Toyota Corolla Hatch ZR Hybrid road test: Quietly brilliant
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New Zealanders think tourists come to our shores to gaze at stunning natural scenery. Although that’s mostly true, chances are that those tourists will spend the majority of their time looking at our picturesque landscape set against a Toyota-badged foreground. Specifically, this Toyota, the newly released 2019 Corolla hatchback.
Thankfully, New Zealand’s best-selling passenger car has been re-imagined with a bold new design inside and out for the 2019 model year, but perhaps the best news is a promise from Toyota of a more rewarding, “fun to drive” experience behind the wheel.
Fresh hatch models haven’t been here long, but the few that have landed are popular with private, business and rental buyers. The first batch arrived in September, and by October the new model soared straight to the top of the monthly sales charts with more than 1700 registration —1539 of which were rentals.
The new five-strong Corolla hatch range starts at under $30k for 2-litre petrol-powered GX, moving up to a leather-accented SX for $32,490 and GX hybrid for $32,990.
The current headline acts in the range are the 2-litre ZR and 1.8-litre ZR Hybrid, the latter being the top-of-the-range model I tested at $38,490 with Toyota’s all-costs-included drive away pricing.
It is built on the same platform as the CH-R crossover launched last year and the innovative Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) underpinnings gave engineers and designers unprecedented freedom to pen an all-new form for the Corolla in its 12th generation. From any angle, inside and out, it has to be said that Toyota has done a great job of injecting a bit of life into the nameplate.
The straight and angular lines of its predecessor are gone, replaced by sweeping and athletic curves.
The Corolla isn’t a car that would traditionally warrant a second look from passers-by, but the new longer, wider and lower exterior design drew in both colleagues at Driven and NZME during my week-long ZR Hybrid test.
A week of comments like: “What’s that?” were followed by “that’s not a Corolla”, and finishing more often than not with “well, damn, who knew a Corolla could look good.”
I’ve driven $300k+ luxury cars with less fanfare — surely praise for a sub $40k hatch can’t get higher than that.
Perhaps most importantly for a brand aiming to achieve more private sales, the Corolla hatch has an on-road presence that can match the designs of a Mazda3, Hyundai i30 or Honda Civic hatch that occupy the same segment.
The TNGA platform also allows for a lower centre of gravity, independent rear suspension and a more rigid body for better handling and stability without compromising ride and comfort.
Beneath the new body is an equally new power plant. All Corolla hybrids feature Toyota’s latest self-charging electric powertrain from the Prius.
The 1.8-litre petrol engine has a combined system output of 90kW, with claimed fuel consumption of 4.2-litres each 100km.
As well as a reduction in fuel consumption, the new Corolla offers the benefit of running on regular 91 octane petrol, whereas the previous model needed to sip premium 95 octane.
The new model packs Toyota’s latest Safety Sense technology package with active pre-crash safety systems including autonomous emergency braking, radar cruise with indicator linked control, lane tracing assist with lane departure alert and steering assist, and road sign assist.
Inside the cabin, top-spec ZR models have an 8-inch multi-media touchscreen centre console for audio controls, satellite navigation and a new Mobile Assistant feature which uses Siri or Google Assistant voice commands to perform simple tasks such as sending a text message.
Leather- and suede-accented sports front seats, 8-speaker JBL audio system, 7-inch colour multi-information driver display and automatic dimming rear-view mirror are also standard on top grade models.
On-road the ZR Hybrid is best suited to congested city driving. The hybrid system can move the car on electric power alone in-between intersections, with the petrol motor kicking in when you need more power.
On the open road the new platform and underpinnings show signs of brilliance. The suspension is set up well for our roads and the front axle provides plenty of grip and confidence in the bends.
But, for my taste at least, the hybrid power unit doesn’t live up to the “fun to drive” credentials. It’s not powerful enough to warrant a grin and in some scenarios suffers from asthmatic performance that leaves you waiting with your foot to the floor.
But performance is secondary to fuel economy with the Corolla Hybrid. The hatch is one of the few new cars on sales that can reasonably hit advertised fuel economy, and try as I might, I could not register anything higher than 6.5 litres for each 100km during some spirited driving.
And with a refined and quite ride, Kiwis and torists alike are to enjoy many stressless journeys ahead in Godzone with the new Corolla Hybrid hatch.
Toyota Corolla Hatch ZR Hybrid
Pro: Crowd-pleasing styling, comfortable ride, Toyota build quality
Con: A “Hybrid Sport” mode would be fun