It’s probably safe to say that Australia is now at a point where hybrid-powered cars are entirely unremarkable. You’ll have ridden in one as a taxi or on a ride-share trip, or maybe your office has one as a company car.
The silent-operation bits come as no surprise, nor the fact that they’re really just a ‘normal’ car.
Toyota is by far the biggest seller of hybrid cars in Australia, and before too long all of its passenger car lines will have a hybrid option. The Camry does, RAV4 and C-HR do, and soon the Yaris and Kluger will, too.
And, of course, so does the Corolla. The current Corolla, introduced in 2018, is the second-generation Corolla to come with a hybrid, so you may not be eyeing one of these because of its fuel-saving ability – you may just want one because it's a Corolla, and that’s a fair enough reason in itself.
The 2020 Corolla ZR Hybrid hatch shown here is the top model in the range, and the one showing up in a decent number of Australian driveways as a private buy. It’s reasonably easy to spot compared to cheaper versions, too, with its bold 18-inch alloy wheels the key external difference.
Other ZR upgrades are more interior-focussed, with a pair of sporty front bucket seats including heating and power adjustment plus lumbar support for the driver, Ultrasuede and leather trim, ambient interior lighting, a 7.0-inch digital display within the instruments, head-up display, and premium eight-speaker JBL audio.
That’s on top of features found further down the range like an 8.0-inch touchscreen with digital radio and navigation, plus Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, keyless entry and start, wireless phone charger, leather-look steering wheel, dual-zone climate control, heated auto-folding door mirrors, front and rear park sensors, and LED head, fog and tail-lights.
Safety is seen to by seven airbags, lane-departure alert with steering assist, lane-trace (centring) assist, speed sign assist, all-speed active cruise control, blind-spot monitor, rear cross-traffic alert, high- and low-speed autonomous emergency braking with cyclist and pedestrian detection, auto high-beam and a reverse camera. ANCAP awarded a five-star safety score in 2018.
The equipment list is certainly plump, and the interior finds the right balance between comfortable and sporty. The seats are supportive and look great, but aren’t too tight or firm for day-to-day use.
The centre console goes for form over function, however. You sort of have to lob your phone into the wireless charger, and the CarPlay USB port looks to have been haphazardly jammed into the lower dash in the critical strike zone for the knees of tall passengers.
Storage is scaled back inside as a result, but the Corolla’s sporty styling over mainstream functionality somehow works – the ZR is activewear for the Westfield carpark. You still get cupholders and decent door bins, but things like your keys and wallet might have to stay in your pocket or bag.
The ergonomics line up, the seating position isn’t too low, controls fall within easy reach, and the instruments and head-up display might look a little simple, but provide all the info you could need without complicating things. The clear climate controls are a breeze to operate, and Toyota continues to deliver some of the most effective air-conditioning on blistering days – bring on summer!
There’s appealing design work, especially the fine metallic spear that runs across the dash and around the outer vents, and the stitched dash fascia. It’s a shame, then, that the plonked-on touchscreen and rather plain door cards don’t uphold the theme.
Is the Corolla ZR spacious? Well, yes and no. It has fallen into the trap of letting some utility slide in favour of aesthetics. Front seat occupants aren’t likely to struggle for space (passenger knee USB intrusion notwithstanding). There’s enough head room, leg room and adjustability to keep most people happy and comfy.
It is still a small car, however, and the rear bench, though comfy and reasonable in terms of width, is short on knee room – or downright minimalist behind someone taller. For short trips or occasional use it offers workable space, but if you’re planning to fill the rear seats more often, the roomier Corolla sedan could be a better option.
The same goes for boot space. Your gym bag, groceries or luggage for a weekend away will fit with room to spare, but if you’re loading prams and portacots there’s only 333L of luggage space. That’s the most available in a Corolla hatch (the petrol ZR is smaller still at 217L), but keep in mind there’s no spare tyre in this variant, only a puncture repair kit – far from ideal in rural areas.
You can fold the seats with a 60:40 split if you need to fit in something bulky, and Toyota has remembered to include useful bag hooks in the boot, so the boot news isn’t all bad.
On the road, the Corolla is mostly familiar, but also a little bit different. Familiar because it simply doesn’t require any behavioural change from the way you drive your current car: get in, start it up, put it in drive and away you go. Different because the engine itself won’t start until you need it, and eerie silence is often all you get.
Again, if you’ve got a cab or an Uber you’ll know how it works. The petrol engine doesn't do much at all when stopped or under low loads. That’s what the electric motor is for, and it makes gliding through residential streets or shuffling slowly through peak-hour quiet and calm.
The electric side of things can’t do everything, so if you push the accelerator more firmly or need to get up to speed, the petrol engine will kick in, and both usually work together to find the right fit of fuel savings and performance. If you want to tip-toe on the edge of keeping things electric, the Corolla can feel tepid in its performance, though any car would when you’re being very gentle with it.
Hypermiling seems to come naturally while the hybrid experience is a novelty, but soon enough you’ll revert to driving the Corolla hybrid more normally. As you do, you'll find the powertrain sufficient, rather than sparking in its responsiveness.
To that end, Toyota suggests official fuel consumption of 4.2 litres per 100km. On test I got off to a rocky start, as lots of 100km/h travel and bitterly cold weather (which tends to prompt the petrol engine into action) saw early consumption rise to 5.1L/100km. By the end of the week, as the weather warmed up and more urban driving was added in, consumption dropped to 4.6L/100km.
To get there, Toyota uses a 1.8-litre petrol engine rated at a somewhat meek 72kW and 142Nm, due to its use of what’s known as the Atkinson cycle – basically it runs to be as lean as possible instead of focussing on outright power. The electric motor contributes 53kW and 163Nm of its own, but instead of adding one to the other for a total combined output, the maximum output is a claimed 90kW.
Given nearly all cars in the small-car class have pushed past the 100kW/200Nm mark (there are still a few exceptions), the Corolla’s outputs are on the low side. Performance tends to reflect this, but with the added torque from the electric motor available almost instantly, its acceleration has the same kind of city-speed punch as a small-capacity turbo.
If you don't think a hybrid is for you, the regular petrol engine in the Corolla ZR will not only save you $1500 at the time of purchase, but lays claim to 125kW and 200Nm with fuel use rated at 6.0L/100km.
Engine noise is usually hushed, if present at all, but if you pin the accelerator on a freeway entry ramp you’ll get a flat roar of revs. It’s rare, as you won’t often need to do so.
Because general cruising is remarkably refined, there’s not much else to hear but tyre noise. Unfortunately, on most road surfaces at highway speeds it's more intrusive than it should be – especially when competitors like the Mazda 3 have made big improvements in this area.
The automatic transmission, known as an e-CVT, does all the thinking in terms of combining motor and engine. It’s a smooth operator, usually free from delay, but in some urban flowing traffic it can exhibit a slight ‘stretchy’ feel.
As one of Toyota’s latest-generation models, the underpinnings of the Corolla are the result of the company’s commitment to adding some of the fun back to driving. It’s no sports car, but the steering is keen and direct, the ride stays comfortable yet holds the road confidently, and everything feels more natural and progressive than earlier Corollas.
As the flagship version, pricing isn’t cheap and cheerful. The ZR Hybrid starts from $33,635 before options and on-road costs. Add in metallic paint ($500) and the new black roof option as seen here ($450), and pricing can sneak past $38K on the road, though.
That kind of outlay could also see you behind the wheel of a much more spacious Honda Civic RS, which like the Corolla focuses more on sporty style than real athletic ability, or a warm hatch like the Kia Cerato GT, which not only offers more performance and a longer warranty, but also undercuts the Corolla’s price.
Neither will deliver the same cut-price fuel bills, of course – an issue that’s sure to vary week by week. Petrol as low as $1 per litre recently takes the pressure off, but over the last 12 months it has averaged as high as $1.61 in some states, giving more fuel for thought.
Hybrid competitors are few and far between, though the Corolla does cross paths with Toyota’s own Prius or Hyundai’s Ioniq Hybrid, though with both conceived as eco-stars, neither blends into the background quite as readily.
Servicing pricing starts off cheap at just $180 per visit every 12 months or 15,000km for the first five scheduled services, but jumps up down the track. The warranty is for five years or unlimited kilometres for private buyers (capped at 160,000km for commercial use), with up to seven years of engine/hybrid/drivetrain warranty and 10 years' hybrid battery warranty for cars that remain serviced to schedule at a Toyota dealership.
In a busy and competitive small-car class, Toyota’s attempt to step away from its safe and sombre back-catalogue and create products with more emotional appeal, comes as a refreshing change from the predictable whitegoods-on-wheels reputation of the past.
At the same time, some of the brand’s core sensibilities remain intact. There’s nothing too complex to learn, no step-change in the way the car operates or the face-level owner experience. It’s all about as Toyota as you can get.
Now you can have your cake and eat it, too (besides, what’s the point of having cake if you can’t eat it?) with hip-pocket fuel savings from Toyota’s proven hybrid technology, without the need to greenwash yourself in the conspicuous image of something like a Prius.