Toyota's new hybrid Corolla saloon is something of a hybrid in itself - it gets the excellent new chassis, steering and interior of the 12th-generation Corolla hatch, but hides all that under styling that's far more conservative than that of the five-door or estate.
In the metal
The new Toyota Corolla cuts quite the styling dash when you see it first. It has a low-set, aggressive-looking nose, a ground-hugging front bumper, piercing headlights and, unlike the old Auris hatchback, the boot doesn't look as if it's been chopped off like an afterthought. It's very handsome.
Sadly, not all of that has transferred to the four-door saloon, which will be the best-selling version of the new Corolla in Ireland. Clearly, Toyota knows that the 'Sedan' version will appeal to a buyer of a more conservative bent than will the hatch or the Touring Sports estate. Thusly, it's toned down the styling rather a lot for the four-door. The overall shape of the front end is basically the same, but the headlights now extend further outwards, and have a rather plainer appearance. The grille is less inset, the lower air intake and the shaping of the front bumper less aggressive. At the back, while the Corolla saloon doesn't quite suffer from the hatchback-with-a-steamer-trunk-stuck-on look, it is just bland. From behind, it could be any mid-size four-door saloon, which is a shame when you consider just how handsome both of its sister cars are.
Happily, in the cabin, the Sedan gets the same layout as the hatch and estate, and that means you get a very nice interior indeed. It starts with excellent seats, which are perhaps a little high-set, but which are very comfy and supportive. The half-digital, half-analogue dials look a little mis-matched at times (shades of Opel Insignia in there, and not in a good way), but the central infotainment display is big and bright, if occasionally a little awkward to find your way through the menus. Overall quality is just excellent - there are no cheap nor nasty plastics that we could find, which is good doing for a mid-size family car.
Space is a bit of an issue, though. The Corolla Sedan sits on a wheelbase of 2,700mm - longer than the hatchback's by some 60mm - but space in the back seats just doesn't feel generous. In fact, while legroom is acceptable, headroom is actually quite tight if you're tall, which is a result of the new Corolla being some 30mm lower-set than the old one. Toyota expects a lot of Avensis owners to trade down to a new Corolla saloon, but with space that tight, many might be put off.
The boot's fine - 471 litres is more than 100 litres up on the hatchback, but if you're looking for practicality, go for the 598-litre load space of the Touring Sports estate.
The new Toyota Corolla is really, good to drive. No joke.
It rides on the Toyota New Generation Architecture platform (you'll find the same under the RAV4, Prius, C-HR and even the big Camry now) so it's some 60 per cent stiffer than the old Corolla or Auris, and the centre of gravity is 10mm lower.
Better yet, Toyota has decided to steal a march over most rivals, and equip the Corolla with expensive, independent rear suspension as standard. The front suspension layout is a conventional McPherson strut setup, but at the back there's a trailing-arm wishbone layout that has been engineered to maximise the Corolla's agility, without sacrificing ride comfort. Buyers of base-model Focus, Golf, Hyundai i30 and others should take note...
The upshot is a chassis that never feels anything less than poised and rather beautifully balanced. I don't think you could describe it as out-and-out sporting (that will be saved for a coming-soon Gazoo Racing hot hatch version), but it is genuinely rewarding. The steering is a touch light (less so in Sport mode, more so in Eco mode), but it has a touch of that Ford-esque low-friction, fluid feeling that we've come to love in the Focus. The Corolla feels less 'pointy' than a Focus as you turn into a corner, but conversely feels more adjustable and communicative as you go through the apex. The way it can string together a series of switchback twists is lovely, and actually puts an involuntary smile on your face. Grip is good too, and the ride quality seems to be very well-judged (although we'll need time on Irish roads to be certain of that).
Yep, it's a Corolla - a regular, standard, non-sporty, Corolla - that's actually engaging to drive, and giving the likes of the Focus and Golf a very serious run for their money in that regard.
Does the hybrid powertrain hold it back a touch in that regard? Yes, but less so than would once have been the case. While the chassis and steering feel old-school rewarding, the 1.8 Hybrid powertrain is still something you need to adapt your own driving style to get the best from. The combination of four-cylinder engine, running on the fuel-saving Atkinson combustion cycle, aided by an electric motor and a stack of simple nickel batteries is basically carried over from the Prius and C-HR. Toyota has tweaked the engine management system a little, which puts more low-down demand on the electric motor, and delays using the petrol engine for a little longer. That's really designed for urban commuters (who can now spend as much as 60 per cent of their journeys running on zero-emissions electric power, according to Toyota), but it helps a little with low-down response when you're on an open road, too.
The weak link in the chain is still the CVT automatic transmission, though. By design, it lets the engine rev to peak power when accelerating, which means you get that high-rpm 'grrrrrr' when you want to pick up speed. The good news is that attention paid to sound deadening has helped make that noise less intrusive, but you just kind of have to accept that the engine isn't going to respond in as linear a fashion as the chassis. You do get used to it, though.
The good news is that fuel consumption is very good. A day of brisk driving across the island of Majorca saw us return a very decent 5.2 litres per 100km (around 55mpg). Doubtless, you could do better by driving a little more gently, even if you're unlikely to get close to Toyota's official 3.3 litres per 100km. Even on the new WLTP emissions test, though, the Corolla saloon emits but 100g/km of CO2, so this is going to be a very tax-efficient purchase for most people.
What you get for your money
The Corolla is a little more expensive than most rivals, with prices starting at €25,380 for even the most basic (non-hybrid) 1.2-litre turbo petrol hatchback. You can get a basic Corolla Sedan, with a naturally-aspirated 1.6-litre petrol engine (!) for €25,380, but hybrid models (which are expected to be the biggest sellers by far) start at €26,820. The good news is that you get a lot for your money. Toyota Safety Sense 2 is fitted as standard, so you get a pre-collision warning system, adaptive cruise control, lane departure control, high-beam assist, blind spot monitor and a rear crossing traffic alert as standard. Basic Aura models also get LED headlights, 16-inch alloys, heated door mirrors, dual-zone climate control, leather steering wheel and an electronic parking brake.
Upgrade to a Luna or Luna Sport and you get the eight-inch touchscreen, a rear-view camera, part-digital instrumentation and front foglamps, while our Sol test car included keyless entry, satnav, heated front and rear seats and an electrochromic rear-view mirror.
I think Toyota has something of a breakthrough car here. Clearly, with more than 45 million sold since 1966, not many people still need convincing of the Corolla's talents, but enthusiasts still regard it as nothing about which to get excited. That changes now. The saloon looks dowdier than does the hatch or estate, but the Corolla is now fun to drive, and still retains the old qualities of practicality and solidity.