Life Auto Toyota fails to breathe life into stale Corolla

Toyota fails to breathe life into stale Corolla

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Expert rating: 64/100

Engine, drivetrain and chassis: 12/20
Price, packaging and practicality: 14/20
Safety and technology: 13/20
Behind the wheel: 13/20
X-factor: 12/20

When Australia’s best-selling car gets an update it’s big news right? Well, yes and no.

We’re talking about the Toyota Corolla hatchback here, not the good old days when a new Ford Falcon or Holden Kingswood was on the front page.

Toyota has tried to hype things up a bit for its 48-year old nameplate by effectively splitting the model line-up in two, keeping the entry-level Ascent and Ascent Sport more conservative while the SX and the ZR, the latter being tested here, get a more attention-grabbing look.

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Note the eagle-eyes, sharp nose, body kit, 17-inch alloy wheels and 245/45ZR Michelin Primacy rubber. The alterations extend the length of the Corolla by 55mm, but there is no change to internal dimensions.

But there has been an attempt to dress things up inside.

Toyota talks of the dashboard’s “reduction in visual mass”.

If that means it doesn’t look as slabby, then maybe.

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It’s still pretty square.

Meanwhile a smaller 4.2-inch colour screen sits between the dual instrument gauges and provides a comprehensive range of information.

The interior is informative but stylistically unimaginative.
The interior is informative but stylistically unimaginative.

ZR seat trim is in black with leather accents.

Note also the ZR, which was previously known as Levin ZR, drops $1000 in price (before on-roads and so on) to $28,990.

Mind you that’s compared to the old auto. It’s still $1000 more than the old six-speed manual transmission version but that has now been dropped from the line-up, leaving only the continuously variable transmission (CVT) with seven programmed steps.

That pricing throws it into the mix against the Mazda 3 SP25 and GT, the Hyundai i30 SR and SR Premium and the Holden Cruze SRi-V.

And that’s just to name a few of its rivals with ‘sporty’ pretensions in the hotly contested small passenger car class.

The only problem is the Corolla flatters only to deceive when you get in and drive it the way it is supposedly meant to be driven.

The 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine produces an unchanged 103kW and 173Nm and feels lethargic.

It is equally slow to build and drop revs and gargles noisily when pressed.

It just doesn’t have the punch or atmospherics of something like the Volkswagen Golf’s 90TSI turbo-petrol four, which offers less power but more torque across a wider rev range.

The engine is sluggish and corners aren't handled well.
The engine is sluggish and corners aren’t handled well.

Toyota has remapped the electric-assist power steering and retuned the suspension, which is a combination of MacPherson struts up-front and torsion beam at the rear.

But the steering remains distant and soulless, with suggestions of rack rattle on bumpy corners.

The balance between ride and handling tries for playful but ends being overly-sharp.

Throw the car into a corner enthusiastically and the hard-working tyres are soon overwhelmed.

Mid-corner bumps are also disliked by the rear-end. At least the stability and traction control tunes aren’t so overweening that the car is cruelled.

It just slows down instead of stopping mid-corner, as we’ve known some Toyotas to do in the past.

A Mazda 3, a Volkswagen Golf, the Holden Cruze – with local chassis tuning – are all better drives than this.

So let’s get back to reality here. Let’s get beyond the dress-up kit and acknowledge what this Corolla does best is provide, basic, reliable transport backed by a strong dealer network, a solid capped-price servicing plan and good resale value.

It is relatively small and nimble, has an acceptable amount of passenger and luggage space; although again in no way class-leading.

Small windows emphasise the confinement, while the test car’s rear headroom was compromised by a $1500 optional panoramic sunroof.

The ZR claims to sip on an exceptionally frugal 6.1L/100km (down from 6.6). We averaged 8.0 on standard fuel, which is still pretty decent.

The CVT clearly helped in this regard, as the engine runs at just on 2000rpm at an indicated 100km/h. The lack of gear hopping climbing hills was also noticeable – and appreciated.

There’s an appreciable amount of gear, including ZR-exclusive smart entry and push-button start, bi-LED headlights, an electrochromatic rear-view mirror, dual-zone climate control, leather-accented seat trim, front-seat heaters and driver’s seat lumbar support.

That’s on top of stuff the ZR shares with the SX including sat-nav, a bunch of search assistants such as fuel finder (some fees may apply), sports seats and paddle shifters.

From the Ascents it gleans – among other things – seven airbags, a reversing camera, cruise control, and rake and reach adjust steering column.

Our week-long test established the fundamental switches and controls worked quite well, although the presentation is unremittingly bland.

The hatch offers enough space to get by.
The hatch offers enough space to get by.

However, some issues did emerge; there’s no reversing sensors, the spare tyre is a space saver, the Bluetooth connection to my Windows phone (yes, yes okay!) had to be reconnected every journey and the voice recognition proved slow and struggled with my Aussie accent (call Jane Newton … l-o-n-g …  p-a-u-s-e… dialling James Stanford).

The Corolla has a five-star ANCAP safety rating, but there’s no sign of autonomous emergency braking (AEB), lane-keeping assist or any of the other new wave of driver aids that are cascading through new models at the moment.

So where does that leave the Toyota Corolla?

Well, in sales terms right now it sits on top of the pack, clear of the Mazda 3. So Toyota can extend the middle finger at any journo’s opinion.

But in terms of the job it does, the ZR doesn’t deliver on the promise.

There’s no real zest to it, no real excitement about the driving experience.

Go past the imagery to the reality and there are no headlines; it’s a typically worthy but dull Toyota, something to buy with confidence but not anticipation.

2015 Toyota Corolla ZR pricing and specifications
$28,990 (plus on-road costs)
Engine: 1.8-litre four-cylinder petrol
Output: 103kW/173Nm
Transmission: Continuously variable
Fuel: 6.1L/100km (ADR Combined)
CO2: 142g/km (ADR Combined)
Safety Rating: Five-star ANCAP

What we liked:
>> Pricing and equipment
>> Basic, reliable transportation
>> Massive dealer network support

Not so much:
>> Engine underdone
>> Little driving engagement
>> Interior space lacking compared to rivals

Also consider:
>> Mazda Mazda3 (from $20,490)
>> Holden Cruze (from $19,890)
>> Hyundai i30 (from $20,990)

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