Before the lockdowns began and the world was stuck at home, we took a Toyota Corolla for one final road trip from the top of NZ to the bottom.
The very first thing I noticed as we drove away from Auckland Airport in our Toyota Corolla were the road signs. In New Zealand they are more British in their design, highlighting the fact that Australia's road signs take their influence from America.
Besides a two-hour stopover on a trip back from the US years ago, this is the first time I've visited Aotearoa. The plan was to spend two weeks driving a base-model Toyota Corolla Ascent Sport from the top of New Zealand to the bottom, fitting in as many car-related activities as possible.
It was uncertain whether the trip would take place. Even in early February, it was obvious to those paying attention that the coronavirus situation was going to impact international travel – it was just a matter of when. Not long after we had returned home to Melbourne the borders were closed and the freedoms we took for granted were put on hold.
We weren't to know this would be the last international road trip we would get to experience for months. Perhaps longer.
Driving in a foreign country and on completely unfamiliar roads is always a somewhat stressful experience to begin with, not helped by the anxiety of having the local customs officers take a special interest in your baggage.
While we tend not to give it much of a second thought nowadays, the ease and familiarity of having Apple CarPlay is a great comfort – and especially so when driving a new car in an unfamiliar land. No new operating systems to learn, just plug-in, set the destination and the tunes, and go. One less thing to worry about.
In the early morning haze of our second day – exacerbated by the time-zone difference – the rear-view camera in the entry-level Corolla was particularly appreciated in the strangely designed car park of our motel.
Something I'm always looking for in new cars is how easy they are to live with. It's a difficult thing to quantify because it's found in a thousand little traits, rather than a handful of big features. The thickness of the A- and B-pillars, the weight of the door, the size of the door opening, the door pockets, the position of the steering wheel buttons… all of these minuscule elements combine to make a car that influences whether you're eager to pop down the shops to get the milk, or whether it feels like more of an effort than it should.
With coffees in their cupholders, we set out on our two-hour journey through the Coromandel to Leadfoot Festival.
Leadfoot is very much like a younger Goodwood Festival of Speed, though perhaps a little looser, less formal. It's held on the switchback driveway on Rod Millen's property – Millen is a champion rally driver, multiple winner of the Pikes Peak Hillclimb, and a New Zealand national treasure.
Over the weekend we watched as Rod Millen, along with his sons Rhys and Ryan, all took turns racing rotary-engined rally cars up the hill, in-between dozens of other competitors driving every kind of machine one can imagine: pre-war racers, drift trucks, iconic rally cars, and even Mark Webber cruising past in a stark white Porsche Taycan.
Perhaps the most special of them all, for me at least, was seeing Alister McRae – brother of the late rally champion Colin McRae – drive a Subaru WRC rally car at full pelt. The car itself belonged to another national treasure of New Zealand: the late Possum Bourne. Things not often seen and experienced.
Each night, after a long, tiring, and thoroughly enjoyable day at Leadfoot Festival was over, the Corolla demanded nothing from us. We just rolled along to our motel, comfortable and easy, letting the car follow its nose along the crumbling mountain roads.
As we pointed the car south and our days with the Corolla began ticking over, the ease of the hatchback as a day-to-day car began to shine. This isn't the smallest car on the road, but it's effortless to park. It certainly ain't the biggest, but we stuffed it with a few large suitcases and everything fitted like it had been planned with laser accuracy. It's not a sports car by any measure, but you can still throw it into corners and have some fun.
It's also very familiar. Anything you seek falls to the hand, each button is exactly where your finger wants it to be. The Toyota Corolla may be the standard by which ergonomics are measured.
It's a small thing (and certainly not revolutionary) but the quick auto-handbrake was one less thing to worry about. Car on, transmission into Drive, and go.
Over the coming days our little car took us through Rotorua and helped us explore the region around Mt Ngauruhoe – an active volcano – as we camped on the shores of Lake Taupo. Whether on the city streets or country roads, the Corolla remained uncomplicated and reliable.
On those long, warm summer days filled with nothing but driving, our butts and back appreciated the supportive, cloth seats, as well as the cold and responsive air conditioning.
However, at highway speeds the tyre noise was anything but satisfactory. Perhaps it's a financial reality of building a quality car to a budget, but it's difficult to understand how Toyota's engineers thought this volume of din was acceptable. While this isn't going to be an issue for the majority of people who use the Corolla around town, those who regularly travel long distances may find the tyre noise fatiguing. Changing to different tyres may help, but it's more likely to do with the lack of applied sound deadening to the body.
We spent a day following the east coast down to The Longest Place Name, before cutting across to Dannevirke in the dusk twilight.
This was where the dynamic abilities of this car were pushed. The CVT gearbox was flicked over into 'manual' mode, and the poor, heavily-laden Corolla was forced to tackle the hilly, winding roads that cut through the beautiful New Zealand countryside.
While I cannot say that the performance of the Corolla blew me away, the fact that it didn't disappoint me was impressive in an abstract kind of way. The 2.0-litre four cylinder with 125kW and 200Nm did a perfectly adequate job of keeping me entertained and asking for what I wanted, when I wanted it. Power delivery was smooth and reasonably linear for the most part.
The engine note is a touch uninspiring, perhaps even a little on the asthmatic side, but being that this is a base-spec small hatchback, the criticism is maybe unwarranted.
The chassis, though, is legitimately good, and not at all what I was expecting. The independent multi-link rear end provides a level of sophistication not previously found on the humble Corolla, while chassis rigidity meant the car remained relatively composed – even when the road itself did not.
Steering was also surprisingly good. While far too light and uncommunicative in the Hyundai i30 hatch – a car I'm personally quite a fan of – the Corolla's steering outshone the i30 in every aspect. It had just the right weight balance, with a decent level of feedback from the front wheels. I had to keep reminding myself that this was a Plain-Jane small car I was evaluating.
Even the CVT transmission – a gearbox I'll happily admit I'm no fan of – worked pretty damn well. Not only when put under stress, but pretty much everywhere. Toyota has vastly improved the experience with the addition of a proper torque-converter first gear, but even when taking advantage of the limited overtaking spots, the transmission was reasonably quick and responsive to my requests. I had no real complaints over the predetermined ratios in the manual mode as I pushed the car across those hills that afternoon.
Having dinner at the very excellent Vietnamese restaurant in Dannevirke that night, I was reminded of my experience with the Mercedes-Benz CLK63 AMG Black Series back when it was new: the AMG's transmission couldn't handle two laps at Melbourne's Sandown race track before complaining with warning lights and fanfare, whereas the Corolla had just taken a solid hour of abuse, overloaded with luggage, and up some reasonably steep switchbacks. No, it's not a fair comparison, but it's worth acknowledging when the engineers screw a car together well beyond its intended purpose.
What the experience did do was make me yearn for a Gazoo Racing version. With that sweet, stiff, composed chassis, one can only imagine how great the Corolla will be once the boffins at GR have had their way with it.
I'd love to tell you about our fuel consumption usage, but our Corolla was filled so few times over the two weeks it was never top of mind. Toyota claims 6.0 litres per 100 kilometres, for what it's worth.
We made our way down to Wellington the next day, crossing the Cook Strait via ferry to the South Island, and chased some fun roads out of Picton to Nelson. Prior to boarding, we drove around the lovely streets of Wellington, admiring the architecture and tracking down bottles of Titoki liqueur, and the Toyota proved itself as a perfectly adequate city car. Once we arrived in Nelson, we followed the main road down the west coast, laughing to ourselves as we parked next to identical Corolla rental cars at every stop.
Rain stumped our plans to camp near Fox Glacier, so we opted for a cabin at the local caravan park. Our British neighbour heaped praise on our choice of transport – lamenting his own decision to drive the tight, hilly roads of New Zealand in a giant, underpowered motorhome.
Our eventual destination was Invercargill, the town at the southernmost tip of the country, and with a rich history for all things automotive. Here we visited Bill Richardson's Transport World – a purpose-built car and truck museum with some absolute gems, and a fantastic cafe to boot. While trucks dominate the displays, car enthusiasts have plenty of things to enjoy.
The next stop in town was the local hardware store, which houses Burt Munro's collection of world-record Indian motorcycles, as well as memorabilia from his biopic – The World's Fastest Indian, starring Sir Anthony Hopkins as Munro. A particular highlight was seeing Munro's Offering to the God of Speed wall, sitting behind glass in this New Zealand hardware shop.
A must-visit destination was the Oreti Beach, the very place Munro had used to test his land-speed motorbikes, and home of the annual Burt Munro Challenge, which claims to be the largest motorcycle rally in the Southern Hemisphere. The wide, flat, compacted beach gave Munro the perfect surface to test his motorbikes before he shipped them to the Bonneville Salt Flats halfway around the world.
Taking a detour to visit the spectacular Fiordlands area via helicopter, we ended the trip at Queenstown: the home of bungee jumping and all things a little bit mad. We had one last activity on our list: Highlands Motorsports Park. Just 45 minutes east of Queenstown, Highlands was built as a playground by well-known Scottish-Australian racing car driver Tony Quinn. Visitors can experience a hot lap in the circuit's Porsche Cayenne safety car before enjoying the extensive racing car museum. Which is exactly what we did, and it was absolutely fantastic.
As we came upon our last day in New Zealand, it was hard not to be impressed by our little Toyota Corolla Ascent Sport. Whatever preconceptions I had about Toyota losing a bit of its mojo in recent years was gone. This model is deserving of the iconic Corolla badge: it's fun, capable, comfortable, and truly great to live with day-in, day-out.
This, then, is a love letter of sorts. To the car, to the country, to freedom of driving holidays. You don't need to take a million-horsepower hypercar across the Swiss alps in order to have a fantastic driving holiday. We drove a humble Toyota Corolla some 4000 kilometres, zig-zagging across New Zealand from top to bottom, enjoying incredible experiences that will be remembered for the rest of our lives.