Toyota Corolla: Return of the king
The world's best-selling car is back in Northern Ireland showrooms after a 12 year absence. William Scholes finds out if the new Toyota Corolla has been worth the wait
LIKE a lot of adults fascinated by cars, my most formative experiences are those from my childhood, writes William Scholes.
There used to be a Toyota garage close to where I grew up. It’s gone now, and been replaced by a restaurant, as has almost everything else in Ballyhackamore and Belmont in east Belfast that wasn't already an eating place.
Next door to the showroom was a barber shop - also no longer there - where my father brought me for a monthly short-back-and-sides.
I remember detesting the whole hair cut process, but my memories of getting to not only look at but also sit in the cars in that Toyota garage are even more vivid.
Back then, Toyota had a bunch of cars with which to get young boys excited.
It seemed to have a lot of sports cars, and there's almost nothing small boys like more than a sleek coupe or roadster.
This was the era of the Celica and Supra coupes, as well as the MR2 sports car and the rear-wheel-drive AE86 Corolla coupe - but even the more humdrum family cars interested me.
Gadgets like electric windows were relatively rare in ‘normal’ cars back then, but all the Toyotas in that showroom seemed to have them.
I remember clambering about the Space Cruiser - in hindsight a pretty crude van-with-windows, but to the eight-year-old me it felt more like a version of Scooby-Doo’s Mystery Machine that your dad could drive. It might even have been cooler than the Supra with pop-up headlamps.
The Space Cruiser was replaced by the intriguing Previa, which my father did contemplate buying at the time; it had a sliding door, lots of seats, rear-wheel-drive and a mid-mounted engine slung under the front seats.
It wasn’t boring, in other words - but then again, Toyota didn’t seem to know how to make a dull car in those days.
Something changed, however, and as the 1990s wore on, Toyota became increasingly synonymous with bland, unexciting cars.
Had I been born 10 years later, I probably wouldn’t have too many positive Toyota memories…
Space doesn’t allow for an analysis of why Toyota lost some of its creative spark, but I wasn’t the only one to lament the Japanese giant’s loss of form.
No less an authority than Akio Toyoda, a grandson of the company founder who became Toyota president in 2009, agreed.
An avid petrol-head, he issued a simple decree: “No more boring cars.”
He didn’t just mean sports cars, like the brilliant GT86. The company’s regular models needed to be more fun to drive as well.
The nimble C-HR SUV, which arrived in 2017, showed that Toyota was getting its mojo back.
Akio Toyoda, a grandson of the company founder who became Toyota president in 2009, issued a simple decree: 'No more boring cars
This is the context into which the all-new Corolla - the 12th generation of the family car to bear that name since it was introduced in 1966 - arrives on these shores.
Corolla is a name laden with automotive significance and heritage. It is perennially the world’s best-selling car, and easily holds the title of being the most popular single nameplate in the history of the automobile, with Toyota building roughly twice as many as Volkswagen built Beetles.
Despite the strength of its brand, around 12 years ago the Corolla name disappeared from Toyota price lists in Britain and Northern Ireland.
Instead, we got the Auris. It may have had many virtues but driving excitement wasn’t one of them…
The Corolla never entirely disappeared in Northern Ireland, of course; the occasional refugee slipped across the soft border from the Republic, where a bizarre fixation with small saloons meant that particular version of the Corolla continued to sell well.
Cross-border differences are a thing of the past now, at least as far as the Corolla is concerned.
The new car is available in hatchback, saloon and ‘Touring Sports’ estate guises, and while there is a peppy 1.2-litre petrol turbo engine, Toyota is emphasising its hybrid expertise by offering not one but two different petrol-electric drivetrains.
Toyota already sells more hybrids in Europe, by far, than any other manufacturer and the Corolla will only consolidate that status, particularly as it has such a strong a head-start on its rivals in the family hatchback sector.
Being tasked with banishing memories of the dull Auris isn’t the toughest gig - it was forgettable in the first place, after all - but the Corolla accomplishes its task with aplomb.
I remember clambering about a Toyota Space Cruiser - in hindsight a pretty crude van-with-windows, but to the eight-year-old me it felt more like a version of Scooby-Doo’s Mystery Machine that your dad could drive. It might even have been cooler than the Supra with pop-up headlamps
First, it looks great in any of its three different body styles. There’s pleasing echoes of the Lexus IS around the tail of the saloon, for example; the Sports Tourer is elegant and striking wagon, and the hatchback is as handsome as anything else in its class.
The Corolla isn't as adventurous as the C-HR - a car my son describes as looking like "it's from the future" - but Toyota has, I think, got the balance between style and function just about spot on.
The hatch and estate, in particular, share a great stance and detailing, such as the lamps and the two-tone roof treatment on the sporty Excel hatchback model, shows a certain finesse.
These are not the sorts of compliments that could have easily been directed at the Auris or Avensis.
The interior, too, is a leap forward. It feels more like a Lexus than a Toyota, with lots of plush materials, double-stitching details and many clear digital screens and displays. Top-of-the-range Excel models feature superb sports seats, too.
Back seat room is generous, though if ultimate rear lounging room is your priority, then the Skoda Octavia is probably where you should be looking.
It is a well equipped car, with trim levels rising from Icon to Icon Tech, Design and Excel.
Alloy wheels, LED headlamps, heated front seats, an eight-inch touchscreen, reversing camera, DAB and air conditioning are all standard.
Larger wheels, more electric gadgets and smarter upholstery appear the higher you climb in the range.
All cars come with a five-year/100,000-mile warranty. The Corolla hatch and estate models for Europe are built in Toyota's factor in Derbyshire, while the saloon is produced in Turkey.
The standard safety arsenal includes Toyota’s comprehensive ‘Safety Sense’ package, which includes a pre-collision system, adaptive cruise control, lane departure alert, lane trace assist, automatic high beam and road sign assist.
Being tasked with banishing memories of the dull Auris isn’t the toughest gig - it was forgettable in the first place, after all - but the Corolla accomplishes its task with aplomb
The Corolla is the first Toyota to be offered with a choice of two ‘self-charging’ hybrid drivetrains - a 120bhp 1.8-litre and a 178bhp 2.0-litre.
A non-hybrid 1.2-litre petrol turbo with 114bhp is the only other option - diesel is a dirty word as far as Toyota is concerned.
It needs to be said that the best modern diesels can match or better the fuel consumption that you might get from a hybrid Corolla.
In mixed driving during the car's launch in Majorca, mid- to high-40mpg seemed to be the car's sweet spot. Heavier stop-start urban use would likely allow the hybrid system to stretch those figures higher.
However, the Toyota makes a more compelling case for itself if you look at the CO2 emissions, as company car users keeping a close eye on their benefit-in-kind tax rates will.
The 1.8-litre hybrid Corolla has CO2 emissions as low as 73g/km and as high as 83g/km; the 2.0-litre version's worst figure is 92g/km. No comparable diesel comes close.
Well implemented hybrids offer a further advantage - their refinement. Toyota's expertise really shines in the Corolla, which is library-quiet on the move.
The calm is only disturbed when you lean hard on the accelerator, an act of recklessness that sends the engine revs soaring as the CVT transmission works out what to do.
All CVTs do this, to a greater or lesser extent. There will be some people for whom the racket, when it arrives, is a dealbreaker.
But I suspect you would quickly learn to adapt your driving style so you only rarely have to call upon full-throttle acceleration, and enjoy the silky smooth, effortless wafting that the car does so well the rest of the time.
Thus driven, the 1.8-litre reveals itself as more than up to the job of hauling the Corolla around; the more potent 2.0-litre hybrid is surprisingly brisk.
The big revelation, though, is just how sweet the Corolla is to drive. The steering, in particular, felt superb and on the right stretch of bendy road, the Corolla offered up proper entertainment; Akio Toyoda should approve.
If driving dynamics are your number one priority when choosing a family hatch, then you will likely choose something like the Mazda 3 instead of the Corolla.
Competition in the family hatchback market is intense, with a clutch of really strong contenders vying for your cash. The Corolla deserves to take its place among the best in class
But in terms of smoothness and refinement, I'm not sure there's anything else in the class as effortless as the Corolla.
Particularly in the higher trims, it feels like a lot like a luxury car from a class above.
The overall quality of the package is reflected in a three year, 36,000 mile residual value of 49.5 per cent, when the segment average is 38 per cent.
The hybrid element alone will ensure the Corolla's success. Toyota reckons around 90 per cent of Corollas will have an electrified drivetrain, with the 1.8-litre version being the biggest seller.
But the new car is more than a purely rational product, to be bought only with an eye on emissions, company car tax obligations or fuel consumption.
No, this new Corolla adds style, a tangible sense of quality and driving enjoyment to the mix. It is desirable in a way the Auris could only ever have dreamed about.
Competition in the family hatchback market is intense, with a clutch of really strong contenders vying for your cash. The Corolla deserves to take its place among the best in class, and will surely be a great ownership proposition.
It might not excite today's seven-year-olds in the way the original MR2 excited me all those years ago, but their parents will surely appreciate the Toyota Corolla's excellence.
AT A GLANCE
Toyota Corolla hatchback 1.8 hybrid Design
Engine and transmission: Hybrid, with 1.8-litre four-cylinder petrol engine paired with battery pack and electric motor; total system power of 120bhp, with maximum torque of 105lb.ft from engine 120lb.ft from motor; continuously variable transmission; front-wheel-drive
Performance: Top speed 112mph, 0-62mph in 10.9 seconds
Fuel consumption and CO2: 55.4mpg (WLTP combined), 83g/km
Car tax: First year £100, then £135 annually (after April 1 2019)
Benefit in kind: 22 per cent (after April 1 2019)
Euro Ncap safety rating: Not yet tested