Owner Review

2014 Toyota Corolla Ascent Review

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I have thus far found the Corolla to be an enjoyable and capable vehicle with respect to the class and price range. Whilst the Corolla nameplate has traditionally been the domain of conservative buyers and has been regarded by car enthusiasts in particular as nothing more than whitegoods on wheels, this latest ZRE182 version exhibits a more sporting character, being significantly more enjoyable and involving to drive than the previous generations I have owned or driven (my first Corolla was the AE80 in 1986 and I have owned or driven all generations of the vehicle since then).

The new Corolla's improvement over previous generation Corollas is the result of evolutionary rather than revolutionary improvements in a number of areas. So far as performance is concerned, although the 2ZR-FE engine may only appear to be very mildly tweaked on paper for this iteration of the Corolla, it delivers a noticeably more robust and enjoyable driving experience.

The tweaks have resulted in an additional 3 kW, with maximum power of 103 kW being delivered at the 6,400 RPM redline. The engine is extremely smooth and well isolated at any speed, it pulls well at low RPM for a small, 4 cylinder normally aspirated engine and the relatively low gearing in the manual transmission model suits the character of the engine better, since it is more than happy to rev freely to the redline (and beyond) and feels remarkably less stressed in doing so.

I would even go so far as to say that the latest version of this engine has more in common character-wise with the legendary 4A-GE engine than it does with the other DOHC engines that have powered Corollas over the last 28 years. It is clearly no powerhouse in absolute terms but it is certainly more than adequate for city and rural driving as well as occasional longer trips at freeway speeds.

Yes, the engine technology is old school. There are no turbos to improve fuel economy, there is no direct injection and the engine itself has been around in various states of tune for some years. Then again, I view these as positive points. It means it is tried and tested and the port injection will more than likely keep certain critical engine internals cleaner (with less maintenance) than a more modern design which only utilises direct injection.

Economy is good in outright terms but not competitive with similar performing, newer technology engines. I also find it quite surprising that the economy does not improve significantly during freeway driving as opposed to suburban driving, though some of this would be attributable to the relatively low gearing. I tend to obtain around 6.9 litres per 100 kms in suburban driving outside of peak times and on the freeway around 6.3 litres per 100 kms.

The steering is improved on this new model, being more communicative with a well chosen ratio. The ride is perhaps one of the vehicle's strongest points, as it copes remarkably well with our terrible NSW roads, being surprisingly comfortable and compliant for what is a relatively small and lightweight car.

The driving and cabin ergonomics have proven to be extremely good in practice. It is easy to find a perfect driving position and all the controls bar the steering mounted cruise control stalk fall easily and intuitively to hand and are well laid out. The seats are extremely comfortable and very supportive.

In terms of overall mechanical noise, vibration and harshness (NVH), the new Corolla scores exceptionally well in my book, being the quietest car I have ever driven in the class in this sort of price range. Even at freeway speeds, the excellent sound system can be easily heard even at very low volume settings, such is the quietness and insulated feel of the cabin.

To the not-so-good points. Notwithstanding the otherwise excellent NVH levels, after only a few months ownership, a number of squeaks and rattles developed inside the vehicle interior. Rather than consign the rectification of these to the dealer (where in my past experience the results are often less than satisfactory), I decided to tackle them myself.

It took me quite a few weekends and a lot of experimentation and testing to rid the car of these foibles and of course it was disappointing that a Japanese car wearing a Toyota badge should have been so afflicted in the first place. In resolving these issues, it seemed clear to me that they were caused by a combination of cost cutting, a lack of attention to certain design aspects and a lack of suitable testing during the vehicle's development phase.

Additionally, I am not impressed with some of the materials and finishes employed in the vehicle interior. For example, the inside of the inner door grab handles, the gear shift bezel and the steering wheel trim are nothing more than extremely thin plastic that is finished with a cheap looking metallic silver paint-like substance.

You only have to scrape a fingernail or key fob on them and the finish is irreparably marred. In fact the vehicle was delivered to me brand new with several scratches already on the silver steering wheel trim. To make matters worse, Toyota refused to rectify this under warranty when mentioned at the first service. I also don't hold out too much hope for the driver's footrest over the long term, as it is nothing more than a thin plastic insert in the carpet itself.

Some items in the car interior, though well finished, are simply poorly designed. For example, the interior dome light switch rattles around as it is simply a lose fit in it's slot. And the rear luggage compact light is completely inaccessible for replacement purposes unless a large amount of interior trim is removed first. The official Toyota service manual states that the first step required to change the light bulb is to remove the rear seats!

One point I must also emphasise is that the base model Ascent does not come with anything remotely approaching adequate tinting on the windows. The car interior heats up markedly when the car is left in a car park as compared to the higher spec models with their "privacy" glass. Furthermore, the effect is extremely noticeable if the sun is shining in directly through the driver's window. It feels exactly like being directly out in the sun. I would thus recommend that you either spend more money to purchase the Ascent Sport or you have the windows tinted on the base model Ascent.

The last complaint I have regarding the vehicle is the noise that the valve lash adjusters make during a cold start (or where the oil has had time to drain away from the cylinder head). I am told by Toyota that the noise has no effect on the durability of the engine, however it is a disconcerting and unpleasant sound to hear each morning and it detracts from the quality of the car - even a $22,000 base model like this.

So far as overall reliability is concerned, there have been no mechanical issues apart from the previously-mentioned noise from the valve lash adjusters that Toyota advises is normal. Given my experiences, however, with the developing squeaks and rattles as well as the quality of materials used in the interior, I do have a concern that the interior will not take kindly to the ravages of use over the long term even if the vehicle remains sound mechanically.

Although I am not having my car serviced by a Toyota dealer, I would still like to comment on the capped price servicing, since in my opinion it comes with a few caveats. Firstly, if you check the servicing schedules, very little actually needs to be done to maintain this car. For the most part routine servicing is restricted to fluid and filter changes accompanied by a few general safety checks and minor adjustments where necessary.

Not a great deal needs to be done at all. It is a far cry from the Corollas of decades ago where a significant number of items required attention on a regular basis. Therefore, it is not as if you are getting some sort of bargain by electing to utilise the capped price servicing. Secondly, the servicing only includes the use of a basic mineral oil. If you want to supply a synthetic oil (or ask the dealer to use one), you will pay the full price of that oil over and above the capped price. Finally, as soon as the capped price servicing schedule runs out (after three years), the servicing schedule conveniently includes a fuel filter change, which is an expensive item (and arguably completely un-necessary, though how many people who take their cars to dealers for servicing will understand this?).

All said and done though, when it comes to scoring this car, it comes down to what I expect for a car that sells for around $22,000 and also how the car compares to the similarly priced competition. No car is perfect, especially in this price range, which is why I still give this car a solid score of 7 out of 10 overall.