Sensibly, Toyota has brought back the Corolla name for its C-segment hatchback (and estate and saloon), consigning the Auris nameplate to the history books. The step change marks a significant moment in the company's development, ditching diesel power completely and instead offering buyers a choice of hybrid powertrains. We got a chance to meet the Toyota engineers behind the new Corolla and test drive the high-power 2.0-litre hybrid model in pre-production format, just as the order books are opening in Ireland for 191 delivery.
In the metal
I know it seems pointless for us to be driving cars with bits of camouflage wrap on them when Toyota has already revealed the Corolla in full, but it serves to emphasise that these are pre-production vehicles.
The Corolla hatchback and Touring Sports estate are undoubtedly attractive-looking cars and it appears that the former will be available in a striking two-tone finish. Our test vehicles were of high specification, of course, riding on 18-inch alloy wheels. For reference, the new Corolla hatchback is 40mm longer and 30mm wider than the outgoing Auris, yet 40mm lower, with all that extra length found in an extended wheelbase.
It feels acceptably spacious inside rather than class-leading, though at least the hump in the middle of the rear floor is quite low and flat. It's a little claustrophobic back there though, thanks to the rising window line and the large sports seats fitted to our test car. Nonetheless, the front seats are comfy and there's a real sense of quality throughout. These high-spec cars came with partial leather upholstery that appeared to extend to the dashboard, contrasted with lots of red stitching, plus a high-mounted, JBL-branded touchscreen that's usefully responsive - though the fixed buttons around its periphery are a little small and fiddly.
The three-spoke, leather-trimmed steering wheel is good to hold and there are paddles behind for the transmission (which I'll explain in a moment). Toyota has also fitted a conventional automatic gearbox shifter in the centre, which is much-preferable to the arcade game-like lever found in other recent Toyota hybrids.
In terms of practicalities, there are plenty of relatively small storage areas dotted around the cabin, a fair-sized glovebox and long door pockets, plus a large covered bin under the central armrest. The bad news, however, is that the 2.0-litre hybrid version of the Corolla hatchback compromises on boot space. That's because the car's regular 12-volt battery is mounted under the boot floor (and I hope it's better-packaged in the finished car, as it's a little too accessible for our liking). Even including the space under the floor to the side of the battery, the volume measures in at only 313 litres. By way of comparison, the Corolla 1.8 hybrid hatchback holds 361 litres of luggage with the rear seats in use.
The Corolla hatchback we drove featured passive suspension (i.e. the standard setup), which Toyota's engineers assured us uses the same damping as the 'normal' setting in the optional adaptive damping system, though it felt a little firmer than that. Hopefully that was exaggerated by the presence of the larger wheels and the finished product will be suppler. Nonetheless, there's no doubt that this Corolla was good to drive with direct (if a little lifeless) steering and a willingness to keenly seek out the apex of a corner.
And what of the hybrid system? Well, it undoubtedly has loads of go when you want it. But, while it's quite civilised most of the time and during regular driving, when you floor the throttle for maximum acceleration, it exhibits the inevitable 'rubber band' effect of the CVT (continuously variable transmission), bringing the engine speed up to its ideal operating revs and then altering the gear ratio as the car accelerates. Now, it is possible to override this to a certain extent, by using the paddles behind the steering wheel or the lever itself. These set the transmission to discrete 'steps', which is all but pointless when accelerating, but can be used to force engine braking on the car when slowing down for a corner, for example, giving the Corolla driver the feeling of a little more engagement than they would have had otherwise. There are Eco, Normal and Sports driving modes to choose from as well (more if you go for the adaptive damping system).
While this 2.0-litre hybrid powertrain is distinctly better to drive than the 1.8-litre alternative, it's still not as satisfying from a driver's point of view as a conventional turbocharged petrol or diesel car. Still, it's a big step in the right direction for Toyota. And of course, around town, it comes into its own, with silent, relaxing progress for the most part. Indeed, even out on the open road it seems to slip into full EV (Electric Vehicle) mode a huge amount of the time.
What you get for your money
Apparently, Toyota Ireland has been granted special dispensation to go ahead and start selling the Corolla early, well ahead of most of the rest of Europe. That seems to be why it's being a little cagey in publishing full price lists, only confirming that the entry-level cost is €26,370 for the five-door hatchback. We do know that there will be a 1.2-litre turbocharged petrol version, as well as 1.8- and 2.0-litre hybrids. A Touring Sports estate and four-door Corolla saloon are in the pipeline, too. Once we know more we'll update this section. It is worth mentioning that the Corolla looks like it will come with more active safety as standard than any other car in the sector.
Early signs are good for the new generation of Toyota Corolla hatchback. It looks great, should be far more interesting to drive than any predecessor and buyers get a choice of two hybrid powerplants. If the pricing is right, this could well be the car that helps wean Irish buyers off their diesel addiction.