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Toyota's Corolla has returned the brand to prominence in the family hatchback segment. Jonathan Crouch takes a drive in the latest version.
Toyota has returned the Corolla name to the family hatchback segment with a more class-competitive hybrid-focused model line-up of hatches, saloons and estates. If you'd previously dismissed the Japanese brand as an also-ran in the Focus class, it might be time to think again.
Toyota was aiming to enter fresh territory with this 12th generation Corolla. For one thing, it needed to make hybrids more universally acceptable in this segment - that's why there are two of them this time round, a 1.8 and a 2.0-litre unit, both of the 'self-charging' non-plug-in variety. This Corolla also aims to change customer perceptions of Toyota in this sector, which tend to centre around expectations of drab interior quality, forgettable looks and boring drive dynamics. This Corolla is a huge step forward from its Auris predecessor in all these areas. But will all that be enough to at last make this Japanese maker competitive at the sharp end of this class amongst Focuses and Golfs? There are three body styles this time round, a saloon variant joining the usual five-door hatch and 'Touring Sports' estate. All are built on the 'TNGA' 'Toyota New Global Architecture' platform and constructed at the brand's British factory in Burnaston, Derbyshire. Toyota also offers a Corolla Cross SUV, but that's a completely separate model.
This Corolla was the first of the brand's models in Europe to offer customers a choice of two hybrid powertrains - a revised 120bhp 1.8-litre system and a fresh 178bhp 2.0-litre unit that's engineered for more power on demand and more effortless acceleration, without compromising overall fuel and emissions efficiency. As full hybrids, both powertrains have the advantage of offering an all-electric drive capability, with zero emissions and fuel consumption. Both, as you would expect, are also matched to a seamless belt-driven CVT automatic transmission with six speeds. There are wheel-mounted paddleshifters supplied as part of this transmission package, but it's unlikely that typical buyers will make much use of them. For the record though, the 2.0-litre hybrid variant should get from rest to 62mph in around 8 seconds, which is reasonably rapid by class standards. Expect refinement to be excellent; certainly far better than it would be in a rival rumbly diesel. With the 1.8-litre variant we tried, the response to throttle input is slightly more linear than with previous Toyota hybrid models, though the disconnect between the accelerator pedal and the CVT auto gearbox can still be frustrating. The brand has worked hard on this 122hp electrified unit, equipping hatch and estate Corollas that use it with a lithium-ion battery that's smaller, lighter and can deliver more power to assist the engine thanks to improved recuperation capabilities. Whichever powerplant you prefer, you should find this Toyota far more dynamically able than its segment predecessors this time round. Throw the car into a corner and you'll find that though this Corolla is no Focus, it far from disgraces itself, with a decent level of front end grip and steering that's predictable and accurate, though rather light.
This modern-era 12th generation Corolla is purposefully styled and offers decent cabin space too, thanks to the extra flexibility of its 'TNGA' 'Toyota New Global Architecture' platform. There's a choice of five-door hatch, Touring Sports estate or Saloon body styles. Plus there's additionally a completely separate Corolla Cross SUV model, though that's not our focus here. Size-wise, the hatch that most customers choose is pitched plumb in the centre of its segment, slightly shorter than a Ford Focus and quite a bit longer than a Golf. Inside, the cabin feels well finished and benefits from the introduction of Toyota's latest 'Smart Connect+' HD central 8-inch touchscreen. The extra space freed up by the relatively generous exterior dimensions should be particularly obvious in the rear, though the optional panoramic glass sunroof does eat into headroom. There's reasonable space for a couple of rear seat folk though. Boot capacity is rated at 361-litres for the 1.8 and 313-litres for the 2.0-litre hybrid. Family folk are probably going to be directed towards the 'Touring Sports' estate body style, also available in SUV-style 'TREK' form. The 'Touring Sports' station wagon derivative, like the alternative Saloon body style, sits upon a lengthened 2,700mm wheelbase version of the TNGA platform.
Toyota isn't bothering here to try and provide an affordable entry-level model, prices across the all-hybrid range starting from around £25,000. There's a premium of around £1,200 to go from the five-door hatch body shape to the 'Touring Sports' estate - and you can also have a Saloon. There are five main trim levels - 'Icon', 'Icon Tech', 'Design', 'GR Sport' and 'Excel', plus the Touring Sports estate also gets an extra SUV-inspired 'TREK' variant. All of these spec levels deliver even more kit for the latest model year, with fresh colours that include a bi-tone combination for the hatch. And all derivativesare pretty well equipped. Even base 'Icon' variants get LED front foglights and a colour 7-inch multi-information display in the instrument binnacle. Plus 16-inch alloy wheels, heated front seats with lumbar support, automatic LED headlights and dual-zone air conditioning. There's also an 8-inch centre-dash 'Toyota Touch 2' touchscreen, your access point to a DAB tuner and a reversing camera. As the name suggests, the 'Icon Tech' grade adds further useful technology features, including satellite navigation and voice control built into a new 'Smart Connect+' 8-inch HD centre touchscreen; in addition at this level, there's parking sensors and Intelligent Park Assist' set-up that will steer you into spaces. The top 'GR Sport variant gets special 17 or 18-inch wheels, plus sports front seats upholstered in fabric with a dedicated pinstripe pattern and with seatback and cushion bolsters finished in black and grey synthetic leather. All Corollas get as standard the full package of 'Toyota T-Mate' camera-driven safety features. These include autonomous braking, adaptive cruise control, Lane Trace Assist, Road Sign Assist and Automatic High beam. Corolla customers also get access to the 'MyT' connected car app, via which you get lock the doors, operate the lights and bring up a vehicle 'health check' on your smartphone, all from wherever you are.
Toyota has decided that all Corolla buyers should have a Hybrid engine - and a look at the efficiency stats reveals why. The stats are still pretty eye-catching, a typical 1.8-litre Hybrid Corolla Hatch with 'Icon' trim managing up to 62.8mpg on the combined cycle and up to 102g/km of CO2. That's further helped, Toyota expects, by the fact that for typical customers, up to 50% of typical commuting journeys will be accomplished in all-electric drive. For the 2.0-litre Hybrid hatch, the best stats are up to 57.7mpg and up to 111g/km. The Japanese maker describes the Corolla's Hybrid technology as being of the 'self-charging' variety, which means that it isn't of the currently popular Plug-in variety. The brand of course has PHEV technology (it's available on top versions of its Prius model) but currently feels it isn't necessary for the Corolla line-up. What else? Well, the five year 100,000 mile warranty is extremely good and even after that runs out, you'll find that you can extend it for nothing up to a maximum of ten years, providing you have the car regularly serviced at a Toyota dealer. There's also three years warranty against rust and 12 years of anti-corrosion protection.
So what do we have here? A name from the past which packages up technology from the future. Very soon, all family hatchback-class models will feature model line-ups that are primarily electrified. But Toyota has brought us that right now. In a car its volume brand competitors will have to take very seriously indeed. If you're going the hybrid route with a car in this sector, it makes sense to buy into the brand that has most experience in producing this kind of powertrain - and that's unquestionably Toyota. But this model also has other things to recommend it, with levels of safety and media connectivity that rivals struggle to better. If you're looking for a car in this segment, a Corolla might not currently be on your shopping list. We think it ought to be.