Latest Corolla comeback hastens demise of automotive conventionality


As one of the elder statesmen of the oriental fold, reports Iain Robertson, the decades old Corolla is a mass-market badge that has seldom excited but has fitted timely, comfortably and, for Toyota, fruitfully into its world-leading range of models.

For so many years a follower, with abundant fire in its revitalised belly, Toyota is doing its corporate best to lead these days. Yet, even in its most Marmite period, which, for a mainstream, volume producer of motor vehicles, was atrociously bland, Toyota still outsold its rivals by millions. To be frank, I have never truly comprehended the firm’s successes. If Toyota’s customers were right, how wrong could I be?

Most Toyota new car launches were a ‘yawn-fest’ of gargantuan proportions. Having attended many of them over the past 35 years, the number of events that could be described as anything other than tedious were few and very far between. I can recall some, such as the Lotus-enhanced Supra of 1985, or the Celica of 1999; they were special cars. However, the forerunner to the latest Corolla, also known in our market as Auris, was so eminently forgettable that I had all but forgotten that I attended it.

Introduced in 1966, the Corolla name became a world best-seller by 1974. In fact, it marked a special birthday in 1997 by assuming the status of ‘best selling nameplate in the world’, having surpassed the antediluvian VW Beetle’s standing. It is worth highlighting that Corolla and I have history. I acquired one for business purposes in the late-1970s and, again, in the late-1980s. The first was an ‘everyman’ 1.3-litre model, the latter a 1.6GT hatchback. Both were excellent, indefatigably reliable but ultimately unmoving and characterless motorcars. Yet, despite the schtick, I was part of Toyota’s heartland for its most popular model by far. If you leaf back through recent test reports that I have written about its alter ego Auris, you will appreciate that I was able to perceive something in its make-up that was eminently worthy.

The latest five-door Corolla appears to have learnt a lot from Kia, in both styling and several detail terms. It is very good looking and finished beautifully, which is only fair, when you contemplate its sorely increased price tag, in top Excel specification, complete with panoramic glass roof and the 177bhp petrol-electric hybrid engine, at £30,035 (prior to whatever dealer discounts you might be able to wangle; the range start at £8,000 less than that). Built on Toyota’s new TNGA platform, there are only two power units available, both of which are hybrid, with the lower power option being the 119bhp unit (£28,310). Even the scarlet paint job of the test car weighs in at a lofty £795 extra (I’ll have mine without paint, thanks!).

Where the Kia Ceed integrates its components neatly into the cockpit, Toyota has missed a few tricks by scattering items like the bold touchscreen and even the main instrument binnacle ahead of the driver, which creates an unfortunate visual imbalance. Neither of them looks anything other than tossed in as a last resort. Try as I might, I could not get the Toyota’s connectivity to link either with my iPod, or my android mobile, a factor supported by a check into Corolla’s specification, which revealed that it lacks both. A major oversight, it was not a great start to a renewed relationship and bugged me incessantly from first depression of the keyless start button, to the point at which I returned the car.

Yet, driving the Corolla was a revelation. With a multi-adjustable driver’s seat and steering column, the driving position, while perhaps an inch too high, proved to be very comfortable and supportive. The new Corolla gives a good impression of airiness and space, an aspect helped immeasurably by the glass roof, of course, which has an electric roll-back shade and releases some vital additional headroom. The revised 2.0-litre power unit is unquestionably punchy, despatching the 0-60mph standing start in a zesty 8.0s, before topping out at a restricted 112mph, with deference to its tried and trusted hybrid technology.

Naturally, where it scores maximum points is with its outstanding posted frugality of 74.3mpg, while emitting just 86g/km CO2. Of course, the Corolla hybrids, along with their Prius progenitors, are no longer the tax-free delights beloved by the company car sector but the low CO2 equates to lower BIK, which is still a corporate catch. Driving through a new eCVT transmission, it is possible to flex the steering wheel located paddles to simulate a gearbox, with six notable step-off points. However, it is actually better to leave it to its own devices. In its latest form, the engine does not race raucously, as CVTs often demand, but reacts positively to throttle input instead. The psychological benefit is immense, as most similar installations involve the road speed of the car thus equipped playing catch-up with transmission induced ‘revviness’ that is hardly conducive to a perceived desire for the motor to sip fuel.

As far as the rest of the driving experience is concerned, I felt that the Corolla’s ride quality was a little nuggety to begin with but, as familiarity grew with the car, I started to appreciate its firmness, resistance to roll and excellent overall stability. The electrically powered steering is well-weighted and provides decent feedback to the driver’s fingers. Overall, I found much to admire and even to enjoy with the new Toyota Corolla’s dynamics, which are far less numb than before.

The car’s boot space is compromised slightly by the hybrid hardware, creating an unfortunate hump in the floor, when the split-folding rear seats are folded forwards for extra carrying capacity but it remains class competitive. There are innumerable slots and pockets within the cockpit for occupant paraphernalia, as well as charging ports for devices (even if the necessary ones do not link-up).

While donning a sharp new suit will do wonders for Corolla, which does possess strong street presence for the first time in many years, insisting on hybrid power does hint that unsteady registrations in the mainstream hatchback (the Corolla is also available in both estate and saloon guises) may need the electrical jolt. It has taken Toyota no less than 13 years to return Corolla to the new car fray and it is a worthy relaunch, with a car that meets modern day company car demands and exceeds them in some key areas.