances of multiple drivers/users – compared with simpler (smartphone) plug and play formats.
And yet for all of the clunkiness of the various electronic systems, the Corolla ZR won me over emphatically because it just offers such a polished driving experience. There's depth in quality in that powertrain, in the ride and handling balance, and in general comfort and noise suppression, be it around town or out on the open road. It also feels robust and rock solid in build quality.
There'll be a great many buyers parting cash on the strength of digital glitz and bells and whistles on offer. I'm personally more interested in, and impressed by, any vehicle's core goodness as a mode of transport than necessarily what it offers or lacks in comparatively superficial (usually electronic) gizmos, add-ons and extras.
At the time of testing, the Corolla was covered by a substandard three-year warranty. At the time of writing, however, Toyota has upped its game across the board and now offers five years and unlimited-kilometre surety, which is more aligned with what's fast becoming the accepted industry-standard offer. There's also a conditional seven-year warranty on the engine and driveline.
Servicing costs, at $175 per service per annum for five years or 75,000km (whichever comes first), are quite favourable for the Corolla hatch (though not quite as enticing as the $140 charge for the sedan version).
At around $34K drive-away and second-priciest of its range, and without the hybrid mantle on which to lay a forward-thinking efficiency cap on, the petrol Corolla ZR isn’t perhaps the smartest, shrewdest or most pragmatic choice of version for a good many buyers. But none of this detracts from its appeal, if much of it is emotional and anchored off how it looks and drives.
Line up the entire range before me, and given the choice of living with one version as a long-term daily driven experience, I'd pick the petrol ZR over any other Corolla hatch without hesitation.