Fun to drive, efficient, hi-tech and good looking – words many wouldn’t associate with the once-humble Corolla. But practicality is a limiting factor, with less rear legroom than rivals and a sloping tailgate plus a deep load lip to overcome.
- Mileage: 8,444
- Economy: 53.2mpg
A three-and-a-half-hour haul to Toyota’s plant at Burnaston, Derbyshire, was a welcome chance to reacquaint myself with the pleasures of driving our Corolla hybrid. We weren’t going for a family reunion – although our car had rolled off
the production line there – but to check out the latest development in the brand’s ongoing decarbonisation strategy, which involves shoehorning hydrogen tanks and a fuel cell into a Hilux pick-up truck.
Seeing a traditional ladder frame exposed as the technical team explained the Hilux highlights made it look like a hydrogen hot-rod build, but while I’m about as excited as it’s reasonably permissible to be about the prospects of a hydrogen-fuelled transport future, I’m more than happy for now with the excellent performance of our Corolla’s ‘transitional’ self-charging hybrid system.
It seems a bit harsh to call it a mild hybrid, because the car is a perky performer with a well sorted chassis that’s much more fun to drive than Corollas of old. Some passengers have suggested the suspension is a little too firm, but I like the fact the ride and handling balance has been tweaked further towards driver engagement than many might expect from the Corolla nameplate.
Car group tests
The other side of the coin is that this version of the world’s best-selling family car seems a bit short on the practicality that I’ve always associated with the Corolla name, and that means it’s too often left parked outside the house when trips with the family are in the offing. Rear legroom is restricted, while a dashboard that juts out at knee level for taller passengers in the front – my partner is 5ft 9in – means edging the seat forward to give more rear space brings little reward.
But the biggest failing in my view is that the sloping tailgate means the boot doesn’t have enough headroom to accommodate our medium-to-large dog. As a result, Lottie has only travelled in the Corolla once so far, which meant folding the rear seats – resulting in a noticeably stepped load area – and a three-hour journey home from Devon with hot dog breath on my neck.
Of course, the most obvious solution to some of my transport issues would be an upgrade to the Corolla estate, but in my view this five-door variant could and should be a little more accommodating.
There are a couple of other grumbles, too, which have come to light over the past two months. The first relates to the chrome-effect buttons for climate-control functions, which are small and hard to distinguish from one another. As a ‘50-something’, I’m sure I’m not too far from the middle of Toyota’s buyer demographic, and can’t be the only Corolla driver who has to peer hard at the dash to work out which button I need to press to alter the output settings. It won’t be an issue for those with 20:20 vision, but I’d like chunkier buttons with bigger labels.
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It’s also slightly annoying that every time I slide my smartphone onto the charging pad on the centre console, I accidentally turn on one or other of the heated front seat switches that sit just in front of it.
When we welcomed the Corolla to our fleet, I wrote effusively about the seemingly great integration of the electronic driving aids, and the drive to Burnaston reaffirmed my appreciation of the active cruise control and lane-keeping assistance, which really help to create a relaxing environment.
On the other hand, the autonomous braking system, which seemed pleasingly innocuous at first, is really starting to get my goat. It’s jammed on the anchors in error far too many times for cars parked on the roadside, pedestrians on the pavement and cyclists at T-junctions, and every time it happens there’s a heart-stopping ‘what the hell’ moment before my brain clicks into realise it’s just the AEB having a hissy fit.
Judging by the Auto Express inbox – and our own wider experiences with AEB systems – this is a generic problem rather than something I should pick on Toyota for. But it’s still unsettling for drivers and passengers alike, and will undoubtedly affect the Corolla owner experience.
Toyota Corolla GR Sport: first report
Our hybrid hatch is good to drive, but tight on space
- Mileage: 3,901
- Economy: 54.9mpg
Back in the late nineties when Jeremy Clarkson-types were making pious jokes about the original Prius hybrid, I was geeking-out on its ‘future tech’ and animated dashboard; remember the tortoise-shaped warning light that flashed on the dash when the battery ran out of puff?
But the giant Toyota industrial machine was not deterred by the sneers of non-believers. It had looked around, crunched the numbers, and declared it was developing hybrid tech to be the only truly sustainable path to a hydrogen-fuelled future. While others point at advances in battery EVs, and hoot that fuel-cell-powered cars will remain the stuff of fantasy forever, all I will say is that, having spent the last month or so at the wheel of the latest generation of hybrid Corolla, not a single part of me wishes I was driving an EV hatchback instead.
I write this having just returned from the 45-mile drive I make regularly between Hampshire and West Sussex, on busy A and B-roads, and on which the Corolla frequently returns more than 64mpg. I thought my old Mercedes B-Class diesel was frugal after once returning 48mpg on that trip, but the Toyota is in a different league. Such parsimonious sipping of petrol makes it impossible to believe the Corolla is doing more damage to the planet than an EV, and I speak not as a climate-change denier, but a pragmatist – who has yet to install a home charger.
The Corolla I’m driving on an extended loan is our original road-test car, which delivered 54.2mpg over the course of that test. It’s currently mostly used for a mixture of B-road tootling by my partner, who gets up early to tend to her livestock, and typically more rushed motorway mileage by yours truly. Between us we’re averaging close to 55mpg.
There’s not much to criticise about the way this fifth-generation hybrid goes down the road, either. The powertrain, with its combination of recently upgraded battery and motor, plus smooth 1.8-litre engine, makes a total of 138bhp, giving swift progress when required.
I’ve enjoyed how composed the car feels when attacking the twisty bits, as well. The ride is just on the acceptable side of firm (and the tyres occasionally on the noisy side), but the damping is excellent, even over Hampshire’s execrable tarmac, and the Toyota grips and turns nicely.
The excellent integration of safety systems has also impressed me, especially the lane-keeping assistance, which together with the active cruise control, takes much of the strain out of motorway driving. The Corolla looks sharp in this car’s GR Sport trim with natty black machine-faced alloys – but I’m dreading the near inevitability of that first kerb contact, because we often have to park next to the pavement in town.
Less impressive are the Corolla’s relatively confined rear quarters, because my nine-year-old daughter tends to sit with her feet up if riding behind me; I’m a big unit and need all of the driving-seat travel. The sloping hatch eats into boot space, too, so we’re yet to try it on the dog.
|Model:||Toyota Corolla 1.8 Hybrid GR Sport|
|On fleet since:||May 2023|
|Engine:||1.8-litre 4cyl, 138bhp|
|Options:||Metallic paint (£630)|
|Insurance*:||Group: 17E Quote: £825|
|Any problems?||None so far|
*Insurance quote from AA (0800 107 0680) for a 42-year-old in Banbury, Oxon, with three points.