Toyota gambles with new Corolla: bold look and price rises
DO NOT adjust your spectacles. This is the new Toyota Corolla. Best known for boring but dependable cars, the brand is daring to be different with the boldest design yet for Australia's - and the world's - top-selling passenger car.
With more than 45 million sold globally and in excess of 1.4 million on Australian roads, Toyota is taking a gamble messing with such a successful formula. A Corolla is sold somewhere on the planet every 30 seconds.
The 12th-generation Corolla, completely new from the ground up, is part of Toyota's promise to deliver fun-to-drive cars with emotional design, hence the over-the-top styling.
However, this giant leap comes at a cost.
The starting price for a Toyota Corolla automatic has been $22,990 drive-away since early 2017 but the cheapest ticket into a new one with auto is a snip over $27,000 drive-away, a price rise of more than $4000.
Toyota has eliminated the base model Ascent and the range now starts with the Ascent Sport. However, like-for-like, that's still an increase of $3000 because the outgoing Ascent Sport had been $23,990 drive-away for the past 18 months. This puts the new Corolla at the expensive end of the small-car class. Most automatic hatchback rivals have drive-away starting prices in the low-$20,000 bracket.
The Kia Cerato is $19,990 and the Holden Astra starts from $20,990. The Corolla is dearer than the Hyundai i30 ($22,990), Mazda3 ($23,490), Ford Focus ($24,490) and Honda Civic ($24,990).
It's even dearer than the cheapest VW Golf automatic ($26,490 drive-away).
Toyota head of sales and marketing Sean Hanley says: "We're confident buyers will see the value in the new generation Corolla."
The value he refers to is the amount of standard equipment in Corolla, which is more than its rivals. Some of the tech is class-leading for a base model.
Each of the three grades - Ascent Sport, SX and ZR - has a hybrid option.
All come standard with autonomous emergency braking, radar cruise control, speed-sign recognition camera and lane-keeping assistance, the latter not very good at detecting line markings.
During our preview test drive it zigzagged in the lane and more often than not didn't detect the edge of the lane or the road - it's one of the less convincing executions of this technology.
Conspicuously absent are Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The smartphone mirroring apps now on most rivals are available on the new Corolla in the US but Toyota won't say exactly when the tech will come to Australia - it can't be retrofitted.
In part to compensate, all new Corollas come with a massive central touchscreen that's one of the largest among its peers. The screen also gains volume and tuning knobs and a handful of buttons to make it easy to operate on bumpy roads.
The instrument cluster now has a digital speed display; higher grades have a digital readout reflected on to the windscreen, a classier and clearer head-up image than in other brands that reflect info into a small plastic shield that pops out of the dash.
Interior quality and presentation take a step up, with soft-touch materials on the dash (although not the doors) and new seat designs.
Toyota has scrimped on some of the basics in the base model, with only one USB charge point and 12V socket in the cabin. Dearer models get multiple ports and rear air vents.
The new design looks bold inside and out but it comes at another cost: space. The back seat is squeeze and the rear doors don't even have pockets, only a small drink holder each.
Headroom in the new model is generous but the previous model had more kneeroom. Toyota deserves kudos for maintaining a full-size spare in the base model - and leaving space for one in the SX if customers want to add it.
That means the boot is small even by class standards, though, with just 217L of space. Most rivals are in the 350L-380L bracket. Without a spare the space is 333L.
As the new Corolla is longer and wider than the previous model, its smaller interior is a puzzle. Chief engineer Yasushi Ueda explains the extended wheelbase was designed to improve the positioning of the driver, rather than add space.
"I understand some space is required (for the rear seat) but for Corolla hatchback … we wanted to put the driver in the ideal position."
He says the smaller boot capacity is the result of Australians' preference for a full-size spare and Toyota's desire for a sleeker body design and "low centre of gravity for sporty driving".
ON THE ROAD
The powerful new 2.0-litre finally brings the Corolla up to speed with its rivals. And it can still run on regular unleaded - including the hybrid, which previously demanded premium.
An ingenious "launch gear" on the continuously variable transmission helps get off the mark briskly and without the drone that blunts most CVTs.
It's one of the better CVTs available; fans of regular automatics may even approve.
It has more than enough oomph for around town but if you drive it like a rental car you'll certainly hear the engine trying hard. It's not the noisiest in its class but nor is it the quietest.
If you prefer a serene machine the hybrid could be the better option, available for a modest $1500 premium over the equivalent petrol model.
It has a less powerful electric motor than before but acceleration seems about the same. On our brief test it seemed to spend a little more time in electric mode, even though the battery is the same nickel-metal hydride unit.
The new suspension does a decent job of dealing with bumps and thumps. Its control in lumpy bends is up there with the class best.
To better handle more mundane driving - such as negotiating roundabouts - the steering is smoother and more linear.
More sure-footed than before, the sporty ZR corners with confidence on sticky, low-profile tyres.
The biggest disappointment is the choice of tyre on the base model. As with many brands, Toyota has fitted low-friction eco tyres to improve fuel economy.
There's a trade-off, unfortunately: grip. On our test drive, the tyres squealed prematurely even though we weren't trying to provoke them.
Toyota is about to discover whether buyers prefer style over space.
PRICE The cheapest ticket into the new auto is $27,000 drive-away - for the past 18 months, the starting price for a Corolla auto has been $22,990 drive-away. Toyota has dropped the base model.
TECH All grades come with autonomous emergency braking, radar cruise control, speed sign recognition, lane-keeping assistance and rear-view camera. Still no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto.
PERFORMANCE The 2.0-litre replacement for the 1.8 has substantially more power yet roughly the same thirst for regular unleaded. The hybrid's carry-over 1.8 is now paired with a 53kW/163Nm electric motor, down from 60kW/207Nm, and it's slightly thirstier due to extra weight.
DRIVING The CVT in the 2.0 has a launch gear to eliminate much of the typical drone. Most grades come with paddle-shifters to select from the 10 ratios.
DESIGN The first completely new Corolla since 2012 is longer, wider and sleeker. The exterior design is more daring and the underpinnings are completely new, with a larger footprint for better roadholding.
TOYOTA COROLLA HATCH
PRICE $27,000-$35,000 drive-away (expensive)
WARRANTY/SERVICE 3 yrs/100,000km (below avg), $525 over 3 yrs (excellent)
ENGINE 2.0-litre 4-cyl, 125kW/200Nm (plenty), 1.8-litre 4-cyl hybrid, 90kW (underdone)
SAFETY 7 airbags, AEB, radar cruise control, lane-keep assist (excellent)
THIRST 6.0L/100km (OK), hybrid 4.2L (very good)
SPARE Full-size (base model), space-saver or none (not ideal)
BOOT 217L/929L (smallest in class)