I can recall the big-spend 1980s advertising campaigns that spread the word when the Toyota Corolla gained technologies such as front-wheel-drive, fuel injection and multi-valve engines.
It all seems in marked contrast to the somewhat quiet — but arguably even more significant — debut of New Zealand’s long-time most popular small car with a hybrid petrol-electric powertrain.
Toyota New Zealand launched the Corolla Hybrid in June. It uses the five-door Corolla hatch bodystyle and installs the Hybrid Synergy Drive powertrain from the recently superseded third generation Prius as an alternative to the conventional 1.8-litre petrol engine that powers all other Corolla hatch variants.
Pricing at $38,490 positions the Corolla Hybrid between the smaller Prius C model and the higher price alternatives of the Camry Hybrid and recently launched fourth generation Prius. It’s also competitively priced in the middle ground of the Corolla line-up.
The Hybrid is $3000 more than the second-tier Corolla GLX variant and you can attribute a slice of the premium to some additional kit — notably dual-zone climate control, LED head lights with auto-levelling washers plus a smart key entry and push button start system.
And there’s one more advantage for the Hybrid that’s harder to put a dollar figure on. To package the hybrid system battery, Toyota not only gives the Corolla a slightly smaller fuel tank but has replaced the simple torsion beam rear suspension of the conventional hatch with a double wishbone arrangement.
So there’s added value on several different levels to accompany the Hybrid efficiency. But the question which arises most often in relation to hybrids is the relationship between theoretical and achievable real world fuel consumption numbers.
Toyota’s claim for the Corolla Hybrid is 4.1 litres per 100km. On a 368km drive that mixed city and rural roads I achieved 5.0L/100km average consumption. It’s a figure that comes from driving the Hybrid in the same way I’d use a conventional Corolla, with cold morning starts, stop-start city running and a return journey to some interesting Waikato roads with a trip across the Kaimai Range.
In the city a significant amount of the running under 50km/h can be achieved in electric mode and a little technique such as “lift and coast” approaches to red lights and intersections helps with battery charging. Owners who clock big distances in the city can gain the greatest fuel savings;the consumption benefit in highway running is significantly less.
The 1798cc Atkinson Cycle petrol engine develops 73kW at 5200rpm and combined output with the electric drive contribution is 100kW. Toyota’s practice is to quote only a torque figure for the petrol engine — which is 142Nm from 2800-4200rpm — but electric drive boosts that considerably, particularly when operating at lower engine speeds.
The torque boost from the electric motor is a benefit to uphill performance and by “filling” the torque curve it makes the continuously variable transmission a more refined experience which less “flare” to higher revs when bursts of acceleration are needed.
It takes only a short time behind the wheel to be convinced the Hybrid has a more composed ride than any conventional Corolla with its independent suspension rear end feeling more confidently planted on the road.
Lightly weighted electric power steering makes the Corolla easy to drive at low speeds but not as communicative as it might be on the highway. The benefit of the double wishbone rear suspension is a more controlled ride over uneven surfaces — at city speeds and across the lumps and camber changes of rural roads.
The 16-inch alloy wheels have Michelin Energy Saver tyres in 205/55 R16 sizing which remain reasonably quiet on coarse chip surfaces and provide good water clearance on wet roads.
Pleasing aspects of the driving experience include supportive cloth trim front seats and the night driving confidence provided by excellent LED head lights. The driver’s seat has cushion height and slide/recline adjustment with good shape to its bolsters and supportive cushion length.
The hybrid packaging doesn’t require space compromises, with the same 360-litre load volume as a conventional Corolla and a 60/40 split folding rear retained. There’s plenty of rear seat headroom with a flat seat design and good footwell space helped by there not being any centre tunnel intrusion.
An appealing specification is offered and, in addition to the features that lift it above GLX status, the Corolla Hybrid has rear privacy glass, a leather steering wheel, cruise control and an alarm/immobiliser security system.
The six-speaker audio system has a single CD player, USB, auxiliary and Bluetooth connectivity and 7.0-inch touchscreen display.
Safety features include seven airbags, a reversing camera, vehicle stability control and hill start assist while two ISOFIX attachments and three child seat tether hooks are provided.
The Corolla Hybrid brings together New Zealand’s best-selling car with a technology integral to Toyota’s brand positioning and for the acceptance of hybrid technology this car is one more step into the mainstream.
But there is something more than merely low consumption motoring on offer with the mid-range specification and pricing providing an appealing value equation and the powertrain delivers useful gains in flexibility and refinement.