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A rebranded version of the world’s best-selling nameplate prepares for its UK return
14 February 2019

What is it?

These days there are reasons to be cheerful if you want a family hatchback without paying a ‘made in Germany’ premium. I don’t want to spoil the surprise too much, but take a look at next week’s road test and you’ll learn Ford’s latest Focus has rediscovered the dynamic sparkle that made the original so special.

Kia’s Ceed, built on a new platform and now with a fully independent rear axle, can’t match that level of dynamism but handles with a precision and honesty that will jolt anybody whose perception of the brand is more than a couple of years out of date. There is then the pebble-like form of Mazda’s new 3, which promises to drive almost as lithely as it looks.

Toyota would have you add the new Corolla to that list. Confused? Don’t be. That name hasn’t been seen in this country for more than 10 years, but the sharp-edged hatchback before you (along with its estate and saloon derivatives) is essentially a direct replacement for Toyota’s ultra-pragmatic but slow-selling Auris. And it is a model of monumental significance for the brand – a revival of the world’s top-selling nameplate, at least in Europe, where the competition is fiercer and the standards higher than anywhere else in the world.

The rebrand reflects the fact that much has now changed, not least the underpinnings. Toyota’s New Global Architecture platform sits the powertrain 10mm lower for a commensurate drop in the car’s centre of gravity and improved handling. The structure of this 12th-generation Corolla (born in 1966, the saloon original predates the Golf by some eight years) is now 60% stiffer than the old one, and independent rear suspension is now standard. The geometry of the MacPherson struts at the front axle has also been realigned to deliver more communicative steering, all of which sounds promising.

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Looks are, as ever, subjective, but if the Auris was blandly handsome then in the metal the Corolla is just handsome. Its bottom might jut out in the manner of the old Renault Mégane, but sitting 40mm longer, 30mm wider but 25mm shorter than its forebear – and with smaller overhangs – the proportions are there. A Focus has a considerably longer wheelbase and a Golf more head room, but if you can forgive the Toyota its false exhaust tips, it’s the more distinctive car.

At launch, Toyota will offer a 112bhp 1.2-litre turbo petrol engine along with two versions of its Atkinson-cycle hybrid powertrains, which Toyota expects to account for almost nine in every 10 sales. The 1.8-litre VVTi is identical to what you’ll find in the Prius, in fact, and with a combined WLTP economy of up to 65.9mpg but only 120bhp from electric motor and petrol engine combined, its priorities are clear. The 2.0-litre powertrain driven here blurs the lines a bit. With 178bhp and a 0-62mph time of 7.9sec, it’s quicker than either the equivalent Honda Civic or Ford Focus, but remains an economy-focused device, with CO2 emissions of just 89g/km and a spec-sheet claim of more than 60mpg.

What's it like?

Predictably, our car is in Excel guise – the top of four trim levels, and in this case augmented with an optional panoramic roof and a two-tone paint finish (though the upper portion seems more like a wrap). Lesser models get smaller wheels than these 18in two-tone items and go without privacy glass and electric door mirrors, though all come with LED headlights and body-coloured bumpers. Certainly, sat side by side, the difference won’t be night and day.

It’s a similar story inside. Though we’re yet to get a sniff of the Corolla in its most basic Icon form, apart from swapping the 7in display in the instrument binnacle for one of 4.2in, the interior is unlikely to differ dramatically from what you see here, which is a very good thing. The transmission tunnel is higher and wider than before but everything else is neater and simpler, with a sculpted dash and consistent use of piano-black plastic and chrome-plated plastics. The stitched false leather won’t fool anyone but it doesn’t feel at all cheap, and all the touchpoints are reassuringly plush. Toyota has also slimmed the A-pillars, dropped the scuttle and moved the side mirrors onto the doors to allow for quarter-light windows and for better visibility. Boot space is limited, mind. At 316 litres with the rear seat-backs in place (the 1.2 petrol and 1.8 hybrid have 361 litres) it’s at the smaller end of the class, and would struggle to take more than a few decent-sized duffle bags.

So the Corolla’s cabin doesn’t scream opulence but it betters a Focus for both character and quality, and is far from being shown up by more premium rivals. At the behest of owners, the Auris’s stubby gearshift has also been replaced by something more substantial. Pull it into D and the Corolla steps off the mark in almost total silence, the electric motor mounted within its transaxle taking the strain.

In the 2.0-litre model, both that motor and the car’s solitary gear are larger, allowing for electric-only cruising at speeds of up to 70mph, and the car’s regenerative braking potential is also greater. This first drive in rural Majorca is more a chance for us to explore the car’s dynamics, however. And straight away, the most surprising element is how naturally the Corolla steers, the low nose changing course with unexpected precision, and genuine feel through the thin, leather-clad rim.

An Eco mode ups the electrical assistance while Sport diminishes it, but the action is always linear and nicely damped. It sits at the sharp end of the class. As does this chassis, we’re pleased to report. On roads this smooth, there’s only so much you can learn about a car’s ride quality, though on this evidence the Corolla ought to do well back on the country roads around Burnaston in Derbyshire, where it is built.

What rough surfaces and potholes we do find are easily dealt with, and on its passive suspension set-up (adaptive dampers are an option), body movements are probably as closely controlled as Toyota dares permit without compromising pliancy. It’s a good balance – possibly a great one – and even better is the fact this new Corolla can be pleasingly mischievous. The front axle grips well enough for the tail to tidily slide wide if prompted. It’s doubtful an Auris driver would enjoy such a thing, but a Corolla owner? They might do.

As for the engine, it’s a known quantity – one capable of supreme refinement at a cruise but ultimately a blunt tool with which to cajole such an adept chassis. Toyota has suppressed the engine response to throttle inputs and put the initial burden onto this more powerful electric motor. In fairness, it’s a good trick, the single-speed transaxle now matching engine speed with acceleration more convincingly than ever, but the car still seems to flounder when you least need it to. Performance is probably as quick as the claims, though it never feels it, and the lack of control irks.

Should I buy one?

Ultimately, this hybrid powertrain – in either form, but particularly in the case of the more powerful 2.0-litre version – is a double-edged sword. Real-world fuel economy may well prove class-leading when we test the Corolla more thoroughly, and if that is your priority, then the rolling refinement, interior ambience (clumsy infotainment notwithstanding) and affable handling all add up to something quite special.

But equally, such a confident chassis and some sharp styling deserve a much more engaging motor. If you love driving, the virtues above are unlikely to make up for lifeless brakes corrupted by regenerative duties and only modest performance meted out blandly. As a warm hatch to rival the likes of Ford’s Focus ST-Line X, the Toyota therefore falls short.

For now, let’s settle on four stars and recognise that the reborn Corolla offers its driver far more than the Auris ever did, and much more besides. And if ever Toyota decides this new hatch needs a halo model, I’m sure the good people at Gazoo Racing Meister of Nürburgring will happily oblige. 

Toyota Corolla specification

Where Majorca, Spain Price £27,345 On sale Now Engine 4 cyls, 1987cc, petrol, plus electric motor Power 178bhp at 6000rpm Torque 140lb ft at 4400-5200rpm Gearbox Single-speed transaxle Kerb weight 1340kg Top speed 112mph 0-62mph 7.9sec Fuel economy 50.4-60.6mpg (WLTP) CO2 89g/km Rivals Ford Focus ST-Line X, Honda Civic 1.5

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Comments
15

14 February 2019

Great for CoCar drivers, but for the rest of us, it sounds like its crying out for a more powerful manual equiped engine and gearbox. 

14 February 2019
artill wrote:

Great for CoCar drivers, but for the rest of us, it sounds like its crying out for a more powerful manual equiped engine and gearbox. 

 

Sure. But you could buy this + a used Boxster for the same price as a Merc A35 in a nice spec. And the Porsche would give far more driving thrills.

14 February 2019

It's actually £29,000.   Makes it that little bit duller imho.

typos1 - Just can’t respect opinion

14 February 2019

I don't think this has any such pretentions.

 

 

14 February 2019

Nice looking car. UK made and a way to get the hybrid benefits without looking like an Uber driver :-)

14 February 2019

To gain 4 stars from Autocar, I think we can conclude this car is pretty dammed good. It certainly looks more efficient than anything else in its class with a petrol engine, at least until the new Mazda 3 arrives.

But I think the description of "single speed transaxle" is wrong. Unless Toyota has completely changed its hybrid arrangement, this will have what's termed an e-CVT. So like other Toyotas, it will have continuously variable gearing adjusted automatically to suit differing speed and load conditions. This is a big plus for me, though I'm sure that it will not please others who prefer the imperfect steps of more conventional transmissions...

14 February 2019

It's the same arrangement Toyota has used (and licenced) for many years so yes, a CVT. I think though that (having looked it up) explaining how this works is way beyond Autocar's pay grade and I think way beyond what most readers would want to read about  too. Just saying it's a CVT is enough for most.

14 February 2019

As a private buy it has a lot to recommend it - particularly the 5 year warranty and likely diesel matching economy without the emissions.  These hybrids are particularly good if you have a stop start commute.   My Dad runs the previous Auris tourer, and its a good and refined quality machine - better than reputed.   This one is also good looking and seems to have inherited a bit more GT86 DNA in the driving experience.

For a family car those benefits seem sufficient to offset the reservations re the hybrid powertrain (which I've always found gets better with familiarity)

14 February 2019

Not that Toyota will thank me...  but where Toyota and Hyundai etc really win, is you can buy a two year old example and still have 3 years of hassle free under-warranty motoring.   Still want that brand new Golf?

15 February 2019
...same applies to KIA, only after 2 years you still have 5 years warranty left. As you say, still want that brand new Golf? After all it is a Faultswagen.

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