2018 Toyota Corolla Ascent Sport and ZR hybrid Review

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Does the biggest, sexiest, safest and most dynamic Corolla ever justify its price hikes?

What we liked:

• Standard safety equipment

• Comfort and refinement

• Technology and dynamics 

Not so much:

• Price hikes

• No Apple CarPlay

• Rear-seat and boot space

With about 45 million units sold globally since 1966, there’s no overstating the significance of the Toyota Corolla – not just to the Japanese auto giant, but the motoring public at large. For Corolla’s brand-new 12th generation, the world’s top-selling car grows in all directions, delivers one of the best standard safety suites in its class and lifts its driving dynamics as much as its design. But prices are up, we noticed some shortcuts and there’s stiff new competition in the wings. Is the new Toyota Corolla range good enough to continue its predecessor’s five-year reign as Australia’s favourite car?

Big numbers

Australia may have been LandCruiser’s first export market, but it was the Corolla that cemented Toyota’s position as the nation’s most popular automotive brand.

Over more than five decades, around 1.4 million Toyota Corollas have been sold in Australia – one of the few countries in which all 11 generations have been offered. In fact, Corolla accounts for around a fifth of all Toyota sold Down Under.

Now, the longer, lower, wider, safer, stiffer, sportier, more powerful and more stylish Mk12 Corolla hatch (which also offers a hybrid powertrain in every model variant) arrives at exactly the right time, says Toyota.

What the car-maker is less keen to highlight, however, is the fact the number of model grades has shrunk from four to three – Ascent Sport, SX and ZR.

Now, in lieu of an entry-level Toyota Corolla Ascent variant (which previously opened the range at $20,190 plus on-road costs), base pricing opens $2680 higher at $22,870 plus ORCs for the Ascent Sport six-speed manual.

That makes the cheapest 2018 Toyota Corolla hatch closer in price to the Volkswagen Golf (from $23,990) and Ford Focus ($23,390) than volume-selling small cars like the Mazda3 ($20,490) and Hyundai i30 ($19,990), as well as more expensive than the Honda Civic ($22,390), Renault Megane ($22,490) and Subaru Impreza ($22,600).

And with the Toyota Corolla Ascent Sport petrol CVT (the cheapest automatic version and likely to be the volume seller) now priced at $24,370 plus ORCs or at least $27,000 drive-away, it’s a far cry from the $22,990 drive-away price at which Toyota has advertised the outgoing model for the past 18 months.

More value

Toyota counters by saying the Australian market has moved away from stripped-out “Level 1” base models. It expects the “richer” new Corolla to attract a higher proportion of young buyers and more private customers, which currently account for just 50 per cent of sales.

It also hopes the wider availability of hybrid power will increase the hybrid split to beyond 20 per cent.

The cheapest petrol-electric hybrid Corolla is now the Ascent Sport hybrid at $25,870 plus ORCs — $1660 less than the sole Corolla Hybrid it replaces. Opting for hybrid at SX or ZR spec in the new Corolla adds just $1500 to the price of their conventional counterparts.

Most importantly, though, Toyota expects the pricier new Corolla to continue to outsell the Mazda3, Hyundai i30 and VW Golf to remain at the top of the small-car market and Australia’s most popular car, thanks to its substantial uptick in standard safety and convenience equipment.

Improving value across the 2018 Corolla range is what Toyota claims is an unprecedented level of standard safety equipment in the category. The offer now includes autonomous emergency braking (AEB), lane departure alert with steering assist and, for CVT (auto) models, all-speed active cruise control.

Every new Toyota Corolla gets a pre-collision safety system that includes pedestrian detection at night and cyclist detection during the day. And, in a first for Toyota Australia, which says it expects the new Corolla hatch to achieve a maximum five-star ANCAP safety rating, a windscreen-mounted camera also recognises speed-limit signs.

Other range-wide standard safety features include automatic high-beam, reversing camera, hill-start assist, seven airbags, LED tail-lights, electric parking brake and two rear ISOFIX child safety seat anchor points. SX and ZR models add blind-spot monitoring.

As we reported in our product news story, the entry-level Toyota Corolla Ascent Sport comes standard with 16-inch alloy wheels, an 8.0-inch touch-screen, six-speaker multimedia system with Toyota Link voice control via Bluetooth, 4.2-inch multi-info display, air-conditioning, driver’s seat height adjustment and heated exterior mirrors.

Satellite-navigation is a $1000 option on the base model but standard elsewhere.

In addition, Ascent Sport hybrid models gain dual-zone climate control and keyless smart entry and start – both of which are standard on the mid-level Corolla SX petrol and hybrid.

Priced at $2500 over the base grade, Corolla SX variants (from $26,870) also add wireless phone charging, DAB+ digital radio, front fog lights, paddle shifters (petrol only), premium multi-function steering wheel and shift lever, front fog lights, privacy glass and a USB port for rear seat passengers.

Topping the 2018 Toyota Corolla hatch line-up is the ZR, which adds a large colour head-up display, 18-inch alloys, bi-LED headlights, heated sports front seats with leather and suede accents, eight-speaker premium JBL sound, 7.0-inch colour driver’s display, ambient interior illumination and electro-chromatic rear-view mirror.

In contrast to all other new Toyota Corolla hatch variants, the ZR comes in for a $1550 price cut to kick off at $30,370.

In summary, the 2018 Toyota Corolla is extremely well equipped when compared to any direct competitor, and even many small premium cars.

How much does the 2018 Toyota Corolla hatch cost?

(+/- compared to old model)
Ascent Sport petrol manual — $22,870 (+$1660)
Ascent Sport petrol CVT — $24,370
Ascent Sport hybrid — $25,870
SX petrol CVT — $26,870 (+$870)
SX hybrid CVT — $28,370
ZR petrol CVT — $30,370 (-$1550)
ZR hybrid CVT — $31,870

Better basis

The new Toyota Corolla hatch is based on the latest Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) platform, as seen under the latest Toyota Prius and C-HR.

With it comes a new multi-link rear suspension, upgraded MacPherson strut front suspension, new shock absorbers all round, 10mm lower centre of gravity, 60 per cent greater body rigidity and improved weight balance.

Ranging in kerb weight from 1320-1400kg, the new Toyota Corolla hatch is 45mm longer, 40mm lower and 30mm wider than its predecessor, and rides on a 40mm longer wheelbase. Cabin width is up by 25mm.

A full-size alloy spare wheel is standard only with the base petrol Ascent Sport, while a temporary spare (space-saver) is standard in hybrids except the ZR, which gets a repair kit.

Thanks to the 14-degrees ‘faster’ rear glass, the flagship Corolla’s triangular-section boot space is just 333 litres, which less than a VW Golf’s (350 litres), and all other models offer a paltry 217 litres – less than a Toyota Yaris (286 litres).

Eight exterior paint colours are available, including Crystal Pearl, Glacier White, Silver Pearl, Eclipse and, for an extra $550, Volcanic Red and Peacock Black metallic plus Electric Blue and Oxide Bronze mica.

Capped-price servicing costs a maximum of $140 per service, service intervals have been extended to 12 months or 15,000km and the Corolla comes with Toyota’s Australia’s three-year/100,000km warranty.

Three years is now sub-par in the small car class. Even Mazda has now moved to a five-year warranty.

The redesigned Corolla sedan is expected to follow the hatch next year.

More performance

The 2018 Toyota Corolla delivers more performance from a bigger engine for the first time in generations. The new 125kW/200Nm 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine offers 21.3 per cent more power and 15.6 per cent more torque than the aged 100kW 1.8-litre it replaces.

Despite this, ADR Combined fuel consumption falls to 6.0L/100km for CVT automatic transmission models and 6.3L/100km for the sole base manual.

A new Direct Shift CVT with 10-speed sequential shift mode and mechanical launch gear (a world-first for a passenger car, claims Toyota) costs $1500 extra on the entry-level Corolla Ascent Sport, but is standard on all other models.

Now optional across the Corolla hatch range for the first time, the improved hybrid system combines a 72kW/142Nm 1.8-litre Atkinson Cycle petrol engine (with world-leading thermal efficiency of 40 per cent and 13:1 compression ratio) with an electric motor to deliver combined power output of 90kW – down from 100kW.

Still powered by a Nickel Metal Hydride (Ni-MH) battery pack behind the rear seat, the electric motor helps reduce average fuel consumption to just 4.2L/100km, which is actually 0.1L/100km more than before.

It should be noted that Australians only have access to the efficiency-oriented Toyota Corolla hybrid – not the sportier version with more powerful 2.0-litre petrol-electric powertrain as seen in Europe.

On the road

As we reported after our first drive in the US in April, the new Toyota Corolla is vastly improved in most areas. The exceptions are hybrid power and economy (see above), cargo capacity and rear-seat space — which is far from class-leading.

All models will struggle with a large rectangular load and any rear occupants approaching 180cm tall will be short on headroom and legroom. Although the extra cabin width is appreciated, it’s still cosy with four adults aboard.

Head room up front isn’t great either, thanks to the lower roof and too-high seats (even at the lowest position on the driver’s side).

Behind the wheel of the Toyota Corolla Ascent Sport manual first up, the cabin feels far more upmarket thanks extensive use of soft-touch surfaces, dramatically reduced engine, wind and road noise, and a far more resolved ride and handling package.

The bigger, stiffer body feels much tighter and more refined and it allows the new suspension set-up to do a far better job at absorbing road irregularities – especially when cornering.

Despite the extra power, there’s no more torque steer and gone is any hint of steering rack rattle or bump steer.

In fact, aside from some minor front wheel deflection over big road lumps, slightly over-assisted and slow-ratio steering, and a decided lack of grip from the standard 205/55 R16 Dunlop Enasave eco tyres, the base Corolla handles almost as well as the Mazda3 yet delivers much better ride quality than a VW Golf.

The more powerful 2.0-litre engine is among the smoothest and quietest in its class. It also stacks up well against its rivals in terms of output and efficiency, and delivers solid – if unexciting – performance.

The new six-speed manual gearbox has an overly long-throw shifter and a doughy clutch action. The improved CVT auto with 10 ‘ratios’ accessed via paddle shifters is a better choice. It brings slicker launch feel thanks to a first-gear torque converter and keeps the engine on the boil under hard acceleration. That said, the CVT never feels as sporty as a proper auto, let alone a dual-clutch.

The high-mounted 8.0-inch colour touch-screen looks neat and the interface is highly intuitive, but there’s no central controller as in the Mazda3. Nor is the set-up as classy as the Golf’s optional flush-fitting infotainment display.

It also lacks Apple CarPlay connectivity, which is standard in the US and coming here eventually, but Toyota Australia can’t say when, nor whether it will be able to be retro-fitted.

The Toyota Corolla ZR hybrid top-of-the-range hatch is a big step upmarket thanks to a soft, red-stitched dashboard and red door, console and seat inserts, the crisp and beefy JBL sound system and useful wireless phone charging (if your phone is Qi compatible).

There’s also one of the biggest, brightest and clearest head-up displays we’ve seen — complete with large digital speedo, navigation, audio and economy read-outs, plus clear speed limit warning function (accompanied by an annoying audible version).

Despite being down on power compared to its forebear, the Corolla ZR hybrid feels brisker off the line, stronger in the midrange and more consistent when it comes to low-speed brake pedal feel.

Efficiency during our reasonably spirited and mostly rural launch drive was a lacklustre 7.2L/100km, but the ZR’s sharper steering and much grippier 225/40 R18 Dunlop SP Sport Maxx rubber dramatically improved road holding, although the lower-profile rubber is much louder on all surfaces.

In higher-output (conventional) 2.0-litre petrol form, the ZR’s superior grip, better body control, extensive tech list and circa-$30K price tag probably make it the pick of the range in terms of value.

In terms of the new Toyota Corolla’s place in the small car pecking order there’s a caveat. While it may have moved ahead of key rivals like the Honda Civic and Hyundai i30 in terms of standard safety features, when it comes to performance, refinement and design it has only matched the rest of the hatch class.

Indeed, in the face of a new crop of hatch rivals including 2019 Ford Focus, Mazda3 and Kia Cerato, Toyota will still very much have a fight on its hands.

How much does the 2018 Toyota Corolla Ascent Sport hatch cost?

Price: $22,870 (plus on-road costs)
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol
Output: 125kW/200Nm
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Fuel: 6.3L/100km
CO2: 148g/km
Safety rating: TBC

How much does the 2018 Toyota Corolla ZR hybrid hatch cost?

Price: $31,870 (plus on-road costs)
Engine: 1.8-litre four-cylinder petrol/electric
Output: 90kW
Transmission: CVT automatic
Fuel: 4.2L/100km
CO2: 97g/km
Safety rating: TBC

(motoring.com.au, http://bit.ly/2M8JrTy)

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