Australians might be gorging themselves on SUVs and utes, but there are still plenty of people who prefer passenger cars. The Toyota Corolla is currently the world’s biggest-selling automotive nameplate, and has been Australia’s top-selling passenger car for the past eight years in a row.
Indeed, the Toyota Corolla even led Australian new-car sales outright in 2016 and 2017 before being overtaken by the Toyota HiLux for top honours in 2018. Although the Toyota Corolla has come under attack from other popular small cars such as the Mazda 3 and Hyundai i30, it has held onto the lead among its peers since 2013.
Part of the appeal – in addition to the more modern styling introduced with this generation in 2018 – is the option of petrol or hybrid power. While hybrids now account for more than half of Corolla sales, which can lead to a wait of a few months if the dealer is out of stock, the regular petrol version is still a worthwhile proposition. At last count, petrol power accounted for 46.1 per cent of Corolla sales, the balance in favour of hybrid.
With the Toyota Corolla’s recent update, we thought it would be a good time to get reacquainted. What we have here is the 2021 Toyota Corolla Ascent Sport hatch. This is now the cheapest ticket into the new Corolla hatch range.
It wasn’t that long ago the cost of entry was $20,000–$25,000 drive-away. The drive-away price has since climbed to between $27,185 and $27,747 for the manual transmission and between $28,730 and $29,314 for the automatic CVT option. The automatic Corolla we have on test is fitted with the optional satellite navigation and DAB radio package, adding an extra $1030 to the asking price.
It's $2700 more than the previous Corolla model, but it's hard to dispute it offers a lot of standard safety tech, improved looks and some creature comforts at an affordable price.
|2021 Toyota Corolla Ascent Sport|
|Power and torque||125kW at 6600rpm, 200Nm at 4400rpm|
|Drive type||Front-wheel drive|
|Fuel claim combined (ADR)||6.0L/100km|
|Fuel use on test||6.3L/100km|
|ANCAP safety rating||5 stars (tested 2018)|
|Warranty||5 years/unlimited km|
|Main competitors||Mazda 3, Hyundai i30|
|Price as tested||$29,997 (drive-away)|
Now in its 12th generation, the Toyota Corolla has been refined to offer plenty of the necessary ingredients to help retain its title as Australia’s top-selling passenger car. But in its most affordable form, does the ’Rolla do more than look the part? Let’s begin there.
You’re likely to be familiar with the new look of the current Corolla hatch by now, first arriving in its new sportier form in 2018, and finding more than 91,000 new homes across Australia.
The five-door hatchback is easy to spot with its bold, narrowed LED headlights, with integrated daytime running lights and a huge front grille. Sharp lines contour the Corolla's exterior, delivering a sleek and sporty look that can’t help but draw your eye to it when passing it in traffic.
The rear has benefitted, too, with sharply profiled tail-lights and a prominent bumper that our testers agree gives the humble Corolla a touch of Lexus luxury – something certainly appreciated without a luxury price tag.
The 16-inch alloys do appear slightly undersized sitting in the ’Rolla’s large wheel arches, but overall, you can't help but be charmed by its youthful and fun vibe.
Under the bonnet it runs Toyota’s new-generation 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine producing 125kW and 200Nm to the front wheels via a ‘direct shift’ CVT automatic transmission.
Now featuring a ‘launch gear’, the Corolla packs the punch many critics felt it lacked in the previous CVT auto transmission, seeing the hatch take off faster from a standstill. Let's face it, it's the feeling we want from a small car, and Toyota deserves some points for delivering it.
Continuing with the driving experience, in a word, the Corolla is fun. It’s familiar, effortless and uncomplicated. You get in, put it in drive and go. For this 30-something mum usually tied to an SUV, pulling into the school drop-off zone and nipping back out again, it feels light and wonderfully freeing – excuse me while I reminisce on the ‘pre-children’ days for a moment.
The Ascent Sport handles varying road conditions easily. It remains composed on bumpy rural roads – thanks to its more advanced multi-link rear suspension – and the steering is direct and responsive.
It’s very stable around corners, with its lower centre of gravity keeping body roll to a minimum, and it feels well balanced but still packing some get up and go to move around inner-city traffic.
If you pin the accelerator upon entry to the highway, you will get a flat roar of revs, but the Corolla overcomes it quite quickly and settles back into its refined general cruising mode.
Where the Corolla hasn’t excelled is the amount of road noise in the cabin. Day-to-day driving requires continuous adjustment of the volume so you can hear your radio while driving, only to be deafened by the DJ as soon as you come to a standstill. Unfortunately, it is a letdown for an otherwise polished driving experience, especially when its competitors, like the Mazda 3, eclipse it in this area.
Otherwise, the Corolla’s cabin is a nice place to be. You can see (and feel) Toyota has made a real effort to improve the perception of quality and continue the youthful design through the Corolla’s interior.
The dash has a mixture of hard and soft plastics, with contouring lines through the console leading your eye to the sharply designed air vents. The prominence of the lower dash curving towards you does give the impression the cabin is smaller than it is and feels overly large on the passenger side, limiting their leg room even before having to accommodate seating someone behind them.
The cloth upholstery is comfortable and feels durable, and the cloth-covered centre armrest is a nice touch for the driver. The driving position is higher than expected from a hatchback, and forward visibility is good thanks to the sloped and wide front windscreen.
The centre console is simple in design, but it offers cupholders and a 12V socket in the armrest storage. The ergonomics of the phone holder compartment require you to lob your phone into it, which isn’t ideal, and the USB port within the passenger's leg room could have been better executed to make it more useful for the driver (and less of a pain for the passenger).
The 8.0-inch touchscreen dominates the space, but makes all the buttons within easy reach. The volume dials have good feedback if you choose to use them over the steering wheel controls.
Technology is not where the Corolla stands out for a good reason. Although Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are now available in the Ascent Sport, you will need to pay more for satellite navigation and a digital radio ($1030).
The infotainment graphics unfortunately feel dated and the Bluetooth connection can be temperamental, dropping in and out of connection at times. But the voice recognition worked seamlessly, making changing songs or calling someone while on the move easy without having to take your eyes away from the road.
Space in a hatchback will always be a big consideration depending on your situation. For those needing to use the second row to accommodate younger passengers, there are two ISOFIX points, three top-tether points, and cupholders in the doors and centre armrest.
There aren't any USB ports or rear air vents on offer, but considering its size, the front vents are ample enough to cool the Corolla’s interior.
The seats are a good width with enough head room for two adults in the outward seats. The cushion in the middle seat rises up and makes it uncomfortable to sit on for more than a short trip, and knee room will be a precious commodity if you are ferrying around taller passengers regularly. If this is the case, you won't be surprised that we recommend you consider the Corolla sedan as a better option.
The space story continues in the boot, where there’s 217L on offer in the petrol Ascent Sport, which a pram and maybe a couple of small shopping bags will swallow up quickly. There is a full-size spare, which is comforting if you're considering this as a first car for your teen or live in a rural area, but for a younger family situation, I repeat my sedan comment from above.
Upon testing, we agreed the boot door was quite heavy to close, and requires two hands to push it down from above your head. If you are of similar stature to myself, being 5ft 6cm, you may need to put down your shopping bags to close it – not a great situation when trying to dash out of the rain.
However, you might be impressed with the safety features come rain or shine, with adaptive cruise control, lane-departure alert with steering assist, lane-trace assist, speed-sign recognition, reversing camera, and autonomous emergency braking with cyclist and pedestrian detection as standard inclusions.
The Corolla also has seven airbags and was awarded an ANCAP five-star safety score in 2018.
Around town, the Corolla maintained a fuel-consumption rate of around 6.3 litres per 100km, which is pretty close to the official 6.0L/100km claim from Toyota, with my time spent in the Ascent Sport consisting of both suburban and highway driving.
Seeing the Corolla’s evolution up close, it's fair to say this is no longer a bland experience.
Sitting in the most affordable model, you don’t feel like you are missing out by choosing to save some coin. Toyota has ticked a lot of the must-have boxes while creating a Corolla with emotional appeal – I didn’t think I would ever see those words in the same sentence.