Welcome surprises in new Toyota Corolla

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Toyota's new Corolla. Photos supplied

As loath as I am to suggest the phrase ''One born every minute'' bears any accurate representation of a Corolla buyer, it does give an inkling of the incredible production rate of this Toyota mainstay.

Actually, it's an understatement. The average Corolla global build rate is now at a world-beating one new car every 40 seconds. With 39 million produced so far it - or at least the Corolla nameplate - unsurprisingly takes No 1 spot as the world's best-selling car of all time.

Corolla started modestly here, just 763 in 1969, its first year of sale, but has since made up ground in spades, topping its segment for 28 consecutive years, being the country's passenger favourite 15 out of the past 25 years and accounting for 222,513 NZ-new registrations over that time.

This 11th-generation offering will keep the ball rolling; it is now entrenched as a fleet favourite, with up to 80% of the outgoing car's volume heading into company/rental use.

Toyota is also setting out to change public perception with this model; as well as being thought of as a reliable, cost-effective purchase, it wants the Corolla to be seen as a car of genuine charisma.

That is why so much effort has gone into changing not only the appearance, but also the driving experience.

Which is where Chris Amon comes in.

It is almost ancient history now, but back in the 1980s and '90s, a period spanning the fifth- to seventh-generation Corollas, the former Formula One ace and a small group of talented local engineers raised the quality and appeal of the then New Zealand-assembled editions through a programme of simple yet spectacularly effective local-market enhancements.

Initially, in direct contravention of Japan's instruction, they changed the roll bars and altered the spring and damper settings, picked tyres better suited to our coarse chip and even reshaped the seats.

Kiwis loved those ''Amonised cars''. Corolla ascended to sector dominance in 1984 with that first effort and has rarely been troubled since. Sales counts achieved during that special period, which ended when TNZ stopped assembly operations in 1998, have never been equalled.

Anyway, to the media launch of the 11th-generation car, in five fresh-bodied five-door (the sedan is not here until 2014) versions - the traditional GX, GLX, new Levin SX and ZR - all continuing with the old car's 1.8-litre petrol engine and only the price leader offering a pure manual alternative to a constantly variable transmission.

How does it stack with Amon? The comments are illuminating; this, he says, is the one Toyota (Japan) got ''just right - it's easily [their] most impressive front-drive package''. Moreover, it is just as he would have tuned it, had that opportunity arisen.

I know Amon. He doesn't schmooze.

After driving a GLX, then the topline Levin ZR, I also get the gist of what has excited Toyota's specialist adviser. It is, as he says, a much more involving Corolla than before.

Sitting flatter, turning in more assertively, riding better, delivering much superior steering feel through a Euro-style fat wheel, it is a car of welcome surprises.

Amon and I will have to agree to disagree about this transmission, though. While far superior to the previous car's antique four-stage auto and also better than most other CVTs, this seven-step device dilutes driving pleasure, not least because the ''manual'' mode is not fully manual, even in Sport setting.

The carry-over petrol engine is no great charmer, either; it was always a midfielder and the modest changes to power (up 3kW) and torque (down 2Nm) do not change that.

On the other hand, thanks in large measure to the new gearbox, there is a marked improvement in fuel burn: the old Corolla auto managed 7.4 litres per 100km on the standard economy cycle, whereas the new model is 10% thriftier with a 6.6l/100km return.

The diesel, though, has been dropped as it is still solely married to a manual, which was previously offered but attracted little takeup.

The interior refit echoes the exterior's revision. The cabin is roomy front and rear. With a reach adjust on the steering and better seats, the new Corolla delivers more strongly for driver comfort, too. Look in the boot and you will find more luggage space, not just because the dimensions are improved; the full-sized spare has gone for good.

Toyota's masterful ability to do enough on kit count to stay competitive reflects in sharp pricing; Toyota has cut $1000 from the entry GX manual and the flagship Levin (old English for lightning, nothing to do with the old race circuit) ZR is the only variant above $40k.

The specifications look solid, with full electrics, cruise control and Bluetooth with audio streaming, but the count of switch blanks and size of the options list reminds that not even the top edition one will directly trouble the recently updated Focus for technology leadership.

Satnav and a sunroof can be accessed from the options list, but not self-parking (possible, but deemed unnecessary), accident avoidance radar (available just for Lexus) or full equality with Ford's Sync infotainment feature.



Welcome surprises in new Toyota Corolla
At a Glance


Price: $33,490 to $43,690.

Engine: 1798cc in-line variable timed 16-valve four-cylinder, maximum power 103kW@6400rpm; maximum torque 173Nm@4000rpm.

Transmissions: Six-speed manual, seven-stage constantly variable transmission.

Brakes and stability systems: Disc brakes, ABS, BA, EBD, VSC, TRC, HAC (with CVT).

Wheels, tyres: 225/45 R17 (D4, T4), 225/40 R18 (T5 R-Design).

Fuel and economy (manual/CVT): 7.1/6.6 litres per 100km on ADR combined cycle, capacity 50 litres.

Dimensions: Length 4270mm, width 1760mm, height 1460mm.