Toyota’s Corolla has been South Africa’s quintessential, middle-of-the-road compact sedan for decades – the car you buy not because it’s sexy, or fast, or exciting, but because it’s a safe and reliable purchase that commands decent resale values. More than four decades later, the 11th generation Corolla is finally shedding its everyday image for something a little sharper. By DEON SCHOEMAN.
The bustling little town of Franschhoek enjoys a singular reputation for the finer things in life. Surrounded by posh wine estates, and home to some of the country’s most renowned restaurants, it’s also a steeped in history, with a heritage stretching back to the French Huguenots, and beyond.
In other words, this is the kind of place you expect to see fancy people in fancy cars – time-burnished classics, exotic sports cars, ostentatious luxury machines. And you do.
But remember, Franschhoek is also on the must-visit list of every tourist with a guide book and a for the Western Cape, which means that what you really see along Franschhoek’s busy, shop-lined main road are rental cars: Hyundai i10s, Opel Corsas, Nissan Livinas and … Toyota Corollas.
It says a lot for the car I’m currently driving in that both tourists and locals not only notice it, but crane their necks as I’m driving it. And when I finally pull into a parking bay, it doesn’t take long before I have some inquisitive bystanders quizzing me.
“Is that the new Corolla,” says a dapper, bow-tied gentleman. Indeed it is, I reply. “It doesn’t’ look like a Corolla,” is his retort. “It’s … quite smart. And modern.” A young fellow in designer T-shirt and artfully torn jeans suggests that it looks like a Honda – but nicer.
“And the inside?” asks a scrawny chap chewing gum? I invite him to peer inside through the open door. “Nice! Very nice! I like the leather seats. And is that a TV?” He’s gesturing towards the LCD screen in the centre dash. No, I reply it’s the control interface for the infotainment system.
There was so much interest that I could have stood there all day, fielding questions from a steady stream of curious passers-by, all of whom had spotted the car, and noticed that it was different. Just on that basis, Toyota seems to have succeeded in its quest to create a Corolla that is sharper, keener, more distinctive than its predecessor.
But I had things to do and places to go behind the wheel of a car that I’d already decided was a welcome departure from the Corolla norm. The reaction of the public in Franschhoek only served to vindicate that.
So, let’s take a closer look at this Corolla – the 11th generation of what has become a revered nameplate in the 48 years since it first graced that rather bland and uninspiring original.
Sculpted is a word that comes to mind when taking the first long, hard look at the sedan. While its predecessor was all soft and blobby, with a rather ungainly derriere, the new Corolla’s lines exude a sense of aesthetic purpose.
For some, there may be too many creases and accents, but they do lend a crispness to the design. At the front, the wide V of the slim grille is emphasised in bright chrome, but somehow, the effect is less blingy than it sounds, perhaps because it’s offset by the large sculpted bumper, and the hungry aperture of the lower air intake.
Narrow, tapered headlights continue the grille’s lateral lines, while the bonnet’s sculpted contours lead to the base of the A-pillars. A steeply raked windscreen leads to the low, gently rounded roofline, suggesting smooth aerodynamics.
In profile, the front fender shape ahead of the wheel arch is particularly prominent, which serves to underscore the extended front overhang. Scalloped flanks, a pronounced waistline, and a relatively narrow glass aperture create some visual muscle.
But things get fussy at the rear, where the convergence of accent lines from almost all directions leads to some aesthetic confusion. It’s better viewed straight from the back, where the wide track, prominent bumper and sharp-edged tail light clusters find a more comfortable visual balance.
You also realise that this is a big car, with a wheelbase that’s 100 mm longer than its predecessor, and an overall length of 4,6 metres. The reduced height and extended width manages to disguise the bulk, while the shape is certainly more incisive, more characterful and more confident. It’s a look that evokes reaction, that gets noticed.
One more thing: if the Corolla’s front-end looks strangely familiar, it is. Park it next to the current Auris hatchback, and you’ll immediately realise what took me a while to work out: up to the A-pillar, and bar some grille details, the Auris and the new Corolla are effectively identical.
The Corolla range offers a choice of 11 models, spanning four trim levels, and encompassing three petrol engines and a single turbodiesel unit. A six-speed manual is the default gearbox, but there’s also a constantly variable transmission (CVT) with stepped, virtual ratios and gearshift paddles.
The petrol range engines offer capacities of 1.3 litres, 1.6 litres and 1.8 litres, while the turbodiesel only has a 1.4-litre capacity, but looks willing enough on paper. Entry-level models carry the Esteem badge, while the Sprinter versions boast a sporty execution.
The Prestige shift the focus to comfort and luxury, while Exclusive is the nomenclature chose for the flagship derivatives.
Open the door, step into the cabin, and the execution will come as a further, pleasant surprise. Smart and functional, the cockpit finds a great balance between style, comfort and tech. Depending on model, leather upholstery adds an upmarket touch.
The sweep of the fascia allows a good oversight over a well-arranged array of switchgear, with a colour touch-screen display taking pride of place in the centre. It provides intuitive access to a range of features and systems that would otherwise require a battery of buttons.
Good old analogue dials still provide speed and rev count info in the analogue domain, but a second digital display provides a host of additional information. The grippy, multifunction steering wheel is nicely proportioned and can be adjusted for height and reach.
Of course, actual standard equipment levels depend on the model, but the car I’m driving is a mid-spec Prestige 1.6, and it has almost ever bell and whistle one could desire – air-con, power steering, leather, electric windows, remote central locking, multiple airbags …
Rear legroom is the biggest beneficiary of the new Corolla’s 100 mm longer wheelbase, while the boot’s 452-litre capacity is generous, even by family holiday luggage standards. Some owners might be more interested in the fact that the boot will accommodate four golf bags.
Enough of the bumph. It’s time to drive the Corolla, and I mean drive. The 1.6 Prestige was never meant to be piloted with any real vigour, and the 1.6-litre engine isn’t new, but that’s what makes tests like these interesting.
With 90kW and 154Nm on offer, the four-cylinder is willing enough, but on the peaky side. All the more reason then to explore the full rev range, and to use the manual gearbox with gusto.
Franschhoek has one of South Africa’s best driving roads on its doorstep: the Franschhoek Pass. It might be a bridge too far for the Corolla, but it’s a perfect proving ground, with smooth tar, fast sweeps tight turns – even hairpins – and blind corners that close up on you without warning.
I’m fortunate: the initial traffic leaving town thins out quickly, and the stop/go halfway up the western slope let’s me through unhindered. The ascent is not that steep, but relentless, and the Corolla is at its best in fourth here, with enough grunt for the tighter stuff, and the legs to gather speed on the straighter sections.
There’s a lot to like: the sedan feels solid and planted, and isn’t fussed by bumps or dips, thanks to nicely modulated damping. The steering could be more communicative, but there’s enough heft and feedback to know how the car is reacting to steering inputs.
And remember, this is not supposed to be a sports car by any stretch of the imagination: it has to achieve the widest possible appeal, with ease of use, and safety, the primary criteria.
Even so, I can’t resist heel-and-toeing when changing down, and leaving the braking very late into the corners before turning in. Quite predictably, understeer is all too easily provoked, pushing the nose wide into corners, and extracting squeals of protest from the front rubber.
Come off the throttle, briefly dab the brakes, and the Toyota obediently tightens its line as the rear lightens. It’s the ease of use, the predictability I like, here: the new Corolla won’t spring any nasty surprises, even under duress.
The brakes – discs all round, ABS standard – feel decent enough, but need to be treated with authority. The ABS means there’s no danger of locking up, and there’s no skittishness when kicking that middle pedal towards the bulkhead. But don’t expect the servo assistance to do all the hard work for you if you need to shed speed in a hurry.
The chassis clearly has more potential than the engine can explore, though, and the car’s inherent rigidity, directional response and overall tautness augurs well for both more power, and a slightly sportier suspension set-up. Could a TRD version be on the cards? We can only dream …
Of course, your typical Corolla buyer is unlikely to give the car so much stick. More important for this target market are aspects such as ride refinement, noise and comfort levels, and increasingly, fuel economy.
I can’t vouch for the latter, because I’ve been thrashing the Corolla up and down the pass. But I can tell you that Toyota claims a combined-cycle fuel consumption figure of 6,3 litres/100 km, and CO2 emissions of 157 g/km.
What about pricing and value? The most affordable Corolla, the 1.3 Esteem, will set you back R214,900. The mid-spec 1,600cc Prestige I drove is priced at R241,900, and probably represents one of the sweetest deals in the line-up. At the top end, a full-house 1.8 Exclusive commands a R283,900 asking price. A five-year/90 000km service plan is included across the range.
The drive back from Franschhoek to Cape Town, at first along the R45 towards Paarl, then on the bumpy Simondium road linking the R45 to the R44, and finally the long, straight stretch of N1 towards Cape Town, provides lots of opportunity to assess the new sedan’s ride quality.
It’s all good news: there’s a new sense of robust, solid quality, linked to a settled demeanour that makes the Corolla ride smoothly over undulating surfaces. At legal highway cruising speeds, wind and road noise are well contained, and the suspension certainly delivers ride comfort – fortunately without becoming too soft in the process.
My preconceived expectations of the new Toyota Corolla suggested a mildly improved variation on a consistently mainstream theme. But I’m happy to say that there’s a lot more to the newcomer than sticking to the tried and tested.
An eye-catching, individual shape, a slickly executed, premium-feel interior, a balanced chassis and a willing drivetrain all point to yet another successful Corolla generation. But this time round, it may just be remembered for more than just reliability and resale value. DM
Toyota Corolla 1.8 Prestige
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