Toyota Corolla Review
Remember when the first hybrid, the Toyota Prius came out? It might have looked like some sort of space-age wart, but it was as clever as ET’s rocket ship. If slightly slower. These days, hybrid technology has become common, but trailblazer Toyota is still at the head of the pack. And it’s putting that technology in more conventional, better looking cars, such as the Corolla. Revitalising the time-honoured family hatchback name meant bumping off the old, unappealing Auris, and so much the better. Because the replacement is a vast improvement.
Select's rating score* - 3.9 / 5
At a Glance
Although the hybrid tech steals the headlines, the new Corolla still has to compete with conventionally powered rivals. And it does that with competitive boot space, a comfortable ride and decent build quality, as well as strong levels of standard equipment. It’s hardly one of the sportiest models you can choose, but the relaxed nature is a selling point in itself.
The five-tier range starts with the basic Icon, which gets some attractive features including alloy wheels, two-zone climate control and even heated seats. But the slightly more luxurious Icon Tech is arguably a more alluring proposition. You can have a GR Sport trim that doesn’t do much other than add a few sporty-looking touches, but it doesn’t sit that well with the Corolla’s easy going nature.
The Corolla’s real selling point is its hybrid technology that not only improves fuel economy, but also makes the car feel quieter and more refined. The technology makes the car cheaper to run for company car drivers and private customers alike, but there’s more to the Corolla than simple economics.
As standard, the car comes with a wealth of features normally found higher up a model’s range. A reversing camera, for example, is fitted to every Corolla model, even though the parking sensors only arrive when you climb the range slightly. And you get a toucshcreen infotainment system and digital instrument display as standard. Yes, higher-spec Corollas offer a bit more luxury, but the lower-end models really are among the more appealing versions.
Finally, there’s the question of comfort. Where some cars in this class have sacrificed comfort in search of driver involvement, the Corolla has gone the other way. It eschews sportiness in favour of supple suspension, and that’s fine by us. For a journey of any length, this really is among the most comfortable models in its class.
Performance & Drive
Toyota is offering Corolla customers a choice of two different powertrains, but both are petrol-electric ‘self-charging’ hybrid units. There has been some controversy about this name, but what it essentially means is a small electric motor helps the engine out when it’s under load and often takes over when it isn’t.
This differs from a plug-in hybrid, which can be plugged in and used like an electric car or a conventional petrol or diesel, and a mild-hybrid, which uses electrical power to reduce the strain on the engine – it never takes over altogether. Anyway, the point is it charges the batteries by harvesting energy while braking and by using the petrol engine as a generator.
In the Corolla, you can choose whether that engine is a 1.8-litre unit (in which case you’ll get 122hp) or a 2.0-litre engine, which provides you with 184hp. The latter is, predictably, the choice for those seeking performance, but even that car’s 7.9-second 0-62mph time isn’t that impressive. Still, at least it’s better than the 1.8’s 10.9 seconds.
Those figures kind of betray the Corolla driving experience. The hybrid powertrain is quite refined and laid back, with relatively little engine noise unless you accelerate hard and just a few space-age hums from the electric motor when that’s in use. It can sound a bit like a very distant siren when you speed up, though, and that colours the experience at first.
But never mind, because that refinement is complemented by a rather relaxed, composed suspension set-up that makes the Corolla really rather comfortable. It isn’t a Rolls-Royce, but it’s up there with the best in the class.
To achieve that, Toyota has had to sacrifice handling somewhat, and that shows through if you try to throw the Corolla around. It’s fine, but it lacks the engagement of more lively competitors such as the Ford Focus and Mazda3. It’s also hindered by the transmission, which is essentially a rather hesitant, lazy automatic, even though the engineers will say otherwise. It feels a bit sluggish and slow on the uptake, but it’s just about okay as long as you don’t put it under much strain.
With all that hybrid technology under the bonnet, you expect the Corolla to be efficient. Fortunately it is, with the more frugal 1.8 returning between 55.3 and 62.7mpg on the official economy test. That’s getting on for diesel levels of economy, although it’s worth noting hybrids are generally at their best in town where the electrical power can take more of the strain. On a long run, diesels are generally the more efficient option.
If you don’t fancy the 1.8-litre engine’s slovenly 0-62mph times, however, the 2.0-litre version isn’t much thirstier. That car will still do more than 50mpg on the official test – just a few mpg behind its sibling.
The hybrid technology really comes into its own when we talk about the Corolla’s emissions, because this family hatchback barely pumps more than 100g of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere for every kilometre it travels. Relative to some petrol- and diesel-powered rivals, that’s pretty good going.
And it means the Corolla makes sense for company car drivers, who will want the 1.8 to keep their tax bills as low as possible. Because tax is calculated using emissions, the Corolla could fall into the 25% tax bracket for the 2021/22 financial year. And the 2.0-litre version is only a few brackets higher.
The Corolla’s interior is probably best described as conservatively futuristic. It isn’t particularly wacky or left-field, but it looks fresh and ultra-modern with its angled air vents, blue highlights and iPad-style ‘floating’ infotainment system.
Perhaps more importantly, though, it feels as though it has been built to last. Some of the plastics are slightly hard, but that’s par for the course in cars of this size. For the most part it’s tactile and smooth, with switchgear that has a reassuring heft and resistance to it. There’s this overwhelming sense of quality and attention to detail that simply makes the Corolla feel bulletproof.
It’s also quite comfortable, with decent seats that have plenty of adjustment. Or at least they do in most directions. Rather than featuring a wheel that allows almost infinite adjustment of the seat back, the Corolla has a leaver with a handful of set positions. If your ideal driving position is somewhere between two settings, then that’s just tough.
The surprising weak spot in the Corolla’s armour is the eight-inch touchscreen infotainment screen, which feels out of place in a car with such clever mechanical technology. It’s difficult to navigate and isn’t especially attractive to look at thanks to a dated design. The resolution isn’t great, either.
Thankfully, however, the Corolla comes with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay as standard, which allows you to swap Toyota’s iffy graphics for the smartphone companies’ much more modern (and more intuitive) designs. They can’t do much about the screen resolution, though.
Aside from the screen, however, the on-board technology is generally good. Standard equipment includes a handy reversing camera and a digital instrument cluster that’s easy to read, but can get a tad cluttered. High-end cars get a head-up display that makes life even easier.
Practicality & Boot Space
From the front seats, the Corolla feels very roomy, with plenty of space to get comfortable and plenty of headroom. Move further back, though, and it’s slightly less commodious. Don’t get us wrong; there’s enough room for four adults, with decent headroom and, if you leave the central rear seat empty, enough shoulder room, too. But leg room is less generous than some other cars in this class, particularly if you have tall people occupying the front seats. It isn’t a disaster, but it’s worth considering if you regularly carry four grown-ups.
Boot space, meanwhile, depends largely on which hybrid powertrain you choose. The 1.8-litre powertrain takes up less space, so Toyota has managed to elicit 361 litres of luggage space from its family hatch. That’s slightly less than you’ll find in a Volkswagen Golf or Seat Leon, or even a Ford Focus, but the difference isn’t huge.
Go for the 2.0-litre version, though, and that shrinks to a measly 313 litres, which is small for cars in this class. In fact, it isn’t especially big compared with smaller superminis such as the Honda Jazz and Ford Fiesta.
The Corolla romped to a five-star Euro NCAP crash test score when it was tested in 2019, making this among the safest cars in its class. Yes, cars regularly achieve all five stars in the test these days, but the Corolla’s scores were particularly impressive. The 95% score for adult occupant protection was a major highlight, and it was joined by highly respectable scores for child occupant and vulnerable road user protection.
But Toyota is clearly hoping customers never have to test that protection for themselves. So every car comes with the company’s Safety Sense 2 driver assistance features. These include a system that brakes automatically if the car detects an impending collision, and a system that helps to keep the car in its lane. You get adaptive cruise control, too, which maintains a safe distance to the car in front while you’re driving along.
The Corolla range essentially comprises five different trim levels, with some offering quite distinct characteristics. If you want your Corolla to look classier, sportier or more understated, there’s a version for you. And that’s before you even consider the Corolla Saloon and estate body styles.
Things kick off with the Icon, which comes with 16-inch alloy wheels, automatic LED headlights and LED fog lights. Inside, you get a touchscreen infotainment system, two-zone climate control and heated seats. Oh, and when we say heated seats, we mean four of them. Toyota gives you heated front seats and heated outer rear seats as standard on the Corolla. No messing about.
And if you think that’s good, you haven’t seen the standard reversing camera, the Android Auto and Apple CarPlay smartphone integration technology or the digital instrument cluster. Even adaptive cruise control is standard.
All that’s missing, then, is a satellite navigation system, parking sensors and automatic windscreen wipers, two of which come with the Icon Tech. Yes, the next model up the Corolla ladder is marked out by its satellite navigation system and parking sensors in both the front and rear bumpers.
If you want the automatic wipers, you’ll have to try the Design grade that sits slap bang in the middle of the hierarchy. Arguably the pick of the range, it comes with handy gizmos including the aforementioned automatic wipers, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror and ambient interior lighting. The mid-range model is differentiated by its privacy glass, 17-inch alloy wheels and part-leather upholstery.
Continuing to climb the Corolla ladder brings you to the GR Sport, which is named after Toyota’s Gazoo Racing motorsport team. Don’t be fooled, though, because the GR Sport doesn’t come with any extra power, trick suspension or massive exhaust. Instead, you get some 18-inch alloy wheels and redesigned bumpers. You do get a head-up display and sports seats, though.
Finally, the Excel tops off the line-up, bringing black leather upholstery and keyless entry, as well as bi-LED headlights. You get some red trim on the sports seats, too, and estate versions get a power-operated tailgate.
The options list is relatively short, with a panoramic glass roof, bi-tone paint and a JBL sound system all on the agenda. There are some rather snazzy colours to choose from, though, with a vibrant red and a steely blue both looking sharp. The Titan Bronze (brown) is a slightly more acquired taste, however.
Although the controversial ‘self-charging hybrid’ label acts as an eco-friendly badge of honour, Toyota doesn’t see the Corolla as an alternative to electric cars. Instead, this is designed to be the family car you buy if you decide you decide petrol engines are a bit too thirsty but you don’t cover the distances required to make diesel a worthwhile investment. Or diesel’s recent bad press has put you off.
As a result, alternatives are the usual family hatchback suspects. The Volkswagen Golf and Ford Focus lead the pack, with their appealing looks, practicality and driving dynamics, but it’s also worth looking at the Seat Leon (a Golf in a sharply styled suit) and the Vauxhall Astra. If you really like driving, the Mazda3 is the car for you, and if you want more space, consider the Skoda Octavia.
Skoda also makes the Scala, which is closer in size to the Corolla, and other rivals include the Renault Megane, Fiat Tipo and the Peugeot 308, although the latter is set to be replaced with a new model later this year. Or you could go for a more premium rival, such as the Audi A3, BMW 1 Series or Mercedes-Benz A-Class.
And if you prefer something that rides a little higher, the VW T-Roc, Seat Ateca and Mazda CX-30 are all worth a look. The new Hyundai Tucson is a striking-looking choice, too, while the Suzuki S-Cross and the VW T-Cross are also worth a look – even though they’re at opposite ends of the spectrum. The Kia Niro should be considered, too, particularly given its hybrid powertrain, although those who prefer petrol power might consider the similarly sized XCeed.
Verdict & Next Steps
A refined and comfortable choice, the Corolla is capable of competing even before you consider its hybrid powertrain. Add the attractive tax rates and the possibility of low fuel bills – especially if you only usually drive around town – then the Toyota makes a solid case for itself. It might not be especially exciting, but if you want dependable urban transport that’s capable of carrying a family in comfort, then look no further.
Where to next?
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*Score based on Select’s unique meta score analysis, taking into account the UK’s top five leading independent car website reviews of the Toyota Corolla
**Correct as of 08/04/2021. Based on 9 months initial payment, 5,000 miles over a 36 month lease. Initial payment equivalent to 9 monthly payments or £1761.37 Ts and Cs apply. Credit is subject to status.