Believe it or not, I’m pretty excited at the prospect of this 2019 Toyota Corolla range review. Not so long ago, you’d have thought I was mad for making that statement, but stay with me for a minute…

The Corolla looks better than it has for a long time, it’s more accomplished than it’s ever been in an engineering sense, and there is more than one engine variant worth considering – one an excellent hybrid drive system. Who thought we’d be putting excellent and hybrid together in a sentence relating to an affordable populist car so soon.

Keep in mind, I spent hours waxing lyrical with a mate not long ago (a pretty serious Toyota fan boy it must be said) that the lofty heights of the late 1980s Twin Cam might never again be reached. So it’s fair to say I wasn’t too optimistic about the world’s most popular car and its future.

My mate has owned two, and I’ve owned two Sprinters, so there were some misty eyes throughout the course of that conversation. The good old days and all that. Good lord they are slow and basic if you drive them now though – how did they feel so sharp back in the day?

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Left to right: Ascent Sport, SX Hybrid, and ZR Hybrid

You’ve no doubt looked at our thoughts on individual model variants over the past few months, and it might seem logical by reading those reviews individually where the CarAdvice pick of the range sits. However, assembling three models together, driving them back-to-back over the same roads, and critically assessing standard features might see a less obvious winner emerge.

It’s not always as simple as it looks. There’s plenty of passion out there for the Toyota brand in CarAdvice reader land too, such is the enduring popularity of the brand in Australia.

It’s worth mentioning here – again – the Corolla is the world’s most successful car. An unchanged naming lineage that dates back decades, bonded by a simple recipe for success – reliability, build quality, affordability and user friendliness. The Corolla story is both a long and successful one and this new model (both on paper and on the road) is well-placed to continue that story.

First, the styling. We think broadly at CarAdvice, this new Corolla is the best-looking Corolla for a long time. Its styling is now sharp without being fussy, attractive without deferring to silly trends that are likely to age quickly, and compact externally. It seems Toyota has finally started listening to critics who claimed its styling across the board was staid, boring and conservative. You couldn’t look at the new Corolla and make that claim.

Some punters don’t like the look of the new Corolla, but Toyota was on something of a hiding to nothing in that regard. You can’t please all of the people all of the time, and there was no guarantee that everyone would love the new Corolla no matter what Toyota did. For us though, the styling gets a big tick overall. Crucially, it puts the new Corolla at a juncture where it can compete for the style-conscious buyer on a level playing field.


Models and Pricing

Here we’ve assembled three variants that sit nicely across the range. There’s the entry-level Ascent Sport 2.0 ($22,870), the middle of the range 1.8 SX Hybrid ($28,370) and the range-topping 1.8 ZR Hybrid ($31,870) – all prices before on-road costs. In the case of the two hybrid variants, those prices include an auto as standard, while the Ascent Sport pricing is for the manual model.

Adding a CVT to the Ascent Sport, takes the starting price up by $1500 before on-road costs. In their own way, all three on test here provide a compelling value story depending on how far your budget stretches.

Across the hatchback range, we think these three models cleanly illustrate the difference as you step up through the model range. The 2.0-litre engine will be the favoured option for those buyers not wanting the complexity (or cost) of the hybrid drivetrain, while the SX and ZR will illustrate the difference in trim and standard inclusions as you go from mid- to high-grade.

In the case of the SX hybrid, there is only a $1500 premium above the petrol-only drivetrain in the same trim grade. Regardless of which model grade meets your budget expectations, there’s plenty to cast your eye over in the 2019 Corolla model range.


Specifications

Ascent Sport standard equipment highlights include: 16-inch alloy wheels, rear-view camera, eight-inch colour touchscreen, a full suite of safety inclusions via Toyota safety sense, full-size alloy spare wheel, 4.2-inch driver display screen, Bi-LED headlights, seven SRS airbags and a five-star ANCAP safety rating.

SX Hybrid adds to that with standard equipment highlights including: 16-inch alloy wheels, smart entry and start, dual-zone climate control, a full suite of safety inclusions via Toyota safety sense, wireless phone charging, blind-spot monitor, 4.2-inch driver display screen, satellite navigation, DAB+ radio, seven SRS airbags and a five-star ANCAP safety rating.

Finally, the ZR Hybrid adds to that with standard equipment highlights including: 18-inch alloy wheels, auto dimming rear-view mirror, black or red leather accented seats, heated sports seats up front, a full suite of safety inclusions via Toyota safety sense, head-up display, seven-inch driver display screen, eight-speaker JBL premium audio system, DAB+ radio, seven SRS airbags and a five-star ANCAP safety rating.


Engines

The 2.0-litre, direct injection, four-cylinder in the Ascent Sport makes 125kW and 200Nm and can run on 91RON fuel if need be. We use 98RON in our test vehicles and the ADR fuel claim of 6.0L/100km isn’t that far away from the 7.3L/100km we achieved in the real world.

We’ve previously tested the manual in the base Ascent Sport grade, and while Mike liked the manual gearbox, we also think the engine works nicely with the CVT in this application. Adding the CVT, only pushes the price up by $1500 – very reasonable.

The 1.8-litre Atkinson cycle hybrid four-cylinder puts forward a compelling argument on numbers alone, even before you drive it. Toyota has a long history of integrating this kind of tech, and indeed in the Corolla, as it has been in Prius previously, the relationship is almost seamless.

Above: the regular 2.0-litre petrol engine

The 1.8 generates 72kW and 142Nm, and it’s paired with two electric motor generators. The main drive motor chips in 53kW and 163Nm, and while Toyota states the combined power rating at 90kW, there is no claimed combined torque figure. There’s a 6.5Ah nickel-metal hydride battery pack, and drive is sent to the front wheels through an e-CVT and revised power control unit.

Where the hybrid impresses most, is real world efficiency. Toyota claims 4.2L/100km on the combined cycle, and after a week, and more than 500km on the odo, we had the SX sitting at 4.6L/100km and the ZR at 4.7L/100km. Keep in mind, the majority of our testing was conducted in town, in traffic, with no silly techniques aimed at maximising efficiency. As such, that real world return is seriously impressive.

The hybrid system is clever too – as it should be, no doubt – and can allow the Corolla to run on electric power only, for longer than we expected. It even worked up at 80km/h on numerous occasions. The ‘Rolla also features regenerative braking to keep the batteries topped up as much as possible, while also charging from the petrol engine.

The e-CVT is as enjoyable to use as any other version from any other manufacturer, and the big plus for the hybrid system is the seamless transition from electric to petrol propulsion. You can barely feel it at all, no matter how much load you’re putting on the drivetrain. I reckon buyers are more likely to embrace the technology too, if it is not so invasive to the driving experience.

Above: the 1.8-litre petrol-electric hybrid system


Infotainment

While Toyota has improved a system that was previously well off the pace, the lack of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto is worth noting here. Sure, we’ve tested plenty of brands with smartphone connectivity that doesn’t work as well as it should, but when you’re pitching a car at younger, tech savvy buyers, I reckon a direct smartphone connection is a must.

Moving on from that, there’s a lot to like about the Corolla’s system and the way it works. All three have similar control systems, but you get added standard features as you move up the range. For example, SX adds wireless phone charging, while ZR adds a head-up display.

What we do hear consistently from Toyota owners, is the following. Take the time to set up the smartphone, app-based controls, get to know how they work and get familiar with the system, and it’s pretty much foolproof. I don’t doubt that, Toyotas always seem to do what they claim they will on the box. I just think that a direct smartphone system would be more appealing to more people. It’s also easier to chop and change between drivers or family members who use the car.

Where the proprietary satellite navigation system is fitted, it’s the usual Toyota fare. That is, basic in appearance and graphic delivery, but accurate to a fault and easy to use too. While we often talk about smartphone connectivity, many buyers still love the idea of a decent, reliable factory sat-nav system, and Toyota’s is a very solid one.

As always though, Toyota’s switchgear, layout and design is as good as expected. It’s all very easy to decipher, and quickly get familiar with too, there’s nothing fussy about the layout or the controls themselves. There’s that ‘old cardigan’ feel to the way the Corolla’s cabin is laid out and there’s not that sense of too many buttons and too many controls.

Crucially for buyers who like to keep their cars longer than a three-year lease period, the Corolla retains Toyota’s tough-as-nails feeling of durability inside the cabin. It’s such a hard factor to define but there’s something about the cabin and the controls that feel as if they won’t ever break under repeated use.

NOTE: Click through to our gallery for many more infotainment shots


Cabins

The only real cabin negative we’ve managed to extract over the course of our previous Corolla reviews (and indeed against i30 and Mazda 3 in a recent comparison test) is the tighter cabin confines, compared to the rest of the class.

There’s also a penalty to be paid here if you opt for the hybrid drivetrain, but in the tradition of a range review, you’ve already decided you want a Corolla, so the lack of space in the cabin isn’t so much of an issue in this specific test.

Kudos to Toyota for wireless charging. Pair your newer phone to the Bluetooth system, and you never need to worry about a cable again. It’s one of those ‘you don’t realise how handy it is until you have it features’ too, is wireless charging.

Storage inside the cabin itself is decent, if not best in class. Good sized cupholders that don’t get in the way of your elbows when you’re driving, useful door pockets, and the charge pad that takes care of your mobile phone. If you do use the Corolla as your primary vehicle, it does that job admirably.

The second row can be tight if you have taller occupants up front and that’s obviously the case across all three models here. So long as you’re not parents of lanky teenagers, the second row will be serviceable for occasional use for adults.

While there’s no doubt the ZR is the most premium feeling cabin, and the Ascent Sport feels like the entry level model, neither sits as a remote outlier at either end of the pricing spectrum. Even Ascent Sport has an insulated, robust feeling of quality about it, in the way it has been designed and executed.

I think the key here is that you don’t feel like you’re missing anything by taking a seat inside the SX Hybrid over the more expensive ZR. Sure the sports seats with heating up front are a quality addition, but the SX still presents as a comfortable, well-appointed cabin.

NOTE: Click through to our gallery for many more interior shots


On The Road

Three model grades here, but only two engines on test, so let’s take a look first at the conventional 2.0-litre. On our initial test, Mike Costello wrote: “The new base petrol engine is also excellent… while it lacks the surge of low-down oomph from just above idle inherent in small turbo rivals, it’s smooth and refined under load and delivers what it has in a linear fashion, sufficient for a circa 8.5sec 0-100km/h dash.”

He’s right too, with the base model’s engine feeling more than peppy enough for the daily grind, and while it doesn’t have any serious punching power in terms of outright speed, I’d argue this corner of the segment doesn’t need that anyway. That can be kept for the hot hatch brigade.

In contrast, the 1.8-litre – largely thanks to its hybrid technology – feels faster, peppier, more enthusiastic and generally smoother as well. In fact, the transition from electric power to petrol power is so seamless you have to pay attention to pick it. This is undoubtedly a platform where hybrid works and makes sense.

On our initial test of the SX Hybrid James wrote: “The availability of the electric motor’s torque from a standstill means the hybrid is pretty enthusiastic off the line. Once moving, the petrol engine will inevitably cut in, with timing dependent on how hard you hit the throttle.”

That’s the key too, the hybrid really kicks in nicely off the mark, which you will absolutely appreciate around town. There’s so much traffic light stop/start nonsense in big cities now, not to mention quick-turn-across-traffic manoeuvres, that you will appreciate the low-down punch.

The CVT delivers none of the annoying tendencies we’ve criticised them for in the past, and in fact, it stands out as a positive point worth mentioning here in this platform. The hybrid drivetrain, regardless of specification, never feels like a sportscar, but it’s brought some fun back to the Corolla drive experience.

We reckon the hybrid rides nicely, delivers enough sporting intent to suit the targeted buyer, and delivered impressively on its fuel usage claim in the real world. It’s a potent blend of current tech, and lighter, airier driving dynamics despite a heftier platform beneath it.

You could be forgiven for thinking the added weight that comes with the complexity of the hybrid drivetrain might make the Corolla feel a little slovenly, but that’s not even remotely the case. In fact, it feels just as light on its feet as the non-hybrid model.

Kez’s assessment of the ZR Hybrid brought something to light that we wouldn’t have said about a Corolla for some time: “Dynamically, the Corolla displays new-found flair. It’s still not a corner-carving delight ready to rival hot hatches, but the steering feels more connected and eager than before, with sharp turn-in and level, composed cornering.”

I reckon that’s why the SX Hybrid is the best riding – while the ZR handles nicely its ride is a little on the firm side around town, possibly due to the larger 18-inch alloy wheels. The SX delivers the best of both worlds, with enough sporting credentials to have some fun, but also providing a lovely urban ride.

In hybrid guise, there’s really very little to dislike about the Corolla. The steering is better than you’d expect, the brakes responsive but not suffering any of the nastiness you can get with regenerative systems, and the bump insulation inside the cabin, beautifully damped.

The Corolla is back up near the head of the hatchback class and the hybrid is the pick of the drivetrains on offer.


Warranty and Servicing

Toyota still lags behind the field here, despite trading on a reputation of bulletproof reliability and indestructibility. In short, for me anyway, if your vehicles are that tough, back them with a longer warranty. It’s that simple.

Against competitors offering up to seven years/unlimited kilometre coverage, three years/100,000km does seem very much on the skinny side. Still, if you want a Toyota, that’s where you’re at currently.

The Corolla is however, seriously cheap to run. Services are required every 12 months/15,000km and the first five will cost just $175 each. That’s the case for every Corolla, regardless of engine variant, too.


WRAP UP

The Ascent Sport, while the price-leading, entry-level model in the range, did absolutely nothing wrong on test. The engine is strong, the drivetrain refined enough, and the all round experience well beyond the sharp asking price. If you’re on a budget and you can’t fork out for a variant higher up the food chain, you won’t find the Ascent Sport letting you down.

The range-topping ZR Hybrid also delivers strongly for those buyers wanting the best the new Corolla hatch can offer. Inside the cabin especially, it’s comfortable, premium and well-appointed, with the added benefit of offering the most engaging drivetrain across the range.

However, the winner for both value for money and driving enjoyment is the mid-grade SX Hybrid.

Not entirely unexpected, I guess, but it wasn’t a knockout blow in the first round either. In fact, you could make a pretty strong case for the other two on test here as well if you wanted to argue the point. Despite that though, the SX Hybrid is our winner here.

Somewhat surprisingly the hybrid drivetrain is easily the one we would recommend, and you don’t feel like you’re missing anything inside the cabin of the SX either – despite the ZR’s more premium confines. And that’s the kicker. While the ZR is well-appointed, you genuinely never feel like anything is missing in the SX hybrid and Toyota should be applauded for delivering that sensation.

The best news for buyers though, is that the world’s most popular hatchback is better than it’s been for a long time – and genuinely competitive in the segment too against rivals hell bent on taking it down. It seems Corolla’s success won’t be dissipating anytime soon.

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