Two month torture test: introducing our long-term Toyota Corolla ZR tester
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The world of car reviewing is interesting to say the least. Some might think that reviewers get a list and simply tick what they want to drive like some famished soul that's stumbled into a Denny's at 2.00am. But the reality is that there are certain cars that simply fall from the sky and into your lap.
In the past, the Toyota Corolla has been that kind of car — a middle of the road hatch or sedan that's often prompted 'bags not' claims from around the office. That probably sounds harsh, but it's important to not let the 'New Zealand's favourite car' tagline cloud your vision.
It's been a long time since I've been a fan of the Corolla, if that wasn't already clear.
Rear-wheel drive variants in the 70s and 80s are retro-cool today, FX-GT hot hatches are a criminally underrated performance gem, and the jelly-mould 90s models will probably outlast the human race.
But, almost every Corolla since the turn of the millennium has — in my view — disappointed. Reliable and practical, sure, but rarely as fun or interesting or well optioned as their ever improving rivals from the likes of Mazda, Hyundai, and Honda.
Not that any of that stopped them from selling like hot cakes of course.
But, the new Corolla is different. This long-termer didn't just fall from the sky — I pushed to get it over emails and quiet words to the ed for a month. This is a Corolla I like.
Over a period of two months and through the holiday season this Toyota Corolla ZR Petrol will be my daily driver, subject to the grind of Auckland City commuting, suburban touring, motorway cruising, and friend hauling.
Those who saw our road test of the Corolla Hybrid last month will be familiar with the new hatchback’s pricing. Base GX Petrol models start at $29,990 with the Hybrid variant a few grand more at $32,990.
The ZR represents the top rung of the range, with our long-term tester priced at $37,490 and the Hybrid priced at $38,490. These are Toyota’ s ‘haggle free’ prices, which include on-road costs.
I had wanted the Hybrid, of course. But such is the ludicrous demand for them that Toyota couldn’t promise one would be available until February. Instead, I got the Petrol ZR.
And, on the surface, it’s probably the least rational car in the line-up.
The entry level GX comes with the same drivetrain, and a healthy chunk of the best equipment. All of the safety tech is there — including adaptive cruise control, Lane Tracing Assist, and AEB — plus the same 8-inch infotainment system with satnav and reversing camera.
Toss in the ability to grab a petrol-saving Hybrid version for just a few bob more, and it’s hard to think of who would pick up the ZR instead — particularly in its petrol flavour.
But, what the ZR does that the others don’t is make a big first impression.
The Corolla’s looks out of the box are impressive, at least to my eye. But the ZR steps things up further with 18-inch wheels and its own slightly hungrier bodykit. Inside many of its materials get a bump over the GX, namely through additional soft-touch surfaces and contrast stitching spread through the cabin.
Bucket seats formed from suede and leather look the part and offer exceptional shoulder support, and new features like heated seats, JBL audio, and wireless charging are sprinkled across the space.
Perhaps the only first impression dampener is the paltry rear leg-room and cargo space. Just 208 litres of space sit behind the rear seats, which is – unbelievably — less than you get in a Toyota Yaris. We’ll dissect that in greater detail in our next update.
The exterior styling might seem a bit sheep-in-wolf’s-clothing, especially when you scope out the false exhaust tips. But, it has undeniable road presence — measured in the amount of double takes it attracts on the street. Materials meanwhile feel closer to segment leaders like the Mazda3 than ever before.
For the first time in what feels like decades, this is a Corolla that’s capable of standing up on its own two feet. And that’s underlined it the way it drives.
The previous-gen Corolla was based on an updated version of a platform that debuted in 1997 (underneath the first Toyota Prius), and it felt like it too — especially when you dared to throw it around in true rental-car fashion.
The new ‘Rolla however is built on Toyota’s new TNGA platform. Fresh architecture mated to adequate Dunlop Sport Maxx rubber, well damped independent rear suspension, and surprisingly precise steering shoots this well up the dynamic ranks into being a healthy rival for the Mazda3.
There isn’t exactly a heck of a lot of feel through the wheel, but it’s important to remember that despite the brave styling, this isn’t a hot hatch. Although, if Toyota decided to make one, this would provide a more than capable base.
If there’s one thing that excites me about this Corolla, it’s the new-found attention to detail. And what illustrates this best is the drivetrain.
On paper it looks almost outdated — a 2-litre naturally aspirated four cylinder engine mated to a 10-speed CVT, in an age where seemingly everyone is swapping for small-capacity turbocharged engines and dual-clutch or automatic transmissions.
But, that engine is quite an advanced unit. It comes with dual injection (port and direct), a trickle-down technology from Lexus that’s designed to reduce maintenance and maximise reliability. And the lack of a turbo only enhances that.
The CVT meanwhile is quite different, too. It comes with a torque-converted automatic first gear, before switching to a traditional stepped-system for the remaining nine ‘gears’. This sounds like a recipe for stunted, choppy driving manners. But in reality the transition from automatic to CVT is silky smooth while also giving drivers a healthy amount of performance bite off the line.
It’s early days, but I’m not missing forced induction or automatic shifting one little bit. The 125kW/200Nm of peak power feels spritely enough, with that transmission helping it hit 100km/h in eight seconds or so. Not lightning fast, but quick for the segment, and quick enough for me.
So, has New Zealand's favourite car turned a corner? Absolutely.
Dynamically sound, competitively priced, configured with plenty of impressive technology, and styled with more than just a set square and a compass — this is a hatch that's worth considering for greater reasons other than its likely unkillable reliability.
Is it the new segment leader? Well ... we'll let you know in two month's time.