The Toyota Corolla has been New Zealand's top-selling new car for most of the past quarter-century. David Thomson muses on the appeal of the latest model.
If you want an astounding measure of the new Toyota Corolla's Kiwi sales success, consider this fact: over the first four months of 2013, the Corolla alone outsold the local passenger car line-ups of marques including Nissan, Volkswagen, Mitsubishi, Honda, Kia, BMW, Audi, Subaru and Mercedes-Benz.
Indeed, among car manufacturers, only Holden, Hyundai, Mazda and Suzuki could muster enough sales across their entire ranges to outdo the sales of this one Toyota model.
Come year's end, it is almost guaranteed that the Suzuki Swift - our second-favourite new car - is the only model that will have prevented the Corolla from outselling any other passenger car by a margin of more than two to one.
Thanks in large measure to substantial Corolla sales to the fleet and rental car segments, this has been situation normal for New Zealand since large cars such as the Commodore and Falcon lost their sheen some years back.
And while private buyers account for only a fraction of new Corolla sales (as little as 20% with the previous model), those fleet and rental Corollas play an important role for private owners in our used car market, most often finding private buyers as Toyota Signature Range cars.
While this arrangement serves Toyota well, the company would dearly love to see more private buyers taking the Corolla from new. The only realistic way to achieve this is by offering a Corolla that will be thought of as more than an ultra-dependable but slightly dull automotive appliance.
Enter the latest, 11th-generation model, designed very intentionally to make its mark through increased visual and dynamic pizzazz.
Several variants of the new machine have passed through Drivesouth's hands of late, including the mid-range GLX and Levin SX, and the flagship Levin ZR.
All are sportier looking than the old model, sitting lower by 55mm, and with more sharply defined and distinctive styling lines, especially about the nose.
All share the same mechanical specification, too: a 103kW/173Nm development of the 2ZR-FE 1.8-litre engine that carries over from the old model (with some improvements), allied to a new seven-stage continuously variable transmission that, thankfully, supersedes the four-speed automatic of old.
This drivetrain combination is in part both disappointing and encouraging.
Disappointing because, while responsive enough, that 1.8-litre engine is short of grunt compared to the strongest of the Corolla's rivals, and because the CVT transmission becomes involving only when operated in sport mode and with the paddleshift controls that are reserved for Levin specification.
Encouraging because the new Corolla is mechanically more refined than the old model, and because the transmission is one of the better CVT units about. As well as being seamless around town, it contributes to a solid 6.6 litre per 100km standard cycle fuel economy figure.
If that's a mixed start in terms of dynamic appeal, the new Corolla makes up plenty of ground with its road manners. Indeed, this Corolla stands prouder in the handling stakes than any since the Chris Amon-tuned cars of the 1980s.
There's a meaningful dose of steering feel and heft for starters. Allied to sharper turn in and flatter, more composed handling, this makes the new Corolla a nicely balanced and genuinely pleasurable machine to finesse down a favourite stretch of tarmac.
Due to its larger wheels (17 rather than 16-inch rims) and correspondingly lower-profile tyres, the Levin variants edge the GLX in this respect; on the other hand, the GLX provides 90% of the dynamic fun, while soaking up bumps and containing coarse-chip road rumble a little better.
Allied to a thumbs-up for the driving experience, the new Corolla scores obviously well for looks, and less obviously, but perhaps more usefully, for interior design.
The 380-litre boot capacity, in particular, is worthy of mention, if only because it is so much better than before. Cabin space is just a little tight, especially in the back.
I struggled to find an ideal driving position in the GLX, but found the sports seats of the Levin variants comfortable and supportive. Others though, have found the GLX more to their liking in this area, so this is very much a question of physical size and taste.
In both cases one sits lower than before, providing a more engaged, sporting feel, albeit at the expense of some visibility.
A uniform safety specification is provided in all models, and includes seven airbags, ISOFIX child seat anchor points, and full vehicle stability control with antilock brakes, hill-start assist, and traction control. These drive aids tend to step in quite early, to such an extent that I needed to deactivate the traction control (achievable at the push of a button) to gain forward motion during Dunedin's recent spell of snow.
As you would expect, the higher one looks on the Corolla ladder, the more standard equipment is provided.
The GLX lists at $37,490, and comes with a leather steering wheel with audio controls, a centrally mounted touchscreen (with reversing camera), basic trip computer, cruise control, Bluetooth phone connectivity and audio streaming, and single-zone air-conditioning. For a $1500 premium, the Levin SX takes a more comprehensive trip computer, sports seats, paddleshift controls, a sportier grille, and those 17-inch alloys.
At $43,690, the Levin ZR picks up dual-zone climate, keyless entry and start, leather seat trim, heated front seats and mirrors and auto-dipping adaptive HID headlights. Features such as a panorama sunroof and satellite navigation are extra-cost options.
But one of the great things about this machine is that you do not need to go right to the top of the model range and tick additional boxes to secure a car that feels like a whole lot more than an appliance. It has been quite a while since that is something I have felt able to say about a Corolla.
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