At last there is a Corolla with character, engagement and desire. Yes, you are reading me right. No longer is Toyota's top seller a plain Jane with about as much imagination as a fridge.
Instead, the 11th generation Corolla is great to look at and drive, while adhering to its traditional virtues of reliability, good value and quality.
Last month it soared to No.1 with 4190 sales and 20.4 per cent of the market, well ahead of Mazda3 (3703), which should retain its top ranking for 2012.
The review car was the base Ascent seven-speed CVT auto, which is $25,279.30 drive-away and $1000 less than the previous model. The Ascent is aimed at fleets, such as rental cars, but for just over $1000 more ($26,309.30) you can move up to the Ascent Sport with goodies such as alloy wheels, a rear camera and fog lights, $1500 less than before.
The entry level comes with cruise control, 16-inch steel wheels, bi-halogen projector headlamps, multi-information display in the speedometer, and microphone and amplifier for hands-free mobile telephone connection, Eco lamp and Eco display on CVT-equipped models, Bluetooth telephone and audio controls on the steering wheel.
As well as ABS brakes, stability and traction controls, airconditioning, front and rear power windows with driver's window one-touch up/down, six-speaker CD-tuner audio, driver and front-passenger seat-back pockets, driver and passenger vanity mirrors and 60/40 split-fold rear seat.
It's a stylish looker, especially the wedgy grille, side profile and rear. While the outside is edgy and modern, the interior disappoints. The steering wheel and the major dials of speedo and rev counter are great. But the slabsided and upright dash is too retro and will date quickly. The dark plastics are unappealing.
The front seats have good support, and the chunky steering wheel feels substantial. Taller rear occupants may find the ceiling too low, while legroom is only average.
The 1.8-litre engine in the Corolla has been around for more than a decade. Not much has changed in peak output, with the modest 103kW below the class average. There's now about 50kg less, bringing the Corolla below 1.3 tonnes and providing better acceleration and economy.
The new CVT auto is a big leap over the outdated four-speed in the previous Corolla. It revs freely and adjusts to throttle inputs to make the most of the engine's modest output. Fuel use is claimed at 6.6 litres per 100km for the auto, which isn't class-leading but is better than average. In a weekend of suburban driving, hilly climbs and some spirited sprint work I used about 9.1l/100km.
I was pleasantly surprised. I don't like CVT transmissions, with sewing machine-like revving, but the seven-speeder in the Corolla is one of the best. The latest Corolla is a breeze to drive. It has light, accurate steering to cope with city streets and brisk U-turns while providing meaningful feedback at speed. The Corolla performs well, can be thrown into corners, and steers and brakes more than adequately.
Grip levels are reasonable, although when pushed really hard the stability control kicks in to dampen the fun. The Corolla deals with larger bumps well and is a competent performer on less-than-perfect roads. The brakes were superb, as was the steering. There's a tonne of grip and the ride is good. There's adequate oomph for overtaking, but careful judgment must be considered.
It easily coped with the undulating twisty bits on the road between Walkamin and Oaky Creek Farm, my favourite 10km of road. It could do with more power. The Corolla has a good driving position with decent vision, and while the rear-most pillar is chunky it doesn't affect the driver's side view. But the rear window is shallow and not good for reversing.
The outside styling is refreshing for a Toyota but it's not reflected inside. The Ascent is easy to drive and can be a lot of fun. It's not perfect, but is a good allrounder and will appeal to the usual Corolla buyer as well as those who want something more adventurous. I'd opt for the Ascent Sport version with the alloy wheels, the front fog lights and rear camera for $1000 or so more.
Toyota Corolla Ascent
Body: Five-door hatchback
Price: $25,279.30 drive away
Engine: 1.8-litre four cylinder
Green star rating: 5