The Toyota Corolla is Australia’s top-selling passenger car, and the closest thing in its class to a default choice.
By that, I mean the proportion of owners who simply trade their old Corolla for a new one is quite high, which means Toyota could really have just ‘rolled the arm over’ and put in a token effort. The fact that it didn’t says a lot.
See, this Corolla hatch does all the things a Corolla is supposed to. It’s well-made, cheap to run, and we’ve no evidence to question its reliability.
Yet it’s also handsome, well-specified, and genuinely fun to drive through corners – claims that would not have held water in reference to the old model.
The cheapest Corolla hatch is called Ascent Sport, priced at $25,390 before on-road costs or about $29,300 drive-away when fitted with the optional CVT automatic transmission.
Next up the ladder is the Corolla SX at $28,795 before on-roads or about $32,850 drive-away. Topping off the list is the 2021 Toyota Corolla ZR we’re testing here, at $32,695 before on-road costs or about $36,900 drive-away.
These drive-away prices are all based on a Victorian postcode, and sourced from Toyota’s public website. All prices are for the standard 2.0-litre petrol engine option, with a petrol-electric hybrid available across the range commanding a further $2000.
All Corollas come with Bi-LED headlights, LED tail lights and daytime running lights, an 8.0-inch touchscreen, Bluetooth, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and a reversing camera.
The mid-range SX adds extras including auto-folding side mirrors, privacy glass, proximity key access, DAB radio, satellite navigation, and a wireless phone charging pad.
Above this, our ZR tester adds 18-inch alloy wheels (the other grades have 16s), leather and ‘Ultrasuede’ seat trim, heated front seats with driver’s-side electric adjustment, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, an upgraded 7.0-inch driver’s trip computer display, a projecting head-up display, and an eight-speaker JBL audio system.
Glacier White paint is free, while premium colour choices including metallic/mica/pearlescent blue, black, silver, grey or red are all an extra $500. You can also go for a two-tone look with contrasting roof paint for a further $450.
Our test car’s hue is Peacock Black, which actually has shades of blue-green through it in the right light.
Regardless of variant, the Corolla comes standard with seven airbags, autonomous emergency braking that also detects pedestrians and cyclists (the latter only in daytime), active lane-keeping assist, road-sign assist, automatic high-beam, and adaptive cruise control.
The SX and ZR add blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert.
Crash tester ANCAP awarded the Corolla hatch five stars in 2018, including 96 per cent for adult occupant protection and 83 per cent for child occupants.
The only thing missing is a Yaris-style front-centre airbag to reduce side-impact head clashes.
The basics are all very well covered, and in typical Corolla fashion it’s all put together flawlessly with hardy and well-chosen materials. It feels very solid and cohesive.
The bucket seats are supportive and offer plenty of movement, ditto the well-trimmed steering wheel with damped and ergonomic buttons and shifter paddles.
The basic analogue gauges flank a large and legible trip computer, plus the big colour head-up display on the windscreen helps you keep your eyes on the road more, and is therefore a most welcome addition.
The centre touchscreen is mounted in your eyeline and uses hard buttons for shortcuts. The maps are nice and clear, there’s phone mirroring, and your home screen has various tiles that can be modified to suit your tastes.
Toyota’s infotainment is quite basic, in that you cant use your fingers to swipe/pinch/zoom as smoothly as you can in many other systems. But it covers the fundamentals well enough. The JBL audio system is also quite good.
Cabin storage is a little limited. There’s an okay glovebox and door bins, and cupholders, but also a small centre console and nothing much else along the centre tunnel.
The charging pad below the fascia is a good touch, though the placement of the seat heater buttons right before it means you often warm up your butt every time you place your phone on charge by mistake.
Where the Corolla falls over a little is the back seats, which offer less legroom and headroom than most competitors (adults will fit, they just won’t be sprawled out). There are at least rear air vents and cupholders.
The boot is absurdly small, at just 217 litres with the temporary spare wheel below the loading floor (a ZR Hybrid with a tyre-repair kit can stow 333L). By contrast a Hyundai i30’s boot stows 395L.
The base engine across all Corolla grades is a 2.0-litre ‘Dynamic Force’ naturally-aspirated four-cylinder petrol unit making 125kW of power at 6600rpm and 200Nm of torque between 4400 and 4800rpm.
Those outputs are up 21 per cent and 15 per cent over the old Corolla’s 1.8-litre, by the way, though it still falls rather short of the 150kW/265Nm Hyundai i30 and Kia Cerato range-toppers, or the 139kW/252Nm Mazda 3 in G25 engine guise.
As such its power-to-weight ratio of 90kW per tonne falls short of the i30 N Line’s 109kW/t and the Mazda 3 G25 GT’s 104kW/t.
Toyota’s 2.0-litre is mated to a CVT automatic transmission with a novel mechanical launch gear to make it snappier off the mark, and 10 sequential shift points to make it feel more like a conventional torque-converter-style automatic.
Front-wheel drive is standard. Toyota claims combined-cycle fuel consumption of 6.0 litres per 100km, and it’ll run on basic 91 RON petrol.
The $2000 pricier 1.8-litre petrol-electric hybrid cuts 91 RON fuel use to 4.2L/100km. Assuming a fuel price of $1.50 per litre, that’s $2.70 saved for every 100km driven, meaning you’d pay back the difference in about 75,000km.
The engine is well suited to stop/start commuting, because it gives you instant linear response to throttle inputs and the CVT’s launch gear engages nicely.
Average zero to 100km/h dashes of 9.5 seconds aren’t exactly hot-hatch quick, but it’s well calibrated to punch into gaps and get moving decisively at lower speeds.
Like all naturally aspirated engines it needs plenty of revs – peak power arrives at 6600rpm and peak torque between 4400 and 4800rpm – if you want to get anywhere in a hurry, which takes an edge off refinement levels.
I averaged fuel use of 7.5L/100km, which is decent if not level to the factory claim.
In short, it’s still punchier than the somewhat breathless hybrid under heavy throttle (though not below 50km/h where the latter’s electric motor does the heavy lifting) but not as good on fuel.
Where the Corolla really shines is in its well-sorted handling dynamics. The strut front suspension is accompanied by a trailing wishbone rear independent suspension setup, whereas many rivals use a torsion or twist beam.
This, coupled with very light yet direct electric-assisted steering and a stiff body means the Corolla has excellent body control through corners, and turns in with agility.
Whether it’s punting around a roundabout or navigating a series of switchbacks down a mountainside, the Corolla is deceptively nippy.
It also rides nicely, with a decent amount of compliance and comfort built into the tune. Of course, the ZR’s wheels mean the tyre sidewalls are thinner and therefore offer less bump isolation that the lower grades, but it’s never brittle or sharp over bad roads.
Noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) levels, particularly in terms of tyre roar over coarse-chip bitumen, could be more controlled though: a reading of 73dB over my test road was a few decibels higher than a comparable Skoda Scala I drove concurrently.
The active safety systems are excellent, particularly the lane tracing assist that determinedly keeps the car in the centre of the lane through subtle steering corrections.
All Toyotas get a five-year warranty with no distance limit.
Servicing is incredibly well-priced, initially anyway. The first five visits are each capped at $180, and the intervals between visits are now 12 months or 15,000km (the old model had six-month/10,000km intervals).
The price for service number six at either 72 months or 90,000km is a steeper $793.85. This dips to $260.96 for service number seven but climbs back to $833.70 for your eighth service. Even so, those first five services are as cheap as it gets.
The hybrid model costs more or less the same to maintain too, incidentally, and the battery is covered with a minimum warranty of eight years.
If you need a small hatchback with a decent boot and big back seats, look elsewhere. Toyota has calculated that people who want more space are likely after an SUV.
Likewise, if you want hot hatch engine performance, neither the Corolla’s naturally-aspirated engine or hybrid option give you that.
But the reason why I like this Corolla is that it isn’t merely cheap to own and run, and built as solidly as a rock. It’s also loaded with features, looks sharp, and actually rides and handles fantastically well.
So even if you’re buying this generation of Corolla out of habit and loyalty, rest assured you’re getting a highly capable and contemporary vehicle as well.
MORE: Toyota Corolla showroom