Owner Review

2018 Toyota Corolla Ascent Sport Hybrid review: The rental

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I hired a Toyota Corolla GX Hybrid in New Zealand for 8 days. This car is the same spec as an Australian-delivered Ascent Sport Hybrid with the addition of standard sat-nav and DAB. I drove this car all over the South Island of NZ and did nearly 2700km in total.

I enjoy researching new cars and I specifically chose this make and model to hire as I wanted to try out the new hybrid powertrain and advanced technology this model offers. Also as fuel in NZ is around $2.25 per litre it seemed like a logical choice with the promised saving in fuel usage.

It was raining and nearly midnight when I picked the car up at Christchurch airport. My initial impressions were of how quiet the car was and how you could hardly tell if the engine was running or not. I will set out below my impressions on the various aspects of the Hybrid Corolla and what I liked and didn't like about it.

Packaging, design and interior etc:

I like the exterior and interior design of this latest Corolla. It's quite a sharp looking car with the angular headlights and snazzy LED lighting front and rear. I quite like the large tablet infotainment screen, and found it didn't block my view of the road at all. The front seats were very supportive and comfortable. After driving for hours each day I never got cramped legs or a sore back. The seat and steering wheel is quite adjustable but I would have liked the steering wheel to go a bit higher. The seating position is a bit sporty in a way as you feel like the car is pretty low to the ground.

The controls and dials all feel very well made and the instruments are easy to read. This car only has the 4.2-inch digital display in the dash but works well, and I really liked the large digital speedo. I never actually used the analogue speedo unless the digital speedo disappeared while the car was showing me directions or some other information. One thing I did find annoying was when the fuel was getting low and there was about 100 kilometres of range left, there was a message on the 4.2-inch display advising you of this dire emergency and it wouldn't let you override it until you refuelled. Hence no digital speedo or other navigation info until you gave the car a much needed drink!

Safety and technology etc:

This is the most modern car I've driven in years and it's amazing how far even mainstream cars have come with driving aids, safety and technology. I must admit after living with the Corolla for 8 days I wouldn't now buy a new car without all the features this car has as standard. The adaptive cruise control was really useful on highways and in suburban traffic situations. It was quite accurate in these urban settings and would bring the car to a complete stop before taking off again after pressing the resume button on the steering wheel. It was less effective on winding country roads though. I found it would let the car in front get away too far and then it would speed up too fast around bends to try and catch up. It's probably not designed for twisty roads anyway.

The lane assist was quite handy on long stretches of country highways and freeways. It will gently nudge the steering wheel to guide the car so that it stays within the lines. Being the noob that I am, I actually thought there was something wrong with the wheel alignment when I first drove the car with the lane keep feature on. I was like, why the fudge is the steering wheel tugging like this?! Thankfully, once I played with the myriad menus in the dash I soon figured it out!

The speed sign recognition also worked very well and would always tell me what the posted speed limit was. Only once or twice was it fooled by reading a side street or off-ramp instead of the correct speed sign. Pretty impressive really. The Bluetooth paired quite quickly to my Android phone. The infotainment system is quite good with a large 8-inch screen and a lot of real shortcut buttons and a real volume knob, unlike some other modern cars. The only glaring omission is the lack of Android Auto or Apple CarPlay but they are coming soon to our market, apparently.

The adaptive high beam lights for night driving worked a treat too. However there wasn't really much difference in brightness with the high beams on. This model didn't have fog lights but they might have come in handy on the dark and foggy roads in NZ.

Drivetrain and handling etc:

I must admit I wasn't expecting much from this car, seeing as it only has 90kW on offer and is designed for economy and not performance. With this in mind I was pleasantly surprised by how peppy this car is to drive, especially around town. It's quite quick off the mark from a standstill and generally has a darty feel to how it drives. It's definitely no sports car but it has enough power for city and suburban driving.

I left the car in ECO mode for 90 per cent of my trip in order to save fuel, but when I did try the power mode it didn't make any difference while driving at speed on the highway and only seemed to give more instant accelerator response around town from a standstill. I tried the EV mode around town as well, and it became a bit of a game to see how long I could get the car to run on electric power only before the engine cut back in. While running in ECO mode the transition from electric to engine power was seamless and only the little icon in the dash and the tacho needle dropping to zero would let me know the engine had cut out.

I quite liked selecting B on the transmission for extra engine braking while driving on the many steep and winding mountain roads NZ has. This also recharges the battery faster to allow for more EV driving later. Being a CVT auto I wasn't expecting much in the way of refinement but I was pleasantly surprised by how good this transmission was. I really only noticed excessive droning from the car during hard acceleration for overtaking manoeuvres.

The car is quieter and more refined than the 2014 Corolla we had as a work car. It handles very well and stays pretty flat in the corners, yet the ride remains very supple and comfortable. The only real gripe was the amount of road noise from coarse chip road surfaces. Perhaps it's the tyres or maybe the car needs a bit more sound insulation. It never became too loud but it was noticeable.

Fuel economy:

Perhaps this part is the whole point of this review. Would you really ever buy a hybrid car if you didn't want good fuel economy? I averaged 4.8 litres per 100 kilometres while I had this car. As stated earlier, I did nearly 2700km in total over 8 days. About a third was city and urban driving and two-thirds was country highways and mountain roads. I left the car in ECO mode for most of the time and only dabbled with the power mode and pure EV modes in town.

I didn't always go easy on the accelerator either. I enjoyed putting my foot down and getting all I could out the excellent chassis on some of the lovely twisty roads NZ has to offer. At other times I was happy to cruise along at 100km/h with the adaptive cruise and lane keeping aids set. I was very surprised by the excellent fuel economy. I think it's worth it over the regular atmo engine for an extra $1500 considering the higher resale you would also enjoy. I would like to drive the 2.0-litre petrol to see if it's any more enjoyable to drive but I've read reviews that indicate it gets around 8L/100km in the real world for fuel use. So if you're after fuel economy then the hybrid is no brainer.

I was sad to hand the car back, as I'd come to enjoy it's mix of technology, darty handling, driving aids, good looks and fuel economy. Would I consider buying one? Definitely. My perfect Corolla would be a ZR Hybrid with all the fruit and those gorgeous 18 inch alloy wheels. However, I'd probably wait for the sedan version as it might be more practical with the boot and rear seat space.

Improvements for a future model? How about giving us poor Aussies the 2.0-litre hybrid on offer in Europe with its better performance. Plus the estate/wagon version sold in Europe would be a real winner here. The Australian spec car also needs parking sensors and park assist features that are available in European spec cars, along with rain-sensing wipers - a glaring omission considering how high tech this car is. Plus the lighter coloured interior trim offered in the US and Europe looks a lot nicer than the drab black that we get here.

The only other thing I'd want is the option of a sunroof in the ZR model. Otherwise, I think this car is almost perfect. The Corolla is a car that you usually buy with your head for the solid reputation for reliability and resale value, but now with the latest Corolla can you also buy one with your heart as well as your head? Maybe I can have my cake and eat it!