I’m in a quandary. Like lots of other petrolheads, I love cars from my childhood – in particular, those from the 1990s and early 2000s. These were perhaps the twilight years of cars with manual transmissions with somewhat iffy safety ratings, rattly rides, and plasticky interiors. Many from the 1990s made do with one or two airbags at best, A- and B-pillars were often thin, visibility was excellent, and things were just much simpler.
Cars today are loaded with tech and plush materials, and a great deal of them are well-rounded, but lack one key ingredient: character. They’re simply tools to transport masses of people; which, for most, is perfectly fine. Let’s face it, car fanatics are a minority. And if in doubt, the dwindling sales (and subsequent axing) of sports car the past few years should make this even clearer.
Perhaps I’m just being nostalgic or plain cynical, but going into a week with the latest Toyota Corolla ZR Hybrid, I was pretty sure that this would be a more than decent, safe, well-equipped, frugal and totally bland 21st-century hatch.
Would the new Corolla be too mundane? Would all the little conveniences be a little too convenient? Would it be a good kit of transportation, but without any soul?
As efficient as they come
The Toyota Corolla is a staple of the automotive industry and, remarkably, is now in its 12th generation. Depending on the country, it can be ordered in hatchback, wagon, and sedan guises and, with the exception of the Euro-spec model, most look about the same across all markets.
In Australia, where this review was conducted, the car is powered by a 1.8-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder petrol engine with 96 HP and 142 Nm (104 lb-ft) of torque, which is joined by two electric motor-generators for a combined maximum output of 121 HP. Toyota quotes a 4.2 lt/100 km (56 U.S. MPG) fuel consumption and, in our experience, that figure is bang on the money. The downside is that the 0-100 km/h (0-62 mph) sprint takes approximately 12 seconds, which is mediocre at best.
Nevertheless, the powertrain’s operation is excellent. When gently pulling away, the car runs solely off the electricity stored in a 6.5 Ah nickel-metal hydrid battery pack before the petrol engine kicks in once you really get moving. Most of the time, the transition from all-electric to hybrid power is very smooth and the Corolla accelerates in linear fashion through to the speed limit.
Whereas the Corolla Ascent Sport also sold in Australia features a six-speed manual transmission, the ZR Hybrid is offered exclusively with a CVT. The system incorporates a planetary gear set and, in most driving scenarios, suits the character of the engine nicely.
However, neither the engine, electric motor-generators, or CVT are perfect. When accelerating aggressively, for example, the engine’s revs often shoot up higher than expected and the 1.8-liter isn’t exactly pleasant on the ears when you really step on the gas pedal.
And handling for all
As this is a Corolla, it would be easy to think of it as being nothing but layer on top of layer of boredom. That, however, is not the case.
When the roads get twisty, the ZR Hybrid performs more than valiantly. In fact, it is fun to drive, with the front end providing a surprising amount of grip. The steering system also provides reasonable levels of communication, making it easy to detect where the limits of grip are. You won’t mistake it for a good hot hatch, but then again, it’s not pretending to be one either.
The reasonably sporty feel does come with an, albeit small, price. The first time I trundled over a speed bump mere seconds after getting behind the wheel of the Corolla, I was surprised by the solid ride. It’s not harsh, but it’s not as supple or soft as one may anticipate either. Evidently, the suspension setup has been tuned to offer a ‘sporty’ feel rather than outright comfort – and it’s a trade-off I could live with.
What’s more, the car is packed full with many features which would have been unthinkable for an affordable hatchback just a few short years ago. Most notably, there’s radar-guided cruise control, Lane Trace Assist, Lane Departure Alert with steering assist, and blind spot monitoring. There are also seven airbags as well as autonomous emergency braking, active cornering assist, and hill-start assist control.
Looking sharp, are we?
While I first approached the Corolla hybrid with caution as far as its driving dynamics were concerned, I must admit to having always been a big fan of the styling of this latest-generation model. There are so many bland looking cars out there that it’s a breath of fresh air to see Toyota, of all people, take a bolder stance in an otherwise pretty conservative segment. Throughout my week with the car, more than one person asked me if it was the “sporty Corolla” because, from the outside, it certainly looks like it. Um, no, it’s actually the hybrid….
Pictures don’t do the styling of the car justice, but “that looks pretty neat for a mainstream hatch” is the first thing that comes to mind. The front end is dominated by sharp headlights with LED daytime running lights that stretch towards the central Toyota badge looking much like sharp daggers, while the angular grille rounds off the front end nicely.
Spin to the rear and it’s pretty much the same story. There are taillights mimicking those up the front and, from the right angles, the rear looks downright ‘thicc’. That’s what the kids are saying nowadays, right?
A screen that’s driver shy
I might start to sound like a broken record, but the cabin adheres to the theme that we’ve established so far. Our test car was outfitted with black and red seats which didn’t just look nice, but were also pretty comfortable. For the most part, the interior is quite simple with buttons and switches being exactly where you’d expect them to be.
Two glaring issues did stand out, though. First is the eight-inch infotainment system. When I first slotted myself into the driver’s seat, my eyes were immediately drawn to this massive screen. Not only does it look clunky and stick out like a sore thumb, but it also seemed to be slightly angled towards the passenger. I never took out my toolbox to try and determine if the screen was indeed angled away from the driver, but it sure as hell seemed like it. I’m fine with screens in a neutral position and particularly like it when they are canted towards the driver, but this is the first car I’ve driven where it seems to be oriented away from me.
The other interior gripe relates to the back seats. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the sporty shape of the new Corolla, space is somewhat limited. For most normal-sized adults it should be fine, but at 6’1′, I found both leg- and headroom to be cramped. The front is certainly more spacious and offers a nice driving environment, though the boot, at 333 liters, is just adequate.
It’s a Corolla, Jim, but not as we know it
The Corolla is the best-selling car of all time and there’s a good reason for it, as it has always wore its reliability, ease-of-use, and affordable price on its sleeve. With the latest generation, Toyota has retained these key attributes but infused it with a personality.
Local pricing starts sits at AU$31,870 ($22,619 USD). The closest U.S. buyers can get to the ZR Hybrid Hatchback is the Hybrid LE Sedan priced from $22,950.