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Toyota Corolla Touring Sports

Autocar logo Autocar 14/06/2019 Tom Morgan
a car parked on the side of a road: Toyota Corolla Touring Sports © Autocar Toyota Corolla Touring Sports

Intro

The world’s best-selling passenger car, the Toyota Corolla, is officially back in Britain. Having been away since 2006, when its maker rebranded its mid-sized family hatchback the Auris for European buyers, the Corolla is now a global power again. And what a power it has been: around for five decades and counting, and very likely to reach its 50 millionth global registration with this 12th model generation.

If the Corolla has taught us anything, it’s that excitement and driver appeal are of secondary importance when it comes to selling mid-sized hatchbacks and saloons in world-beating volumes. The Corolla’s story so far has been about what Toyota handily initialises as ‘QDR’: quality, durability and reliability.

With this version, however, fourth and fifth pillars of appeal are being added to the car’s make-up: dynamic styling and driving pleasure. Now very aware of how crucial this car is to the casting of its global reputation, Toyota aims to banish the boring from the character of this car and to make it as appealing to drive as any family five-door in its class.

Using the same platform as the critically acclaimed C-HR crossover, the current Prius and the Lexus UX, the Corolla is in receipt of a chassis with new suspension technologies and geometries, honed on European roads. It is also the first Toyota model to spring from the firm’s new ‘dual hybrid’ model strategy – and so, as part of a broadening of the thinking that has already led to a surprisingly widespread adoption of petrol-electric powertrains, the Corolla will be available with a high-output ‘performance hybrid’ engine as well as a more familiarly economical one.

No surprises for guessing what’s under the bonnet of this week’s road test subject, then. Time to find out what the Corolla’s chassis, plus that different approach to powertrain tuning, can do for the driver appeal of a Toyota hybrid.

Price £28,820 Power 178bhp Torque Unspecified 0-60mph 8.5sec 30-70mph in fourth na Fuel economy 44.3mpg CO2 emissions 89g/km 70-0mph 47.9m

Toyota Corolla Touring Sports © Autocar Toyota Corolla Touring Sports The Toyota Corolla range at a glance

A warmer GR version of the Corolla is expected, and an outright hot hatch wearing the GRMN badge sorely hoped for, but the most powerful engine for now is the 2.0-litre VVT-i petrol-electric hybrid tested here, with 178bhp.

Although lesser variants are available in Icon trim, the 2.0-litre begins with Design specification, which adds privacy glass and rain-sensing wipers to the parking sensors and sat-nav fitted with Icon Tech.

The top two trim levels are Excel and the catchily named Excel with Panoramic Roof.Note also that the 2.0-litre and 1.8-litre models emit far less CO2 than the turbocharged 1.2-litre petrol Corolla. 

Design

a close up of a car: Toyota Corolla Touring Sports © Autocar Toyota Corolla Touring Sports

This Corolla can be considered a more European car than any of its forebears. It’s available in hatchback, saloon and Touring Sports estate bodystyles and all three versions have a master suspension calibration that has been tuned on European roads, although other global markets do get versions with specific tuning to suit local tastes. The Touring Sports is available in Europe only and, like the Turkish-built saloon, has a wheelbase that’s 60mm longer than the hatchback’s.

Underneath the newly athletic and eye-catching bodywork is a steel structure that – thanks to Toyota’s TNGA-C platform, with its rigidity-boosting braces and joining techniques – is 60% stiffer than that of the old Auris. It also allows a lower engine position, a lower seating position and a windscreen base that’s some 40mm closer to the road than the Auris’s was. The car’s centre of gravity has dropped by 10mm overall.

Suspension is all independent, with a new MacPherson strut design at the front that keeps the front contact patches closer to the centre of the kingpin axis for better steering feel. The anti-roll bars have been relocated at both axles and new coil springs and low-friction dampers have been adopted, contributing to a 40% overall friction reduction across both axles – which, in turn, is alleged to improve damper response and close body control.

Toyota offers three engines: a 1.2-litre turbocharged petrol with 114bhp available exclusively with a manual gearbox and then petrol-electric options of 120bhp and 1.8 litres and 178bhp and 2.0 litres. The more powerful hybrid gets a bigger, higher-voltage nickel-metal-hydride drive battery than the 1.8 version and an electric motor worth a peak 107bhp rather than 71bhp and with 20% more torque. The 2.0-litre hybrid uses a lightly modified version of the same epicyclic transaxle power splitter that Toyota hybrids have used for generations and that drives the front axle only; but it has a paddle-shift ‘manual’ operating mode that the 1.8 does without, will permit electric-only running up to a higher maximum speed (70mph), and is tuned for more linear throttle response than the Toyota hybrid norm.

If you want the Corolla with the most dynamic driving experience of the current crop, Toyota advises, pick the 2.0 Hybrid hatch, which is tuned for even greater body control and agility than the wagon we elected to test – and has the aforementioned shorter wheelbase. But even if you stick with the Touring Sports and performance-tuned hybrid power, you won’t be getting a discouragingly heavy car: our test car weighed 1537kg on Millbrook’s scales, with a weight distribution of 57/43 front to rear.

a car parked on the side of a building: Toyota Corolla Touring Sports © Autocar Toyota Corolla Touring Sports

Interior

The new Corolla’s cabin is one of dark plastics contrasted with satin chrome and gloss black decorative trim. Just like in so many modern hatches, it makes for a smart, classy ambience that feels very much of our technology-preoccupied digital age, but it’s also quite monotone and clinical and would benefit from a bit more variety of colour and texture.

However, there’s no shortage of quietly expensive and substantial feel about the car’s mouldings, grained finishes and switchgear; and there’s no doubt you’re sitting in a cockpit with an understated but pervasive construction of perceived quality.

The instrumentation blends analogue and digital dials, displaying engine speed and fuel level at a usefully readable scale – even if the Toyota hybrid driving experience typically makes engaging with the former somewhat pointless.

a close up of a car: Toyota Corolla Touring Sports © Autocar Toyota Corolla Touring Sports The Toyota Corolla’s infotainment offering is pretty simple. All versions get an 8.0in Touch 2 central display, and so long as you buy the car in one of the three upper trim levels, the system is upgraded to Touch 2 with Go, which has factory navigation and voice control as well.

It’s far from the biggest or most visually appealing system on the market, with some pretty average-looking menu screens, navigation mapping that’s light on detail and could be easier to programme, and a bit of latency to deal with between any fingertip input and response. A couple of rows of physical menu shortcut keys on either side of the display do at least help you to skip straight to the screen you need, though, and proper volume and tuning knobs help usability, too.

The audio system has a DAB tuner, aux-in and USB ports, Bluetooth streaming and six speakers as standard. However, it’s a major demerit that it does not currently support smartphone mirroring. An eight-speaker premium audio set-up is optional on top-line 2.0 Hybrid Excel models, but our test car didn’t have it.

The driving position balances your preference to sit low against your need to maintain good all-round visibility – and there’s as much room here as in almost any car in the European family hatchback class.

Earlier this year, we road tested the new Ford Focus hatch and declared it our new segment favourite; but the Corolla Touring Sports beats the Ford on every dimension of interior passenger space that we measure. So it should, you might think, since it’s an extended-wheelbase estate derivative, but if you were judging on the basis of the decidedly pokey old Auris, you wouldn’t have dared take that as a given.

The boot offers a flat loading area with no lip to negotiate and a cargo bay that’s wider and deeper than that of the current Vauxhall Astra ST that we tested in 2016. It still isn’t quite class leading for outright practicality, but it’s certainly as roomy as most people are likely to require.

The back seats are split 40/60 as you look at them from the boot opening – a configuration more likely to please owners in lefthand-drive markets than in the UK because of the greater through-loading flexibility it grants them – and this may take the sheen off the car’s versatility showing for some. It doesn’t prevent the Corolla’s practical, comfortable and pleasant interior from scoring plenty of credit generally, though.

a close up of a car: Toyota Corolla Touring Sports © Autocar Toyota Corolla Touring Sports

Performance

a motorcycle parked on the side of a car: Toyota Corolla Touring Sports © Autocar Toyota Corolla Touring Sports

Some facets of the way in which this new-groove affordable performance hybrid from Toyota gets down the road are eerily – some would say even jarringly – familiar; and yet others are irrefutable evidence of how determinedly this Japanese car industry giant has stuck with its hybrid synergy drive concept, upgraded and updated it over the past 20 years and significantly overhauled the driving experience it creates.

Still never better than when gliding through becalmed pockets of space in busy town or motorway traffic on genteel throttle applications, the Corolla also brings every other Toyota hybrid to mind under maximum pedal load, when it apes the operating behaviour of a CVT by simply spinning to peak power and letting the planetary gearing take up the slack.

But this ‘performance hybrid’ differs from the established Toyota norms quite markedly in the operating space between those two extremes – most notably in how much outright accelerative urgency it can muster, and how responsive it feels, on part-throttle. In both senses, it’s not overselling the car to describe it as a pacy-feeling drive. This Corolla is keen to get going when you tip into the right-hand pedal, in Sport mode at least, and without needing to send the revs into the stratosphere.

Despite a typically leisurely getaway from standing even under maximum power, the car needs only 8.5sec to hit 60mph from rest and 7.7sec to get from 30mph to 70mph: near-enough precise matches, both, for the 158bhp warm diesel Astra 1.6 CDTI Biturbo estate we tested in 2016. This is petrol-electric performance of a marginally lower order than you might currently be getting from a Volkswagen Golf GTE (7.7sec to 60mph) but it’s not adrift by much. And the biggest development to report is that the Corolla does feels brisk and energetic enough to make you contemplate the enthusiastic driving style you wouldn’t dream of in any other Toyota hybrid.

Just as you explore in greater depth the driving experience that the Corolla’s performance level has piqued your interest in, of course, you quickly find its limitations. The transmission does a poor impression of a real paddle-shift manual when you tug on a paddle, slurring and delaying its shifts under load and creating very little more meaningful relationship between engine speed and road speed than you get in ‘D’.

Avoid the manual mode, though, and you can certainly get a fleeting kick out of giving this car its head. It definitely bucks the performance stereotype of the Toyota hybrid car. It’s just a shame that simple hit of pace is at once the beginning and the end of the powertrain’s capacity for entertainment.

Ride and handling

a close up of a car: Toyota Corolla Touring Sports © Autocar Toyota Corolla Touring Sports

Whatever their colleagues in powertrain were likely to achieve, Toyota’s chassis engineers were clearly never going to be the reason why this new Corolla missed its ambitions to force its way in among the more dynamically gifted cars in this class. You’ll tell that much pretty clearly having negotiated your very first proper corner in the car – and quite possibly having simply driven it off the dealer forecourt, judging by the basis of how harmoniously the component parts of its handling come together, and how intuitive and easy to drive it is as a result.

The Corolla Touring Sports has the kind of chassis that seems to create very creditable lateral grip and cornering balance, and a crispness of handling response and tidy closeness of body control, without working for it. You wouldn’t place it at the sportier end of the class’s dynamic spectrum on the basis of brawnier than average damping, firm and high-frequency springing or a notable refusal to roll – because it doesn’t have any of the above.

And yet it handles very impressively anyway, with steering that matches directness, weight and a bit of feel very skilfully; and a chassis that stays flatter than you imagine it might and grips and rotates underneath you in more agile fashion than you’re anticipating but also remains entirely predictable at all times and goes where it’s pointed very obediently.

This is the kind of handling that’s so good and yet so intuitive that you might not notice it. High-speed motorway stability is excellent, too, and the car’s controls stay medium weighted even at manoeuvring speeds – something most testers said they prefer to a steering wheel whose weight increases and decreases notably through the speed ranges.

The Corolla’s chassis showed how much effort has been invested in it by making short, easy work of the hill route. The car’s handling combines plenty of grip and precision with consistently good body control and there’s an unwavering sense of linearity and predictability about its every response, making it easy to drive even when you’re hurrying it along.

There’s well-matched weight and pace about the steering, while equally finely judged suspension rates and well-balanced grip levels give you a clear sense of how hard you can lean on the outside contact patches and how much you can ask that front axle to do. In both cases, the answer’s ‘plenty’ – but it’s the natural-feeling handling and ride compromise and the clear sense of dynamic coherence about so much of what the car does when driven quickly that impress most about it.

COMFORT AND ISOLATION

Your expectations of a Toyota hybrid are inevitably quite high in this department, and it’s testament to the impressive job that Toyota has done in insulating and isolating the Corolla’s cabin that the car satisfies most of them in any case.

The car’s ride is supple and fairly quiet and its resistance to wind noise is good. Despite being an estate (and therefore giving what noise does make its way into the interior more space in which to resonate than a hatchback would), the car cruised more quietly at 50mph than the Golf 1.5 TSI Evo we tested in 2017, as well as beating the Astra CDTi Biturbo estate from the year before. So it’s quiet at low speeds, when the combustion engine is shut down, but clearly not only then.

That the engine revs persistently and noticeably to maximum revs under full power will be a factor in determining its real-world refinement when you’re driving it quickly, but it takes less time to jump up to 6200rpm and resists doing so to greater depths on the accelerator pedal than is the Toyota hybrid norm. You can certainly adopt and maintain a brisk, comfortable stride without feeling like you’re torturing the car.

Equally, when you feel like driving in a more laid-back and economical fashion, the Corolla’s more powerful electric motor and bigger battery mean you get better zero-emissions drivability and range in town than you might otherwise.

a close up of a black device with a screen: Toyota Corolla Touring Sports © Autocar Toyota Corolla Touring Sports

MPG and running costs

a close up of a stereo: Toyota Corolla Touring Sports © Autocar Toyota Corolla Touring Sports

The Corolla is no longer a car that mixes it with the value offerings at the very bottom of the hatchback class on list price. Toyota learned its lesson some time ago on that score and these days designs, equips and prices its cars to retain value and therefore to have value-for-money appeal when priced on monthly finance rather than anything else.

The residual value forecasts achieved by the car from CAP certainly suggest it should have that. And given the tax benefits that a fleet driver could make thanks to Toyota’s CO2-saving hybrid powertrains, our test car could save a company car driver up to £70 a month in benefit in kind tax compared with an equivalent Focus 2.0 Ecoblue 150 Estate.

Our fuel economy testing, meanwhile, suggested that even the top-range Corolla ought to be frugal to run. We easily bettered 50mpg on our steady 70mph motorway touring test, and the readiness of Toyota’s hybrid powertrain to return good efficiency even in heavy traffic and around town means that an owner should be able to better our 44.3mpg overall test return in everyday use without trying.

a hand holding a cellphone: Toyota Corolla Touring Sports © Autocar Toyota Corolla Touring Sports

Verdict

a close up of a car: Toyota Corolla Touring Sports © Autocar Toyota Corolla Touring Sports

The return of the Corolla nameplate would have been unlikely to cause a flurry of interest at Toyota dealerships if that had been the biggest change to report about this new-generation, British-built, Japanese-flavoured mid-sized family car. But the Corolla is a very different prospect from the Auris it replaces.

It looks great; it’s spacious, well appointed and finished with an attentive eye for quality; it’s frugal and priced competitively; and it rides and handles with an understated but evidently highly polished dynamic accomplishment that proves just how serious Toyota is about attracting interested drivers to its brand.

Those keener drivers will likely appreciate the outright performance level, responsiveness and roundedness of the Corolla’s 2.0-litre ‘performance hybrid’ powertrain but they will as often be made to feel alienated at being denied the meaningful level of control they habitually seek as they may be encouraged by the car’s briskness.

Some things change, then, and some clearly don’t. Still, even allowing for its shortcomings, this Corolla is now a car that nobody should overlook.

MSN are empowering Women In Sport this summer. Find out more about our campaign and the charity fighting to promote the transformational and lifelong rewards of exercise for women and girls in the UK here.

Gallery: Best hybrid cars 2019 (and the ones to avoid) [Auto Car]

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