Even after almost 50 years, there’s no question the Toyota Corolla continues to improve.
Dependable. Reliable. Enduring. Unstoppable.
Look up any of these words in the dictionary and you’ll probably find a picture of a Toyota Corolla.
Japan’s world-beating small car has held an almost unassailed place on the global automotive stage for almost as long as most baby boomers have been alive.
First launched in 1966, it has been in showrooms for 47 consecutive years, registering an incredible 40 million sales – more than any car in history.
At least 1.25 million of those have been in Australia – and I’d wager some of the first models sold way back in 1967 are still on our roads. Toyota claims more than 26 million Corollas remain in service around the planet – an extraordinary record.
Last year, the Corolla was Australia’s best-selling car – the first time a Toyota had achieved that status – although the mantle is likely to pass this year to the better, slicker, prettier Mazda3.
But the Corolla still retains a huge core of loyal, rusted-on fans – admittedly many of them fleet and corporate buyers enamoured of the Corolla’s incredible reputation for cheap, trouble-free motoring.
Its sales appeal has been given a fresh boost with the recent arrival of the new Corolla sedan – not the first time the car has been offered in non-hatchback form, but the first time in almost three years.
It can be had for as little as $20,740 plus on-road costs – a touch dearer than the base-model hatch equivalent – bringing it into play for the majority of those whose budget and motoring requirements fit the small-car mould.
Models sold in Australia will be built in Thailand – taking advantage of that country’s free-trade agreement with Australia to trim costs – with the result the new Corolla is cheaper than the previous model.
It will be offered in three variants – entry-level Ascent, mid-range SX and the top-end ZR, which unlike its cheaper siblings can only be had with a self-shifting transmission.
All Corollas come with a 6.1-inch colour LED touch-screen with Bluetooth connectivity, USB and iPod inputs. SX and ZR models add a Toyota Link system that allows smartphones to link their apps to the system, effectively allowing internet connectivity via the screen.
This latest Corolla has grown by 100mm in wheelbase – allowing for more interior and cargo space, yet its centre of gravity has been lowered to produce improved handling.
We drove the flagship ZR – which at $30k is possibly not the best-value machine in this segment, nor is it the slickest or the best to drive. But it does all three competently enough to still present a convincing case to those for whom Toyota’s reputation for practicality and dependability is a key selling point.
We’d be very happy to have a Corolla sedan in our household – if not for me then certainly for my teenage son. It’s the perfect balance for a young driver – acceptable performance, ease of driving, and predictable handling and acceleration. It’s about as rock-solid as any car can be at this price.
It combines a crisp 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine that delivers a useful, if not dynamic, 103 kilowatts and 173 Newton metres – enough to get the Corolla up and rolling proficiently without setting any speed records.
Our test machine was driven through Toyota’s smooth-shifting Multi-drive constantly variable (CVT) transmission – one that matches well to the engine and to the car’s personality.
Toyota says the transmission differs from other CVTs because it features a torque converter – more like traditional automatics – reducing the sensation of the transmission “slipping” at high revs.
It’s a massive improvement on the ancient four-speed auto previously found in this model and allows the driver to take charge of the gear changes manually – but only via the gearshift lever rather than any pretentious gearshift paddles. The Corolla doesn’t pretend to be a sports car – and it’s probably just as well.
It does, however, deliver seamless acceleration, assured handling and braking and a smooth, quiet ride.
Just as pleasing is its fuel-efficiency – with an average thirst of just 6.6L/100km in the automatic – which shades the manual version by almost half-a-litre.
Our real-world test – conducted almost entirely within the city confines – produced equally pleasing results – 7.4L/100km for more than 250km of urban running. On the open road it feels composed and very solid, with minimal intrusion from wind or road noise – so often the bugbear of smaller machines.
Around town, of course, it remains nimble and easily manoeuvred, despite its growing dimensions.
The Corolla sedan won’t just appeal to the fledgling drivers, either. It’s a surprisingly large machine with ample space for front and rear passengers, and a capacious boot more in keeping with a mid-sized or even full-sized machine. Empty nesters and budding families take note.
The sedan’s styling picks up many of the queues from its big-brother Camry – they are unmistakably cut from the same cloth. That won’t set everyone’s pulse racing, but it’s nonetheless a nicely proportioned, stylishly finished piece of metal.
Inside, the Corolla is relentlessly functional and thoughtfully presented. Instruments are clear and concise, including a digital speed readout as well as the analogue version – which is particularly handy when trying to avoid speed cameras around town.
Our ZR model included satellite navigation in the centrally mounted display, which also hosts climate-control and audio settings. Dials and switches are effective if not aesthetically pleasing.
Even the entry-level model Ascent includes cruise control, reverse parking camera and parking monitors, as well as the security of seven airbags and a full suite of electronic driver aids.
The mid-range SX adds goodies such as 16-inch alloys, keyless entry and start and front-parking radar; the flagship ZR enjoys automatic air-conditioning, rain-sensing wipers, LED running lamps, satellite navigation and leather trim, as well as an electric driver’s seat.
Toyota says the ZR is $1000 cheaper than the Ultima it replaces, while the SX is $1500 cheaper than the old Ascent Sport.
Even after almost 50 years, there’s no question the Corolla continues to improve.
And its popularity shows no sign of slowing down – the car is built in no fewer than 16 production sites around the world – with one rolling off the production line every 27 seconds.
That’s quite extraordinary – particularly for a car that’s made a virtue of being anything but.
TOYOTA COROLLA ZR SEDAN
DETAILS: Four-door, five-seat small sedan with four-cylinder petrol engine and seven-speed constantly variable automatic transmission (six-speed manual available only on lower-sped models).
TECH STUFF: 1.8-litre four-cylinder in-line petrol engine with 16-valves, dual variable valve timing produces 103KW@6400rpm; 173Nm@4000rpm; seven-speed continually variable belt-and-pulley transmission with lock-up torque converter and manual-shift mode.
FEATURES: Seven airbags.
THIRST: 6.6L/100km (combined average, auto); 153gm/km.
VERDICT: A motoring icon gets bigger, better.
BOTTOM LINE: $30,990 plus on-road costs.