What are you driving?
We're driving the car that, despite the apparently unstoppable march of the SUV, more Irish buyers chose to buy last year than any other. It's the humble Toyota Corolla. Well, perhaps we should stop saying humble. After all, with more than 44 million global sales under its belt since 1966, this is the car that the world, predominantly, drives today and so is perhaps permitted a little immodesty.
It's also the first Corolla in at least a generation, maybe more, that has tickled the fancy of enthusiasts. In spite of being offered only as a hybrid (the entry-level 1.2 turbo petrol engine has been dropped in Ireland, mostly because no-one was buying it), this 'E210' version of the Corolla, the 12th generation since the original, has been making some small waves for having a chassis that's tuned for something other than dull, plodding, adequacy.
It even looks quite good - but we'll get back to that in a minute. More importantly, it has exceptional official economy and emissions figures (as low as 83g/km on the old NEDC2 test, under which its annual motor tax is still calculated) and the promise of Toyota's expectedly exceptional reliability. Can one car live up to the weight of expectation of 44-million-odd loyal customers, and the renewed interest of car enthusiasts?
Name its best bits
Let's return for a moment to the styling. The Corolla hatch (and Touring Sports estate) get a different front-end styling treatment to the four-door saloon version, and it's much to the hatch's benefit. The shapes of the lights, grille and bumper look much, much sharper and more enticing than those of the saloon's, and the two-tone paint job of this Luna Sport model adds to that. The black roof gives it a faint whiff of 1970s rally glamour. Well, it did for me, but I'm weird.
The interior is deeply impressive. It's not the roomiest (the saloon and estate sit on a longer wheelbase, much to the improvement of rear legroom), but you sit at a medium height on well-shaped and supportive seats. The sheer hefty quality of the cabin materials is enough to give even the latest VW Golf 8 a dose of the frighteners, and the actual style of the cabin is - rather like that of the exterior - surprisingly attractive, with interesting folds and swooshes where you might not expect them. The shift to a conventional gear-shifter (away from the old Auris Hybrid's little thumb-sized switch) makes for arguably a more attractive layout (and was done at the behest of customers), but is equally arguably a backwards step, certainly in terms of stowage space in the centre console.
To drive, the Corolla Hybrid is... surprising. OK, so the hybrid setup isn't surprising. It's the same 1.8-litre Atkinson Cycle petrol engine, with battery and motor assistance, as you'll find in the Prius and the C-HR. Toyota has steadily improved its setup and, while there are still issues with it (see below) the good thing is that it feels more responsive than it used to, is generally quieter and more refined and has impressive real-world fuel economy. The strict WLTP economy and emissions tests rate the Corolla with a 57mpg figure, and that seems easily achievable. Drive gently, around town, and you might even exceed that.
That's because, around town, you spend a lot of time running on just the electric part of the powertrain. It's noticeable how often the engine goes quiet when driving in urban conditions, and according to a study by UCD, this sort of hybrid car spends as much as 60 per cent of its driving life overall, and as much as 76 per cent of the time spent in town. That, if nothing else, should put an environmentally smug expression on your face. [Ed: let's not forget that the energy for that electric running still comes mostly from the petrol in the tank, but at least it helps reduce local pollution.]
The unusual thing about this Corolla is that, out of town and on a twisty road, it can put a similarly smug expression on your face with its dynamic performance. It's not quite as well-plugged into the road as a Ford Focus, but the car-nut influence of company president Akio Toyoda has clearly penetrated down to the Corolla engineering team. It does help if you have everything switched to Sport mode (to find which you'll have to plough through a frustrating series of menus), but the steering is quick, accurate and not entirely devoid of feel; while the chassis feels taut and engaging as you string a set of corners together. It is - put simply - really enjoyable to drive.
Anything that bugs you?
The usual hybrid caveat remains - full throttle elicits a long, braying, drone from the engine which, while better-suppressed than before, is still annoying at times (although you do eventually learn to drive around it to an extent). The Corolla's instrument dials must also come in for some critique here. A mix of digital and analogue, they are clear, but they look cheap, especially compared to the digital dials in the new Golf. Oh, and the boot is a fraction small - 361 litres compared to the Golf's 381 litres. Not a deal-breaker, but it is worth going for the enormously spacious (and handsome) Touring Sports estate if practicality is at the top of your wish-list.
And why have you given it this rating?
Aside from being a touch expensive (although this is the range-topping model), it's rather hard to find any fault with the Corolla Hybrid. It's handsome, frugal and engaging to drive. What more, realistically, could you ask for?
What do the rest of the team think?
It's a shame the Corolla hatchback isn't a little more spacious in the back and in the boot, as it would then stand up better to the likes of the Skoda Octavia, but I guess, as Neil says, you could buy the bigger Corolla saloon or estate. I also agree with his assessment of the driving experience. This is not, at least in 1.8-litre format, a car for those that love to drive, yet it is a car that is highly satisfying to drive in a manner that most won't be able to put their finger on. Given the target market, that's job done by the Toyota engineering team.
Shane O'Donoghue - Editor
My, how the Toyota Corolla has evolved over the years. This latest version is one of the best-looking cars in the segment in my opinion, helped by this optional two-tone roof design. The build quality inside the cabin is much better than before too, though it doesn’t have that reassuring thud that cars like the Golf have when you shut the door. Its hybrid system works impressively well, though, by far the best of its kind.
Dave Humphreys - Road Test Editor