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Is this excitement we’re feeling? About the world’s best-selling car? With six months behind the wheel to come, yes, it really is

Our Verdict

Toyota Corolla hybrid hatchback 2019 road test review - hero front

Toyota's new British built hatchback sees the world’s best-selling nameplate return as a rebranded hybrid hatchback

James Attwood, digital editor
5 February 2020
Toyota Corolla 2020 long-term

Why we’re running it: To find out if the reborn, revamped Corolla can cut it with the best in the hugely competitive family car class

Month 3Month 2Month 1 - Specs

Life with a Toyota Corolla: Month 3

Weekend in the city reveals super strengths – and clear flaws - 29th January 2020

January is the longest, poorest and dreariest month of the year, so you have to make your own fun to help the time pass by that bit quicker. Fortunately, our Toyota Corolla has taught me one of the cheapest and most addictive games I’ve ever played with a car.

The hatchback’s ‘self-charging’ hybrid powertrain shuts down its 2.0-litre petrol engine provided there’s enough charge in the battery (generated during deceleration and braking) and you’re gentle enough with the accelerator, leaving you with 107bhp of electrickery to play with.

Once accustomed to this, I spent the weekend engaged in a fight to keep the speedometer’s little green EV icon illuminated and the rev counter showing a pleasing 0rpm. It was addictive, albeit more so for economical rather than ecological reasons following the festive break.

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My best electric-only speed so far is 26mph (no mean feat inside the M25), and I’ve done the length of my local high street without so much as a puff from the exhaust. I averaged 46.7mpg over a weekend’s driving in mostly quite heavy traffic – far better than I managed in similar conditions with our Mazda 3, suggesting that car’s Skyactiv-X compression ignition technology has a way to go before it can tempt buyers away from hybrids.

It’s no wonder that seemingly every fifth car in London is a Corolla or a Prius: there’s no disputing that this system’s split personality can save a cabbie hundreds a year in fuel costs. It’s not all silence and swiftness, however, because the serenity of the electric ride is highlighted by the contrasting coarseness of the engine when it cuts in. It’s more noticeable from cold, but an idle speed of around 1700rpm has a tendency to grate during lengthy stops at traffic lights.

You also have to contend with the droning e-CVT gearbox, which is cleverer and more compact than a conventional automatic but clashes harshly with the Corolla’s soft primary ride and linear acceleration. The engine’s relative punchiness does go some way to abating my guilt for occasionally reverting to internal combustion. There’s plenty of low-end torque to play with, and I reckon it could keep the average driving enthusiast occupied for longer than the Corolla’s focus on practicality and eco-mindedness would suggest.

Credit must also go to the nicely weighted steering, which inspires absolute confidence at low speeds and helps with avoiding potholes. The perfect urban car, then? Not quite. The infotainment system is counterintuitive to the point of being infuriating. Aside from the fact that the touchscreen is angled away from the driver, the interface is clunky and it takes far too long to input addresses and access different keyboards.

Happily, the interior is otherwise a lovely place to pass time. Visibility is excellent, thanks to the low window line and high roof, while the front seats are well bolstered, comfortably shaped and fantastically heated, if you so wish (I always do).

There was one seating issue, mind: even with the rear bench folded flat, the armchair I bought online couldn’t be squeezed into the boot – although that says a lot more about my terrible judgment of size than it does the car.

Felix Page

Love it:

Power surges Temporary electric propulsion comes as a sweet relief in town.

Loathe it:

Infotainment Difficult to reach and to read, the touchscreen can be very irritating.

Mileage: 5400

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Petrol, not battery power, when the temperature drops - 8th January 2019

Winter weather is not a Corolla’s friend. Cold morning starts are now commonly met with the gentle grumble of the petrol engine, rather than silent electric gliding – and the reversing camera can be rendered largely useless by even a bit of grime. Still, a gunked-up camera persuaded me to head to the car wash. The results (above) are worth it.

Mileage: 5074

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Familiarity breeds content in the easy-going Corolla – apart from a few niggles - 2nd January 2019

The Corolla has become an understated star of the Autocar fleet. It’s far from the grandest or flashiest machine in our car park, but its relaxing and efficient demeanour makes it an easy car to spend time in and it has become a popular choice for long motorway journeys.

Interestingly, it seems we’re not alone. Since running the Corolla, I’ve heard from two readers who picked one to replace diesel-powered BMWs (a 520d and 320d Touring). Both admitted that going from a BMW to a Toyota might seem a strange move, but they were high-mileage drivers drawn in by reduced company car tax (due to lower emissions) and lower potential running costs.

Winning over owners of premium-badged cars demonstrates the success of the Corolla – but it also shows the sort of machines that it might be judged against. And while our overwhelming impression is one of quiet contentment with the car, it did make me think about some of the minor irritations and foibles that have emerged as the miles have racked up. So, in the spirit of clearing the air for the new year, this seems like a good time to run through them.

One of the best bits of our Corolla is the latest version of Toyota’s hybrid powertrain, which uses a 2.0-litre petrol engine. It’s great, a step forward from the 1.8 version used in the Prius (and also available in the Corolla) and a really refined, economical powertrain… but there’s a catch: having that bigger engine means there’s less room in the boot.

In the 1.8, the battery used to store energy for the hybrid unit sits with the engine under the bonnet. But because the 2.0 engine is physically bigger, the battery simply doesn’t fit. So Toyota has put it in a space usually used for the boot. That means the boot has a raised floor and reduced space, with 313 litres of storage to the 361 litres of the smaller hybrid.

There’s still a decent amount of storage space but it does mean the Corolla is lacking compared with class rivals and those who often lug large loads might struggle a bit. The raised floor also makes it frustratingly shallow, as I discovered recently when attempting to stack several boxes of academic journals and paperwork (long story).

Although smaller boots are common on some plug-in hybrid variants, the trade-off with those is the electric-only running and extra economy. There’s no such reward for the compromise with the Corolla. The other source of our frustration is the Corolla’s infotainment system.

It’s not terrible, but it features a number of minor interface niggles that add up. One example: you can store only six radio presets. If you then opt to scroll through the available DAB stations, they appear in a random and often changing order.

Another frustrating design flaw is found when typing postcodes into the navigation system. For some reason, numbers are on a separate ‘keyboard’, which can be found only by going through a sub-menu. Thankfully, I spend more time listening to podcasts than the radio, although the Bluetooth interface is also somewhat frustrating.

I’ve experienced similar irritations with other firms’ infotainment systems, but with those, I’ve been able to plug in my phone and use Apple CarPlay, which offers an improved and more intuitive experience. Except CarPlay doesn’t work on my Corolla’s infotainment, so I’m stuck with Toyota’s system. The good news is that new Corolla models are now being sold with an updated infotainment that is compatible with Apple CarPlay. Hopefully, the update will be offered to current Corolla owners.

Still, the fact that Toyota has upgraded its infotainment system should be welcomed, a positive sign it is refining the edges of the Corolla where it can. That will be key to ensuring it can keep new buyers used to cars with more upmarket badges on board – and in a state of quiet, understated contentment.

Love it:

Easy steering Handling isn’t the sportiest but it’s consistent and pleasingly effortless to position the car on the road.

Loathe it:

Reversing camera Useful but prone to getting dirty very quickly in winter weather.

Mileage: 4843

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Life with a Toyota Corolla: Month 2

Comfort trumps fancy features - 4th December 2019

There’s seemingly nothing particularly special about the Corolla’s seats. They’re not performance-honed buckets, or swathed in leather. They do offer a heating function but, mostly, appear to be really quite ordinary. So why do I mention the Corolla’s seats? Simple: they’re exceptionally comfy, without being overly fancy. Bit like the Corolla as a whole, really.

Mileage: 3892

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UK Corolla versus Texan one: Houston, do we have a problem? - 20th November 2019

My hire car booking contained that familiar clause: Toyota Corolla or similar. To hire car firms, the term ‘similar’ is often applied in only the loosest of contexts – so it was a surprise when I arrived at Houston George Bush Intercontinental Airport’s rental car centre and was given the keys to a new Toyota Corolla.

Clearly, a locally produced Toyota Tundra (sold in state bearing a sticker reading ‘built in Texas, built by Texans’) would have been more regionally appropriate, but my rental did turn a weekend stopover to visit family in Texas into an impromptu comparison between a purely combustion-engined Corolla and the hybrid version I’ve been running.

Besides the powertrain, there were obvious differences between the two Toyotas. ‘My’ Corolla is a hatch in well-equipped Excel trim, arriving on our fleet fresh from the factory. The Texas Corolla was a US-market ‘sedan’ with just under 10,000 miles racked up by likely not very careful non-owners. It also came in classic minimal-option hire-car spec, with the most basic upholstery and several functions disabled. (For example, pressing the ‘map’ button was simply rewarded by a message saying ‘map app not installed’.)

As with many global cars, the Corolla is tuned for the different demands of each region, which meant the power steering was much lighter on the US version and the suspension far softer. Even so, the quality of Toyota’s latest TNGA architecture shone through: the US Corolla remained a light, nimble, easy drive and placing it on the road was a cinch. Undoubtedly, my European Corolla definitely rides and handles a bit better but the difference wasn’t the gulf you might expect – and much of it was likely down to the higher quality of British roads compared with Texas’s cracked and bumpy sun-baked concrete highways.

But the most fascinating comparison was the powertrain. The US Corolla’s 1.8-litre petrol engine wasn’t bad by hire car standards, but compared with the smooth 2.0-litre petrol-electric hybrid I’ve been living with, it was annoyingly gruff and asthmatic, especially under low-speed acceleration. Asking for a sudden burst of speed was often met with more noise than response and I didn’t realise how accustomed I’ve become to silent, electric-only coasting when lifting off the accelerator.

It also makes a huge difference to fuel economy, which was particularly obvious because the driver display screen in both versions features the same ‘eco driving’ graphic, showing current and long-term fuel economy. I’m used to extracting around 50mpg from my hybrid Corolla, with the ability to obtain close to 500 miles from a tank of petrol. But in the Texan Corolla, I could manage only 39.2mpg (imperial, not US).

Of course, petrol is substantially cheaper in Texas than in the UK – how does 61 pence per litre sound to you? – which offsets that reduced economy. But just imagine how cost-effective a hybrid Corolla (which has now been launched in the US) would be to run in Texas. It would leave a lot of spending cash for BBQs.

Cost aside, the Corolla’s hybrid engine is just substantially nicer to run and greatly adds to the pleasure of driving it: the difference was big enough that it didn’t really feel like the same car – but merely something similar to it. Perhaps when the hire car firm wrote ‘Toyota Corolla or similar’, they were onto something…

Love it:

Heated seats Not needed on Texan hire car, very useful for cold British mornings.

Loathe it:

Infotainment Lack of Apple CarPlay compatibility is irritating on both sides of the Atlantic.

Mileage: 3628

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A lesson in a light left foot - 6th November 2019

I was feeling pleased to have edged the Corolla’s average fuel economy to an indicated 50.9mpg. Then Steve Cropley racked up more than 500 miles on a long weekend – and returned it with the car showing 56.6mpg. Having thought I was using the hybrid powertrain efficiently, I’ve been left seeking tips from Autocar’s resident hypermiler-in-chief.

Mileage: 2487

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Life with a Toyota Corolla: Month 1

It offers an intoxicating hit of hybrid power, without the challenges of EV addiction - 16th October 2019

Self-charging hybrid. It is, at face value, an innocuous phrase. Yet in the electrified car world, the concept of a ‘self-charging hybrid’ seemingly has the ability to cause as much social media controversy as whatever random brain fart Elon Musk has dumped onto Twitter today.

The self-charging hybrid terminology has been introduced as a subtle rebranding of what have long been known simply as hybrid systems: an internal combustion engine aided by an electric motor powered by a battery charged using purely recaptured energy. The new phrase seems a way to differentiate such ‘classic’ hybrids from more recent variants such as mild and plug-in systems.

But the self-charging hybrid moniker has raised the hackles of some EV fans, who feel it’s a way of making hybrids sound ‘greener’ and more electrified than they are. They also note the systems don’t really self-charge because, ultimately, the only power source is that petrol engine. I mention this debate not from any wish to wade in (please don’t @ me, etc) but because it highlights how classic hybrid systems, popularised by Toyota for the past two decades in the long-running Prius, can be seen as both a fundamental step on the road to electric motoring and a technological cul-de-sac the world is quickly moving on from.

I’ve been pondering that while pottering around in our Toyota Corolla, which features the latest version of the firm’s hybrid system, using a 2.0-litre petrol engine. It’s been on my mind in part because hybrid sales have been on the up recently, aided by car firms massively expanding such offerings to help meet ever-tougher EU emissions regulations. But mostly I’ve been pondering it because the Corolla serves as an excellent advert for hybrid-based electrification.

At slow speeds, the EV mode allows the Corolla to run exclusively using the electric motor, offering the sort of peaceful progress you’d expect from an EV. The transition to the engine is, for the most part, serene – so much so that at low revs it can be hard to tell you’ve started burning petrol.

Even at higher speeds, the hybrid plays a useful role. It can draw on the instant torque of the electric motor to sooth acceleration and allows for electric-only running at speeds of up to 70mph. I’ve found a quick lift of the throttle pedal during motorway cruising will prompt the switch to electric mode, and you can then reapply power without the engine coming back to life.

It’s not all positive: with the 2.0-litre engine, there isn’t room under the Corolla for the motor’s battery (not a problem with the 1.8 unit). It’s been shoved under the boot, restricting luggage space – a notable drawback you’d usually only expect from a more expansive plug-in hybrid. Still, the payoff comes in the form of fuel consumption. So far, I’ve been averaging just over 50mpg, compared with under 40mpg for the similarly priced 1.5-litre pure-petrol Ford Focus I was running previously.

Of course, you’d expect even better fuel economy from a plug-in hybrid, while a full EV would clearly use no petrol at all. But such cars cost more to buy, and come with the travails of charging. These issues will be resolved in the coming years but, for now, there are people unwilling or unable to choose one.

For now, a hybrid such as the Corolla is an ideal solution for many. It costs around the same as a similar car powered purely by petrol, is no more complicated to run and comes with at least some of the benefits of electrified power.

There’s another aspect. Having experienced the smooth, silent running of an EV, I feel a pang of annoyance whenever the Corolla’s petrol unit does cut in. It showcases the potential of electric power.

So while others might call hybrids like the Corolla self-charging, I’ve come up with another title: an EV gateway drug. It’s a step towards electrification – and will leave you wanting more.

Love it:

Cruising comfort Smooth power deliver and easy steering make long motorway journeys a breeze.

Loathe it:

Sat-nav keyboard Why do I have to go through a ‘change type’ sub-menu to enter numbers for postcodes? Annoying.

Mileage: 2029

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Comfortable in the least enjoyable setting - 9th October 2019

A long slog round the M25 during a rainy rush hour is never pleasant, but does at least showcase the Corolla’s strengths. It’s an exceptionally easy car to drive in heavy traffic, thanks to the light steering and smooth hybrid powertrain – especially since the usual frustrations of stop/start motoring are tempered by being able to glide quietly on battery power.

Mileage: 1472

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Welcoming the Corolla to the fleet - 2nd October 2019

I have a confession to make. I have just been given the keys to a new Toyota Corolla and I am… excited. Genuinely. Is that normal? That doesn’t feel like it’s normal.

Excitement has rarely been an emotion you’d relate to a Corolla, despite – or perhaps because – it’s the world’s best-selling car. The Corolla has always been seen as safe, dependable, a little bit average.

It’s arguably an unfair tag: previous versions of the Corolla have featured numerous innovations and some impressive performance versions – including huge motorsport success in touring cars and the World Rally Championship. It’s a car with a proud automotive history: earlier this year, I made the case for it to be named our automotive ‘icon of icons’ at the Autocar Awards.

It didn’t win our public vote, predictably. And that’s because, despite those notable highs, the standard road-going versions didn’t exactly set pulses racing. The Corolla has always just been sort of… there. As a result, when the Corolla disappeared from the UK in 2006 – replaced by the Auris hatchback – it didn’t attract the attention you’d expect from the loss of such a long-running nameplate. People shrugged, and moved on.

And now it’s back. But people aren’t shrugging nonchalantly any more. Because the new Corolla looks really very nice. It’s stylish and dramatic, and underpinned with on-trend tech and plenty of nice flourishes. It’s actually quite interesting. It really is, I think, a little bit exciting.

But is that excitement genuine and merited, or is it merely the result of the intrigue of Toyota attaching a previously moribund nameplate to a moderately dramatic family hatch? That’s what I’m aiming to find out in the coming months.

Certainly, first impressions are good: the Corolla’s styling reflects Toyota’s recent trends, with a mix of sharp edges and rounded elements. It’s slightly less dramatic in execution than the Prius or C-HR, but the result is probably a better balance: it would stand out in a line-up of family hatches, but it’s not so extreme that it’s going to scare anyone off. Still, it undeniably has presence and character – not something you could say about some previous versions of the Corolla.

That this Corolla – representing the 12th generation of the model – is different from its titular predecessor is of little surprise. The world has changed since 2006 (the iPhone didn’t exist back then, for one thing…). But it’s also a substantial step forward from the Auris it directly succeeds in the UK (this car was first unveiled as the new Auris before a late name change).

It’s built on Toyota’s new TNGA platform, and is being offered in the UK with a choice of two versions of the firm’s long-established hybrid powertrain (or self-charging hybrid, as Toyota’s marketing department would have it – a controversial turn of phrase we’ll discuss further in a future report). Having sampled the 1.8-litre unit several times in the past – it’s taken from the Prius, and also featured in a C-HR we had on our fleet last year – we’ve opted for the new system featuring a 2.0-litre petrol engine, with an output of 178bhp.

It’s the powertrain our road testers have favoured, and from initial impressions I can see why: it’s quiet and impressively refined, with near-seamless switching between electric and combustion power. Plus, from our early runs, we’ve been getting pleasingly close to the official 54.3mpg WLTP-rated fuel economy. As well as that powertrain, we’ve opted for the top-spec Excel trim, which comes with plenty of kit as standard, including a reversing camera and sensors, LED lights, park assist and Toyota’s Safety Sense suite of driver assistance systems.

The only real option available to us was the paint colour: we plumped for Sterling Silver, a £795 extra over the base white. That raised the price of our car to £29,870, which puts it close to the 1.5-litre Ford Focus ST-Line I ran prior to this – and which, as our favourite family hatch, represents the benchmark the Corolla must beat.

The stylish design doesn’t carry over quite so well to the interior. It’s a bit more ordinary, and controls such as the touchscreen – complete with welcome but slightly infirm physical buttons around the edges to select key features – feel a little on the budget side. It’s not an unpleasant place to be, by any means, but it’s not as pleasant as the Focus – which, in turn, isn’t on a par with offerings from the likes of Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz.

From early impressions, the Corolla also isn’t as sharp in terms of handling as the Focus, a feeling emphasised by the very light steering. But it makes up for that in refinement: it feels remarkably easy to drive for long motorway runs, with a sense of quiet contentment helped by the hushed, efficient powertrain and single CVT gear. The hybrid system can run purely on the battery and, were it not for the little ‘EV’ symbol on the display, at times it’s hard to notice whether the engine has kicked in or not.

It feels like a car that has something different to offer in the crowded family hatch market, and I’m looking forward – and yes, excited – to find out how that is reflected in the coming months. That the new Corolla can create such emotions is already one big tick for it. It’s no longer a car that’s just there – and it might just be an ideal family car for right now.

Second Opinion

My wife crinkled her nose when I told her what I’d just brought home (we used to own an Auris). Keep an open mind, I said. Sure enough, once she set eyes on the Corolla, she made the sort of approving noises I’d expected. First impressions were of a sharp, attractive hatchback that has plenty of room for the kids and is very easy to live with. There might even be a hint of character in there. Let’s see if the dep ed can find it.

Damien Smith

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Toyota Corolla Excel 2.0 Hybrid specification

Specs: Price New £29,075 Price as tested £29,870 Options Sterling Silver paint £795

Test Data: Engine  4-cyls, 1987cc, petrol plus electric motors Power 178bhp @6000rpm Torque 140lb ft @ 6000rpm Kerb weight 1340kg Top speed 112mph 0-62mph 7.9sec Fuel economy 50.4-60.6mpg CO2 89g/km Faults None Expenses None

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Comments
11

5 January 2020

The higher quality of British roads compared with Texas's cracked and bumpy sun-baked concrete highways.

 

0_O Shurely shome mistake?

5 January 2020

These are on our company car lists. Thinking of it come new car time

5 January 2020

Like running a Toyota Corolla.

Look, I'm sure they're perfectly functional and make great rental cars.

But dreary just doesn't cover it. They're an appliance, bland and boring as a fridge or a vacuum cleaner.

Their message is "I don't care what you think, I'll never break down or offer the least bit of fun"

Apologies to all you Corolla owners out there: I'm sure you're lovely people in so many other ways.

Robbo

A View from Down Under

289

5 January 2020

.....couldnt agree more aussierob.

This is a very ordainary little puddle jumper/run-about, with little (other than reliability) to relieve the monotony ..... fitted I note with ridiculous, inpractical , and totally unecessary wheel/tyre combination,  ( of no advantage in Tesco's car park) no doubt to try to make it look more interesting.

 

5 January 2020

I'm sure the Corolla is no more or less interesting or exciting than other lower medium hatchbacks such as the Focus, Golf, Astra etc. But it does seem to be more efficient than most and I'm sure performs well on quality, reliability, resale values and all the other parameters most buyers care about. Certainly the reviewer seems suitably impressed, so I think it is unfair to dismiss this car on the basis that it may be considered a bit boring. I take the point about the impractical and inappropriate tyre figment, but I guess this is what the marketing types and some customers want. If I was in the market for this type of car, I'd say the Corolla warrants serious consideration.

5 January 2020

James, you don't need to use the ' change type' sub menu to enter a postcode!

Rather than the 'search' option, go for the 'other' option when entering a destination and then when you type into the 'code' field it gives you a proper alphanumeric keyboard.

6 January 2020

@aussierob/289 I would agree with previous Corollas/Auris models, but this new one is much better. I've read a lot on it as, as I mentioned, it's on our new company car list. It's the only option that isn't a VW. The reviews on this new Corolla are very positive. Not class best, but better than average. Toyota have tried harder to make this new one a lot better than a lot of cars. 

16 January 2020

I'm sure I'll be put straight very quickly, but why would someone prefer a Golf over one of these new Corollas? I've seen a few around now and they look good, the estate version especially, and the interior looks easier (and therefore safer) to use than the flashy Golf one.

5 February 2020
And it's only £29k (gulp). All those Uber drivers can't be wrong (might have something to do with the congestion charge and BIK though).

5 February 2020
£29k, so the same price as the new golf in style spec with a diesel.

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