Revision, not revolution

Cast your mind back to an exciting Toyota Corolla. With the possible exception of the decidedly rear-drive AE86 (the fastback version of which was the original starter car in Gran Turismo), it’s likely to prove almost impossible.

The Corolla has always been more about undiluted sensibleness than any form of emotional attachment – not a situation set to change with the launch of another new iteration. Or, more precisely, a mild revision of the current ninth-generation car.

Corolla is already, statistically, the most successful car the world has yet seen. The running total of cars wearing the Corolla and (effectively interchangeable) Corona badge has reached almost 29 million since 1966, with 1.2 million being added every year. Three have been sold since you started reading this story.

Toyota is on a corporate roll, too, making vast piles of money as other manufacturers sob into their red balance sheets. You’d be hard pressed to argue that the Corolla is not already exactly the car it needs to be. Okay, it’s not on a par with the Golf for brand kudos, or the Focus for B-road appeal. But as an ownership proposition, especially for private buyers, it’s pretty near spot on. In Blighty it appeals strongly to more mature types, with a healthy 26,000 units moved last year.

All of which goes some way to explaining the distinctly non-radical nature of the alterations that the Corolla has just undergone. Boats are not being rocked, horses are not being startled. Styling has been subtly tweaked, equipment levels tinkered with and a new diesel engine introduced.

The Corolla’s face has been lifted by a larger Toyota badge taking up a bigger chunk of the grille. This has necessitated a bit of a nose-job, with the bonnet reformed with a corresponding hump. Headlights are bigger and supposedly brighter, and in the manner of every facelift since the 1887 model year Daimler there are new bumpers. The range-topping T Sport model now comes with some more aggressive bodywork addenda, as does the newly sportified T3 spec level.

Under the moderately modified metalwork, the T Sport has also been respannered in response to criticism of the mismatch between the original’s hardcore engine and soft-core chassis. The motor remains as before – 1.8 litres with variable valve-timing that kicks in at 6200rpm, revving out at a buzzy 8200rpm red line.

But the chassis has been revised, with 20mm chopped from the ride height, and firmer dampers all round. There’s even a strut brace lurking under the bonnet, and the steering has been sharpened, with 3.2 turns lock-to-lock instead of 3.5.

But within a couple of corners it’s clear that the Corolla is still a way off rivals like the Honda Civic Type-R or Renaultsport Mégane 225 in terms of chassis response. There’s a surprising amount of roll in corners and the steering, although accurate, can’t get much information past the electric power assistance. And the infuriating gaps between the ratios of the six-speed ’box that affected the first car remain.

In second, you have to change up within just 50rpm of the red line to drop back inside the cam in third, and at anything below 4000rpm the engine languishes in a torque-free hinterland where even superminis have a fair chance of outdragging you.

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The cabin remains mostly unchanged, although a few mods have crept in. The steering wheel now adjusts for reach as well as rake, all versions come with air-con and even the base-model has ‘Optitron’ Lexus-style instruments (illuminated needles and dials that seem to hang against a black background.) The T Sport has white-faced dials and some carbonfibre effect trimmings.

Perhaps the most interesting news for UK Corolla fans is a new diesel engine, a heavily revised version of the Yaris’s 1.4-litre D4-D engine. Capacity remains the same, but the addition of a variable-nozzle turbocharger and a more forceful ECU pushes power up to 89bhp, which is identical to the old low-spec 2.0-litre engine, although the relatively anaemic 140lb ft of torque is 19lb ft less than before.

But performance is almost unchanged, it’s Euro4 emissions compliant, and economy has improved from 49.6mpg to 57.6mpg.

And it feels good on the road; torquey, responsive and far less thrummy than the old 2.0-litre lump. It goes very nicely, too, with a broad range of surgey torque available from 1500rpm onwards, in pleasant contrast to the increasingly peaky power delivery of some higher-powered new diesels. The gearshift also feels great – accurate and light, although there are only five speeds, meaning relatively busy motorway cruising (by oil-burning standards), with 3000rpm showing at 80mph.

On the corners of the test route the D4-D quickly proved to handle far better than previous Corolla diesels; the new engine weighs 72 kg less than the old one, translating into a spirited resistance to understeer and a compliant front-end ride, although the steering is too springy and lacks feel. It’s far more fun to push hard down a winding road than you would ever expect a Corolla diesel to be.

The Corolla range has always made more sense at the bottom end than at the top, a case reinforced by the latest package of modifications. It’s an unradical car from an unradical company – but looking at the fat corporate profits and legions of satisfied customers you would have to say that’s exactly the way it should be.

Mike Duff

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