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Motoring Top Stories

Corolla - now with high-tech hybrid drive

CarsGuide logo CarsGuide 16/03/2019 James Cleary
a man standing in front of a car © CarsGuide.com.au

When Toyota’s Prius arrived more than 20 years ago, the idea of a petrol engine and electric motor working together to power a car was considered exotic and suitable for automotive fringe-dwellers only. A Prius in the driveway was a badge of honour for proud eco-warriors.

Over time, the strikingly new has become the norm with numerous brands putting hybrid models firmly in the mainstream. And full battery-electric vehicles have taken over as the high-tech ice-breakers.

So, in recent years, as interest in the Prius has began to slow, its hybrid heart has been transplanted into the country’s best-selling passenger car – the evergreen Corolla. Which brings us to the current Corolla Hybrid, in mid-spec SX grade.

Does the hybrid set-up help or hinder the Corolla in its natural habitat – the city crawl and the suburban sprawl?

Is there anything interesting about its design?

Akio Toyoda, the Japanese carmaker’s president for the last decade (and grandson of the company’s founder) has made it his mission to inject more emotion and personality into Toyota’s products.

Cars like the retro FJ Cruiser, 86 sports coupe and soon-to-arrive Supra GT have been markers for the brand, with premium subsidiary Lexus also challenged to push the styling and engineering envelope.

a car parked on the side of a road: Protruding aggressively from the nose, a pronounced grille intake features a racy mesh insert. © CarsGuide.com.au Protruding aggressively from the nose, a pronounced grille intake features a racy mesh insert.

Launched in August 2018, the current Corolla is longer (+45mm), lower (-40mm), and wider (+30mm) than the model it replaced, and although it’s always a subjective call, I reckon this car’s design lifts the evergreen small car from white goods on wheels to positively charismatic.

Sadly, our test example’s black finish masks a lot of exterior detail, but this ‘Rolla definitely drops the mercury towards the cool zone.

The leading edge of the bonnet curves sharply to incorporate the broad sweep of jagged, angry headlights, looking alarmingly like the arc of a samurai’s katana.

Protruding aggressively from the nose, a pronounced grille intake features a racy mesh insert, with fog lights either side and a broad spoiler underneath. The overall expression is reminiscent of a scowling Kabuki warrior.

Some signature Corolla elements, like small quarter windows in front of the mirrors (at the base of the A-pillars) are retained, but the rear extends the new theme of curved incisions and angular graphics.

a black car parked on the side of a road: The standard 16-inch alloy wheels look a little underdone on the SX. © CarsGuide.com.au The standard 16-inch alloy wheels look a little underdone on the SX.

Hooked LED tail-lights shine like lasers, contrasting dramatically with ‘our’ test example’s inky (‘Eclipse Black’) bodywork, and slim reflector panels are incorporated at the bottom of arched, recessed channels cutting across either end of the rear bumper clip.

The standard 16-inch alloy wheels look a little underdone (18s are standard on the top-spec ZR), but this black sheep Corolla is still light years away from its relatively conservative ancestors.

The interior is sleek and contemporary with an upright 8.0-inch touchscreen display dominating the dash. Broad, simple surfaces are layered to create visual interest without clutter. A combination of gloss black surfaces around the front ventilation controls and gearshift match with brushed metal highlights to impart a classy feel.

A 4.2-inch digital display on the right-hand side of the compact main instrument cluster is a neat touch, and all the switchgear and major controls are clearly marked and intuitive to use.

Standard seat trim in the SX is cloth, the charcoal grey material in our car neatly trimmed, with a subtle scalloped design on the cushion and backrest inserts. But you couldn’t exactly describe the sensation as premium. Hardwearing and practical feels more appropriate.

How practical is the space inside?

Given the Corolla remains locked in an arm wrestle with the Mazda3 for the title of Australia’s top-selling passenger car it’s no surprise practicality is a key focus.

Up front, the Corolla SX provides a pair of decent-sized cupholders in the centre console, as well as generous door bins incorporating relatively small bottle holders.

a close up of a car: There are generous door bins incorporating relatively small bottle holders. © CarsGuide.com.au There are generous door bins incorporating relatively small bottle holders.

There’s also a lidded box between the seats housing a USB port and 12-volt outlet. There’s also an ‘aux-in’ audio input, the glove box is a good size for the category and there’s a wireless Qi charging mat in front of the gearshift.

Then we come to the rear, and the quest to get in there.

The Corolla’s move to the Toyota New Generation Architecture (TNGA) platform has delivered so many dynamic benefits, which we’ll get to shortly, but it’s a mystery why the Corolla’s front door aperture is so generous, while the back one’s so stingy.

At 183cm I found contorting myself to get through the narrow opening a pain… usually in the shoulder or upper arm.

Once inside, legroom (sitting behind my driving position) is decent, but headroom is marginal. There are two cupholders in the fold-down centre armrest, with additional cup/bottle holders in the front section of the door armrests.

Sadly, no adjustable air vents for rear seat passengers, with an open storage tray recessed into the rear of the front centre console instead.

But when it comes to practicality, offering a volume of just 217 litres, the Corolla’s boot is its biggest (or smallest?) Achilles Heel.

Depth is the limiting factor, and while we could fit the small and medium-size cases from our three-piece hard suitcase set (35 and 68 litres), or the largest (105 litres), there’s no way we could fit all three. The CarsGuide pram scraped in by the skin of its wheels.

There are deep but narrow storage recesses on either side of the main cargo area, plus tie-down shackles at each corner, as well as handy bag hooks here and there. But the sheer lack of space is a fundamental shortcoming, and ironically the spare is a space-saver.

If you’re thinking about hooking up a natty little van or boat trailer, forget it, the hybrid Corolla is a no-tow zone. For reference, petrol-only models are rated at 450kg for an unbraked trailer and 1300kg braked.

Does it represent good value for the price? What features does it come with?

At $28,370 before on-road costs the Corolla SX Hybrid competes with semi-premium versions of the usual small hatch suspects like the Honda Civic, Hyundai i30, Mazda3, and VW Golf. It’s $1500 more expensive than an equivalent 2.0-litre petrol-only SX ($26,870).

Although the Corolla and Mazda3 are top-sellers in their own right, the small hatch pool is shrinking as small SUVs continue to flood the market. So, value-for-money in this segment is more critical than ever.

The SX grade brings a solid range of standard features, including alloy wheels, bi-LED headlights (high and low beams in a single lamp), LED DRLs and tail-lights, front and rear fog lights, auto-retracting heated exterior mirrors, ‘premium’ faux leather-trimmed steering wheel and gearshift, rear and rear-side privacy glass, the 4.2-inch ‘Multi-Information’ display (in the instrument cluster), keyless entry and start, dual-zone climate control air, 8.0-inch colour multimedia touchscreen display, sat nav (with ‘Suna Live Traffic’), Qi wireless phone charging, and six-speaker audio (including DAB+ digital radio and wheel controls).

a black car on display: Taking centre stage of the interior is an 8.0-inch touchscreen. © CarsGuide.com.au Taking centre stage of the interior is an 8.0-inch touchscreen.

Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility is notable by its absence, although the in-house ‘Toyota Link’ set-up syncs with iPhone and Android devices, bringing voice recognition, ‘Mobile Assistant’, ‘Siri Eyes Free’ and Miracast (Wi-Fi content sharing) with it.

The list of included active and passive safety features is impressively long, and we’ll cover the detail in the safety section. But suffice it to say the standard spec is high, including AEB (with pedestrian and cyclist detection), active cruise, lane-departure alert, auto high-beam and blind-spot monitor.

What are the key stats for the engine and transmission?

The Corolla Hybrid features a modified version of the powertrain found in the current, fourth-generation Prius.

A 1.8-litre ‘Atkinson Cycle’ petrol engine (2ZR-FXE) works in unison with a main electric motor to provide either combined petrol and electric drive to the front wheels or electric-only drive. Then there’s a second motor generator to recharge the hybrid battery.

The Atkinson Cycle is a modified version of the more conventional ‘Otto’ four-stroke combustion cycle. It uses altered inlet valve timing to create a situation where the compression ratio is less than the combustion ratio, which allows the fuel/air mixture’s ‘work’ to be fully expended.

a car engine: Toyota claims a combined power figure of 90kW. © CarsGuide.com.au Toyota claims a combined power figure of 90kW.

Short story is this car is around 30 per cent less powerful, but 30 per cent more fuel efficient than the conventional 2.0-litre petrol SX, which is why this engine design is so commonly used in hybrid applications.

The engine’s output is quoted at 72kW at 5200rpm and 142Nm at 3600rpm, while the main electric motor chips in with 53kW/163Nm. Toyota claims a combined power figure of 90kW, but is cagey (as always) when it comes to overall torque output.

An all-new, smaller ‘e-CVT’ transaxle sends drive to the front wheels, and Toyota claims it has been revised to reduce noise and vibration.

How much fuel does it consume?

Claimed fuel economy for the combined (ADR 81/02 - urban, extra-urban) cycle is a miserly 4.2L/100km, the Corolla Hybrid emitting just 97g/km of CO2 in the process. Which makes it 30 per cent more fuel efficient than the conventional 2.0-litre petrol SX

Over roughly 300km of city, suburban and freeway running we recorded 5.6L/100km, which is a pretty handy ‘real world’ result.

The other good news is the hybrid is perfectly happy running on 91 RON regular unleaded, and you only need 43 litres of it to fill the tank.

What's it like to drive?

So, the Corolla SX’s specification table says its wheelbase is just over 2.6m long, but after only a few hundred metres in motion you’d swear the distance between its axles was half as long again.

The Corolla is underpinned by Toyota’s new TNGA platform. Suspension is by struts at the front, and a multi-link set-up at the rear, and the ride is magic carpet smooth. Even patched and pock-marked strips of bitumen, often referred to as roads in Australia, are somehow smoothed out by this miraculous arrangement.

Surprisingly, the SX Hybrid’s kerb weight (1400kg) is claimed to be 20kg lighter than the equivalent 2.0L petrol SX, and the electric motor’s low-down torque combines seamlessly with the petrol engine to provide spirited acceleration from step-off.

The mid-range is strong and the CVT, Toyota’s own take on continuously variable transmission technology, works well. While there’s still some droniness under firm acceleration, almost inevitable with this set-up, but overall it does a good job.

Eco mode limits the accelerator’s sensitivity, as well as power to the air con system and other accessories, and is at its best in stop-go traffic.

EV mode delivers electric only drive at slow speed, and for relatively short distances, but it’s another good (not to mention, silent) thick traffic option.

The electro-mechanically assisted steering is well weighted, its secure on-centre stability inspires confidence, and road feel is surprisingly good.

Noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) levels are impressively low, the front seats particularly are comfy and nicely bolstered for lateral support, and the standard active cornering assist system helps keep things on track in quick cornering.

Braking is by ventilated (283mm) discs at the front with solid (265mm) rotors at the rear, supported by a regenerative ‘brake-by-wire’ system using electrical resistance to slow the car and harvest energy at the same time.

Another slowing/stopping aid is the ability to shift into ‘B’ under the ‘D’ on the gearshift panel, which provides additional engine braking (from the petrol engine only).

Stopping power is fine, the only small snag is spongey initial brake pedal feel. No biggie, it’s typical of regen brake systems, and you soon get used to it.

What safety equipment is fitted? What safety rating?

Safety is a big focus in the Corolla, and with the all-new, fourth-generation Mazda3 (due in April 2019) ready to raise the category bar for standard active and passive safety tech when it arrives next month, the SX’s specification becomes even more critical.

First up, the Corolla scored a maximum five ANCAP stars when it was assessed in August 2018, against the organisation’s most recent criteria.

Which means all the big-ticket safety boxes are ticked including AEB (with pedestrian and cyclist detection), active cruise (distance adjustable), lane-departure alert (with active steering guidance), auto high-beam and blind-spot monitoring.

Plus, there’s ‘Lane Trace Assist’, ‘Road Sign Assist’ (speed signs only), blind spot monitoring, a reversing camera (with fixed guidelines), ABS (with EBD and BA), stability and traction control, plus hill-start assist.

Worth noting all new Mazda3s will feature everything above plus driver attention monitoring, forward obstruction warning, rear cross traffic alert, and a tyre pressure monitoring system.

In terms of passive safety, the airbag count runs to seven (front, front side, full length curtain, and driver’s knee), which is parity with the upcoming Mazda3, and there are three child seat/restraint top tethers across the back seat with ISOFIX anchorage points in the two outer positions.

What does it cost to own? What warranty is offered?

After much huffing and puffing to the contrary Toyota Australia finally upgraded its warranty from January 1, 2019 to five years/unlimited km cover.

If you collect all the right stamps for scheduled servicing and maintenance over those five years, Toyota will provide an extra two years’ cover for the engine, hybrid system and driveline, plus up to five years/unlimited km cover for the hybrid battery (subject to an annual ‘Hybrid Health Check’).

You’re also covered for rust perforation for seven years, plus towing and a loan car are provided as rquired for five years/unlimited km.

Servicing is required every 12 months or 15,000km (whichever comes first), and the cost of the first five visits to the dealer workshop (for five years or 75,000km, whichever comes first) is capped at a recommended $175 a pop. Sensational!

Verdict

Despite a slight power deficit to its 2.0-litre petrol-only counterpart, and limited cargo space, the unique characteristics of the Corolla SX Hybrid’s drivetrain make it a pleasure to steer in the urban jungle.

Working on an average of 15,000 kays per year, and fuel at around $1.30 per litre, it’ll take you roughly four years to reach a financial break even on the Corolla SX Hybrid compared to the 2.0-litre petrol version.

So, once that time has passed this car means you can have a pretty sweet environmental cake and save money while you’re eating it.

Would you have a Corolla Hybrid over the petrol version? Let us know in the comments.

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