My second car was a buzzing, rusting, panel-mismatched 4AGE 1989 Corolla SX. One that I am ashamed to say I drove like a typical boy racer, regularly approaching the 8000rpm redline of its JDM 20-valve engine until a traffic stop, irate HWP officer, and laundry list of defect notices sent it to the scrap yard (no, it was not worth saving).
Since those heady days of night-time 'nasho' drives and V energy drinks, I've gone on to sample every single generation of Corolla since that feted ’89 as they have cycled through the family. I've come to appreciate the honesty of the humble Corolla – a car that fulfills its brief of reliable transport to perfection.
While VW and other makers started to advance the small-medium car game through high-tech transmissions, direct injection and turbocharging, Toyota seemingly sat back with the same platform, same 1.8-litre engine it had introduced in 2001, and an archaic four-speed auto that persisted until 2012. Infuriatingly for enthusiasts who begrudged Toyota's product laziness, they continued to fly out of dealerships.
Yet, away from the rarefied connoisseur communities of automotive enthusiasts and journalists, regular people like my mum and dad appreciated Toyota's softy-softly, reliability-first philosophy. Toyota wasn't going to change anything about the Corolla until it was sure the improvements came at zero cost to reliability. Ford's shenanigans with DCT and Volkswagen's grenading twin-charged Golfs and dry-clutched DSGs have, to some, been proof of the righteousness of Toyota's cautiousness/laziness.
Yet, for someone who appreciates good engineering and driving, not just pure reliability, the Corolla was still the car you'd recommend to family, but not necessarily care to own yourself.
The 2007–2011 Corolla (hatch, particularly) had a plasticky interior. It creaked and looked cheap. The four-speed auto, god bless it, simply didn't offer the city throttle response, refinement or highway cruising ratios that were becoming standard in other small cars. It used too much fuel for a car its size because of it.
Corolla also had poor NVH. Despite putting on 100kg with a more solid body structure in 2007, it sounded like my 1989 SX boy racer when driving on coarse-chip roads – i.e. carpets stripped, back seat out, earplugs in.
Perhaps most infuriatingly, in the switch to electric-assist steering, it had lost what little Jinba ittai it might have had. The steering wandered a few degrees this way and that at highway speed and was way too light at town speeds.
With this penultimate generation of Corolla launched in 2012 (I am excited to sample the latest version that has just been released in Australia), Toyota seems to have addressed most of these gripes, even in the base Ascent version.
Soft-touch plastics and a more solid presentation generally make it feel like a Lexus compared to the previous toddler playset interior. The engine is still too vocal when leaned on, but the CVT does a very good job of keeping RPM low and load relatively high in urban running, improving fuel efficiency.
I had always expected to hate the CVT in the Corolla (and CVTs in any car), but its pairing with a torque converter provides an adequate sense of mechanical connection, with the manual mode's simulated gears working surprisingly well. The responsiveness on throttle tip-in makes it feel significantly more responsive than the previous four-speed with the same engine. Living in a middle-ring Sydney suburb, I'd almost go so far as to say that I'd take it over the manual. A big call from someone who's only owned one auto previously (and regretted it for the whole three years I had it).
Refinement is improved significantly. At an 80km/h steady cruise it feels impervious. At highway speeds it gets louder, but still much better than the previous model.
While retaining EPS, its steering is now pleasingly meaty at urban speeds. It's no MX-5 or 86, but it's not the bland, disconnected 'bleh' of the previous model.
All in all, it's not something that an enthusiast would put at the top of their list, but it's not a car that goes out of its way to frustrate someone who appreciates engineering and driving. As the legion of abused appliance-white rental Corollas plying Sydney's streets attests to, reliability remains a strong suit with these cars.
During the Christmas holidays, I look forward to hiring and reviewing the latest model with its sci-fi looks and new 2.0-litre engine. It sounds like it will build on the improvements made to the 2012-release Corolla.
A Note from the Editor: A stock image has been supplied with this review.