Multiple generations of the Toyota Corolla are as common on our roads as the platitudes that trundle from the lips of politicians; the primary difference being the Corolla has integrity – an enviable reputation built up since the first version was launched in Japan in 1966.
It is, therefore, difficult to comment on the latest generation without recognising the history of the marque in South Africa.
The first Corolla was produced locally in May 1975 and, for the fledgling Toyota South Africa, the timing was ideal considering the first fuel crisis of 1973 had rattled the cages of automakers and buyers were already looking favourably at smaller cars coming from the East – shying away from the top-selling Valiant Rebel and Ford Cortina among other large capacity, big bodied American style cars.
Thanks to some astute marketing from Toyota, which recognised the fleet market was the true buying power in the country (and remains so with more than 80% of all new vehicles purchased through company schemes even if recorded as ‘Dealer Sales’), Corolla sales began to grow and really took off with the Energy Crisis of 1979.
Even though fleet buyers were looking for the kind of fuel saving attributes offered by the smaller engines in the Corolla, the success of the brand would have short-lived if it was not backed up by a comprehensive dealer and after-sales service, which the company put into place.
Corolla has never been a budget car and always came at a premium price in its segment. What set it apart, generation after generation, was the fact it had a low whole-life cost of ownership, outstripping that of many of its lower priced opposition – and fleet buyers were happy to pay the premium knowing it would be amortised over the lifespan of the car, which also had a high retained resale value because of its popularity in the used market.
The Corolla nameplate remains one of the most successful in automotive history and name refers to a ring of petals around the central part of a flower and can also refer to a ‘small crown’.
During one smoke-and-mirrors dealer and fleet launch extravaganza, the then MD of Toyota SA whispered to me: “I hope they like it because, after all, it is just another Corolla.”
They did like it and it is only recently the passenger car domination by Corolla has been overtaken by Volkswagen’s Polo/Polo Vivo.
With the coming of the 12th generation of Corolla, Toyota Motors SA changed it strategy focus and put more effort into the Quest (previous generation Corolla) as the fleet/entry to the market, the Corolla Hatch as the young/sporty buyer and the sedan as a distinctly upmarket player in the mid-size segment.
Topping that niche is the 2,0-litre Xr version (R420 500) and its butts heads with the likes of the Mazda3 Dynamic, Honda Civic 1.8 Comfort and Subaru Impreza 2.0.
Fitted with driver aids such as auto-dimming headlights, autonomous braking (on cruise control), lane change assist, hill start assist, the Corolla Xr justifies its positioning as ‘premium’ with a suitably strong engine.
The new Corolla sedan front-end has a prominent lower apron, sculpted headlights and flowing three-box design.
The front bumper employs a large trapezoidal lower grille, with black-moulded border and large mesh pattern. The arrow-shaped LED headlamps, with integrated DRL elements, flow towards the centrally mounted Toyota emblem, surrounded by a slim-line upper grille element.
The rear bumper also features integrated aero-stabilising fins, to smooth airflow from the wheel arches.
Dimensionally the new Corolla is 20 mm lower, with the bonnet edge sitting 35 mm lower and the front overhang registering 25 mm shorter while front and rear tread have been increased by 11 mm and 22 mm respectively.
Inside, it has a reduced upper-panel height, soft-touch finishes and brushed metal accent strips. In sedan execution, blue contrast stitching harmonises with blue illumination for the switchgear and instrument panel.
A revised front seat design with ribbed pattern and bucket-like profile is covered in a new-age synthesized fabric called Rezatec, offering the comfort of fabric with the premium feel of leather. The high-grade (XR) model offers a choice of sporty blue or classic grey accent trim colours.
Across several generations, the Corolla has been labelled ‘bland and boring’ – this for a company that penned the 2000GT and Celica – and, perhaps it was. However, this was by design as it was never intended to follow fashion or easily become dated and, worldwide sales proved the validity of that.
Now, repositioning the car is allowing more scope in the noticeably edgier design features that make it thoroughly modern but still unlikely to quickly become ‘so last year’.
Aluminium, high-tensile strength steel and hot-stamped materials have been extensively used and the panel thickness of the doors and roof panel reduced. This has resulted in a considerable weight reduction for the body, helping to improve overall fuel efficiency.
At the same time, the addition of adhesives throughout the new body shell, an increase in the use of spot welding, and the use of fully closed cross-sections and structural rings, combine to increase body rigidity by some 60% over the outgoing models, promoting a marked increase in handling agility, responsiveness to steering inputs and high-speed stability.
Handling and agility are further improved by the lower mounting height of the engine and lower hip point of the seats. In combination, these measures have lowered the new Corolla’s centre of gravity by some 10 mm.
The new Corolla range utilises a MacPherson strut front suspension system, an all-new multi-link rear suspension arrangement and new shock absorber valve technology. The front suspension geometry has been revised, with newly developed shock absorbers and coil spring characteristics.
Additional geometry changes have been applied to the suspension arm and bush structures, in order to achieve quicker shock absorber response and minimise the transmission of shock forces from rough surfaces and achieve high-quality ride comfort. The newly developed multi-link rear suspension features compact packaging and exclusively designed coil springs, which offer both handling stability and ride comfort.
The new 2,0-litre ‘Dynamic Force’ TNGA engine (as first seen on RAV4) ups the ante to 125 kW and 200 Nm – with a strong focus on fuel efficiency. Fuel consumption for the 2,0-litre manual averaged 6,7 l/100 km during testing.
The engine and gearing is for broad spectrum use and the Corolla will pootle along in sixth gear and hardly trouble the rev counter which, can be pushed to 7 000 when the need for speed arises. It does not have blistering acceleration (8,0 seconds to 100 km/h) and top speed is around 196 km/h but what it does have is the ability to (just about) be all things to all people.
It is easy to drive, the slick-shifting gearbox never vague even through hurried changes up and down the ratios. The steering is traditionally Toyota light without any wander and it remains accurate under pressure, pointing the car precisely through the twisty bits.
The new Corolla sedan sees the inclusion of Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and touchscreen interface. Climate control with Eco mode, a reverse camera, power seat adjustment, one-touch functionality for the power windows, keyless entry, tilt and telescopic steering adjustment, steering switches and cruise control all feature on the specification list. XR models feature a 7-inch MID system with digital speedometer.
On the safety front, all models feature seven crash bags, ISOFIX, active electronic safety aids (anti-lock braking, EBD, BAS, VSC, HAC) and an impact absorbing body shell. The flagship XR grade receives Toyota Safety Sense (TSS) – a full complement of active driver aids. The XR also receives an upgrade to Bi-LED headlamps.
This suite combines Pre-collision system, blind spot monitor, all-speed cruise control, automatic high beam and Lane Trace Assist – conveniently operated via steering switches or the multi-information display.
All Corolla models include a 6-service/90 000 km service plan with service intervals pegged at 15 000 km/12-months. A 3 year/100 000 km warranty is also included.
It is what it is – just another Corolla. And, perhaps that is precisely the point.