Now ‘Oh what a feel­ing!’ is a Corolla qual­ity rather than a ten­u­ous slo­gan, can Toy­ota’s 12th-gen hatch top the small-car class on its own mer­its?

Wheels (Australia) - - Contents -

Corolla’s mis­sion: to go from be­ing the de­fault pur­chase to ac­tu­ally de­sir­able

S INCE launch­ing in 1967, the Toy­ota Corolla has wit­nessed plenty – the civil rights move­ments, sex­ual revo­lu­tion, space race, fall of com­mu­nism, rise of the in­ter­net, Ford’s AU Fal­con – but sur­pris­ingly few Wheels com­paro wins.

Let’s count ’em. It wasn’t un­til the Fe­bru­ary 1973 is­sue that the sec­ond-gen KE20 fi­nally out­gunned its ri­vals (the Ford Es­cort, Mazda 1300 and Dat­sun 1200). But the lardy KE30 (’74) and boxy KE70 (’81) that fol­lowed were well off the pace, leav­ing the first front-drive AE80 to snare two more vic­to­ries (Au­gust 1985 and July ’86).

Frus­trat­ingly, Corolla re­gressed again through three suc­ces­sive re­bod­ies (1989 E90, ’94 E100 and ’98 E110), be­fore the newly minted Mc-plat­formed E120 brought home gold in late 2002 and early ’03, though that mo­men­tum waned with the 2007 E150 and ’12 E180. By Jan­uary 2017’s megat­est the lat­ter limped home in tenth po­si­tion.

That’s just five com­paro con­quests out of 40-ish in 51 years, folks.

Yes, yes, we know. Corolla’s been our best-sell­ing pas­sen­ger car for much of this decade. But buy­ers aren’t al­ways the best judges. Even Toy­ota pub­licly ad­mit­ted that things needed im­prov­ing, with pres­i­dent Akio Toy­oda declar­ing a ‘re­turn to fun’ sev­eral years ago af­ter re­call scan­dals rocked the brand to its core.

That shake up has re­sulted in the Toy­ota New Gen­er­a­tion Ar­chi­tec­ture, with TNGA sp­wan­ing the Prius IV, C-HR small SUV and the 2018 Camry – the lat­ter pair beat­ing their ri­vals in these very pages – as well as the lat­est, E210 Corolla. All share the same ba­sic hall­marks of a long wheel­base, wide track, low cen­tre of grav­ity, op­ti­mal weight dis­tri­bu­tion, ex­cep­tional rigid­ity, in­de­pen­dent rear sus­pen­sions and freshly engi­neered pow­er­trains.

So, a dozen re­gen­er­a­tions later, can Toy­ota’s demi­cen­te­nar­ian small-car stal­wart man­age a TNGA com­paro tri­fecta? To find out, we went straight for the sales jug­ger­naut – the base auto (for now) As­cent Sport CVT, from a not-in­con­sid­er­able $24,370.

While a new-fan­gled plat­form and front-end styling seem­ingly in­spired by the US glam rock­ers Kiss are well and good, what will the Corolla heart­land make of a $1650 price jump, a three-year war­ranty when most now of­fer five (or more), and a boot ca­pac­ity less gen­er­ous than the smaller Yaris’ at just 217 litres? It was 360L in the pre­vi­ous-gen!

There’s no Ap­ple Carplay/an­droid Auto smart­phone mir­ror­ing ei­ther, but the Corolla strikes back with seg­ment-first stan­dard ac­tive cruise con­trol, bun­dled with au­tonomous emer­gency brak­ing (AEB), lanede­par­ture alert with steer­ing as­sist, auto high beam and speed-limit recog­ni­tion. Also present are an 8.0inch touch­screen, four auto down/up win­dows, heated mir­rors and full-sized al­loy spare. Ours added a $1000 sat-nav/dab+ dig­i­tal ra­dio/pri­vacy glass combo as well.

We sus­pect that a cheaper, de-con­tented non-sport As­cent may re­turn soon. Hyundai made a sim­i­lar up­mar­ket move with the third-gen i30 in May 2017, un­til slower-than-an­tic­i­pated de­mand forced in the cheaper Go vari­ant. Some say soberer styling than

be­fore didn’t help, but we sus­pect the i30’s new­found de­sign ma­tu­rity may pre­vail over time.

At $23,390, our i30 Ac­tive un­der­cuts the Corolla by $980 yet in­cludes sat-nav, DAB+, Carplay/an­droid Auto and fold­ing mir­rors, but loses out on stan­dard AEB and adap­tive cruise. They’re part of a worth­while $1750 safety pack that also brings in the blind-spot mon­i­tor­ing and rear cross-traf­fic alert un­avail­able on Corolla As­cent Sport, along with a leather wheel, elec­tric park brake and rear air-con out­lets.

For 15 years Corolla’s fiercest sales foe has been the Mazda 3, so in comes the Maxx Sport auto from $24,490. Though ac­tive cruise and Carplay/an­droid Auto are not avail­able, the coupe-es­que hatch from Hiroshima re­turns fire with front and rear AEB, blind-spot/rear cross-traf­fic alerts, leather wheel, pad­dle shifters, sat-nav, DAB+, cli­mate con­trol and fold­ing mir­rors. Ex­cept we could only test the $26,490 Tour­ing so please ig­nore the leather pews and elec­tric park brake in the pic­tures.

The fi­nal con­tes­tant is the Honda Civic, the 10th it­er­a­tion in 45 years. The di­vi­sively styled hunch­back also sur­faced in mid-2017, dou­bling mar­ket share and soar­ing to sixth, be­hind the Corolla, 3, i30, Volk­swa­gen Golf and Kia Cer­ato (which is cur­rently sedan-only in its new Mk4 guise, hence a no-show here).

We re­quested the VTI-S 1.8-litre (against all the oth­ers’ 2.0s) from a Mazda-mim­ick­ing $24,490; though AEB and as­so­ci­ated driver-as­sist tech are not avail­able, it’s alone here in fea­tur­ing all-dig­i­tal in­stru­ments and Lanewatch – a left-lane cam­era for avoid­ing col­li­sions with bikes. Ge­nius. Key­less en­try/start, cli­mate con­trol, front sen­sors and Carplay/an­droid Auto fur­ther broaden the Honda’s ap­peal.

As does the vast cabin, since it’s vir­tu­ally medi­um­sized and the largest in most di­men­sions bar height. This trans­lates to a sense of wide-open space to spread out in, es­pe­cially out back. Plus, the driv­ing po­si­tion is pitch-per­fect, the elec­tronic di­als ul­tra-clear, stor­age stu­pen­dous and ven­ti­la­tion su­perb. Flip­sides? The seats lack suf­fi­cient sup­port and no hatch here is row­dier – it’s al­most like be­ing in a drum at times.

That’s quite damn­ing con­sid­er­ing there’s also the (in)fa­mously mouthy Mazda on test, and the lat­ter re­mains vo­cal when pressed. But shapely seats, an el­e­gant dash and su­perb er­gonomics help off­set that. Plus, the nar­row glasshouse and swoopy sil­hou­ette ac­tu­ally con­ceal a rea­son­ably spa­cious cabin, as well as the group’s sec­ond-most ca­pa­cious boot.

De­cep­tively ac­com­mo­dat­ing de­scribes the i30’s in­sides too. Firm seat­ing – el­e­vated in the rear – isn’t ev­ery­body’s cup of tea, but the lofty ceil­ing and unique six-light glasshouse flood in light and en­sure su­pe­rior vi­sion. The dash, too, is a mas­ter­stroke of re­straint and func­tion­al­ity, dis­play­ing al­most Teu­tonic logic. Cover the badge and this could be from any con­tem­po­rary Volk­swa­gen Group ve­hi­cle. But for the clammy plas­tic wheel, it wants for noth­ing… ex­cept charm.

The Corolla also comes with a plas­tic tiller (in a $25K car… se­ri­ously?), but at least man­ages a more in­trigu­ing weave of char­ac­ter and qual­ity en­gi­neer­ing. Where cold tex­tured ma­te­ri­als hint at the Hyundai’s Frank­furter in­flu­ences, the As­cent Sport’s softer, warmer trim whis­per cool Nagoya min­i­mal­ism. As with all TNGA cars to date, cabin so­lid­ity and fin­ish are first class, sup­ported by a wel­com­ing driv­ing po­si­tion and al­most-sump­tu­ous seat­ing. The low rear bench isn’t quite as sculp­tured and knee room is the most lim­ited here, but tight the Toy­ota’s in­te­rior is not.

What bursts the As­cent Sport’s bub­ble is that bi­jou

boot, man­ag­ing lit­tle more than half the vol­ume of the cave-like Civic’s. Blam­ing Corolla’s newly ac­quired multi-link rear is prob­lem­atic too, be­cause all but the tor­sion-beam equipped i30 in this posse also pos­sess IRS.

Luck­ily things do im­prove at the other end, thanks to the Toy­ota’s 125kw/200nm 2.0-litre ‘Dy­namic Force’ nat­u­rally as­pi­rated four-cylin­der petrol en­gine. That’s the good news. The bad news is it’s mated to a CVT. Now, nor­mally, the lat­ter is to driv­ing plea­sure what Tony Ab­bott is to re­new­able en­er­gies; but a class-first ‘launch gear’ has been fit­ted, as part of a 10-speed stepped tran­nie, that is spe­cially tuned for rapid off-the-line ac­cel­er­a­tion, be­fore switch­ing to the fuel-sav­ing con­tin­u­ously vari­able belt that’s cen­tral to all CVTS. That’s the the­ory, any­way.

With a vir­ginal 490 clicks on our As­cent Sport’s odo, we ex­pected it to trail the 114kw/200nm 3 (with 1500km) and 120kw/203nm i30 (5000km in), but in­stead the Toy­ota matched the hard-charg­ing Hyundai to 100km/h (only 0.1 sec­onds be­hind at 8.9s), and kept it hon­est past the 140km/h marker at 16.5s to the i30’s 16.3s. And from 80-120km/h they were dead-level at 5.8s. Ad­di­tion­ally, the i30 and the 104kw/174nm Civic were driven in the dry but rain af­fected the Mazda and Corolla’s re­sults. That also ex­plains the lat­ter’s longer brak­ing dis­tances.

As mileages grew, so did the Toy­ota’s mus­cle, pulling well away from the slower Civic across the board. Bet­ter still, while mash­ing the throt­tle does re­sult in the CVT hold­ing the revs with ac­com­pa­ny­ing en­gine drone, choos­ing Sport mode raises that rev thresh­old to re­duce such flar­ing, in con­trast to the peren­ni­ally noisy Honda. Av­er­ag­ing 8.1L/100km sealed the As­cent Sport’s pow­er­train prow­ess. Who’d have be­lieved a Corolla would ever en­joy Mk7 Golflike ef­fi­ciency div­i­dends!

Ku­dos too to Mazda. Though not the fastest, the old timer proved both the lusti­est and sweet­est me­chan­i­cally, ea­ger to visit the 6400rpm limit, backed up by its in­tel­li­gently tuned six-speeder (with mor­ein­tu­itive man­ual pat­tern) and gnarli­est ex­haust note. And it re­turned 8.5L/100km while caned mer­ci­lessly.

The i30, then? While spir­ited and ea­ger, with a quick-shift­ing auto pro­vid­ing traf­fic-gap-fill­ing pointand-squirt ease, it’s also some­what loutish and coarse at higher revs, dis­suad­ing hard driv­ing an­tics – with the steep­est price to pay at the bowser to boot.

Not that the Civic, with its hoary sin­gle-cam­mer, is es­pe­cially eco­nom­i­cal or much qui­eter when ex­tended. Keen at take-off speeds, it falls away as the tonne ap­proaches. Per­for­mance-wise the Honda seems stronger in iso­la­tion than it re­ally is. The $3300 step to a 1.5 turbo VTI-L seems like money well spent.

Ef­fi­ciency and noise is­sues, how­ever, aren’t the Honda’s sole chal­lenges. Driven be­nignly, the Civic of­fers flat and planted road­hold­ing, along with a lop­ing ride qual­ity that soaks up bumps ef­fort­lessly. Lean a lit­tle harder, though, and that in­her­ent chas­sis soft­ness en­cour­ages lat­eral body move­ment, which never re­ally set­tles. Add steer­ing that’s too di­rect at speed, forc­ing the driver to take two bites to main­tain the cho­sen line, and progress can be a chore. So, although the un­der­ly­ing strength of the ‘Earth Dreams’ chas­sis (as wit­nessed in the su­per­nat­u­rally ag­ile Type R) sees Civic through, the helm’s ner­vous­ness makes it feel a lit­tle un­der­done. More tun­ing is nec­es­sary here, Honda.

Con­versely, the Mazda presents the loveli­est steer­ing, of­fer­ing nat­u­ral feel, feed­back and in­ter­ac­tion that is to­tally im­mer­sive if you’re up for a fang. In com­pany with the brand’s bet­ter cur­rent models, the 3’s chas­sis gels de­light­fully the harder it’s driven. You’d need to get a bit antisocial to re­ally

ex­plore the 3’s dy­namic flu­ency and band­width, but it’s all there to be en­joyed.

The Corolla, ul­ti­mately, proves to be the most fluid and – yes – fun at all speeds, be­ing the eas­i­est and most se­cure across the spec­trum … slow, fast or in be­tween, with real steer­ing feel and feed­back, and bal­anced, neu­tral and pre­dictable han­dling char­ac­ter­is­tics. Ad­di­tion­ally, the ac­com­pa­ny­ing ride sup­ple­ness is per­haps the even big­ger achieve­ment, ab­sorb­ing and iso­lat­ing in equal mea­sure, to de­grees sim­ply un­achiev­able by the oth­ers on test. We ea­gerly await pitch­ing Corolla against Golf and Peu­geot 308.

And the i30? Com­pared with the Mazda and Toy­ota, it feels a tad ragged (com­plete with rack rat­tle), but ac­tu­ally it’s also a very ca­pa­ble, chuck­able han­dler. The steer­ing’s mea­sured re­spon­sive­ness and the sus­pen­sion’s firm­ness in­stil an agility all its own, al­low­ing keen driv­ers to scurry through tight turns while main­tain­ing con­trol for bois­ter­ous if at times bouncy fun … and all ac­com­pa­nied by the howls of the eco Kumho rub­ber. Oh, and don’t bother se­lect­ing Sport as all it does is ex­ces­sively weight up the steer­ing.

Fun­da­men­tally, there isn’t a hor­ri­ble hatch here, but one has to come last and the like­able but loud Civic VTI-S is that car. Size, value, equip­ment, in­di­vid­u­al­ity and depend­abil­ity re­main plus points, but the noisy and dated 1.8 pow­er­train is out of its league now and the chas­sis tune is a bit at sea in our con­di­tions.

This bar­gain i30 Ac­tive feels as if ev­ery box had been me­thod­i­cally ticked be­fore sign-off. Choose the AEB safety pack and it es­sen­tially be­comes the com­plete hatch ex­pe­ri­ence. But there’s greater fi­nesse, ef­fi­ciency and so­phis­ti­ca­tion on of­fer, so bronze it is for the lusty, trusty Hyundai.

That the five-year-old 3 still re­mains so com­pet­i­tive cer­tainly caught us un­awares. Clearly Mazda has worked hard re­fin­ing its late bloomer, teas­ing out and hon­ing all that un­der­ly­ing en­gine, chas­sis and cabin good­ness. Next year’s tor­sion-beam re­place­ment will have big shoes to fill.

So, the Corolla fi­nally re­turns to the top of a group test af­ter 15 years. Not quite the quick­est or sharpest, it is nev­er­the­less the most fru­gal, fluid, con­tained and re­fined, with lead­ing com­fort and ef­fi­ciency, and a lot of fun to boot.

Ah, but that meagre boot. Ask­ing your­self how of­ten you’d ac­tu­ally brim yours might pro­vide the an­swer to the vex­ing ques­tion of how im­por­tant size re­ally is. Be­cause other­wise this is one hell of a step for­ward for a small car with all the usual Toy­ota at­tributes.

A once-in-a-decade Wheels com­paro win for Corolla, then, and the most con­vinc­ing since the KE20’S in ’73.

Fun­da­men­tally there isn’t a hor­ri­ble hatch here, but one of them has to come last...

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