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Toyota Corolla hybrid 2021 review: ZR hatch long-term


I’ll admit going into this review, I was a bit of a Corolla sceptic.

I know this new generation car is a new beast entirely, I know it has helped bring hybrid technology to the masses in an accessible way, and I know it was one of the vehicles that first wowed people with Toyota’s new TNGA chassis philosophy.

But would it really be any good to live with, or just another drab Toyota like the previous Corolla was?

When I was handed the keys to a top-spec Corolla ZR, it had come at a good time. My partner and I have been canvassing new hatchback options, and we’ve just come out of a long-term loan of a Hyundai Veloster Turbo – a car which is the same size but has a totally different approach.

How does the Corolla stack up? Can it woo us from Hyundai? Can it turn this Corolla sceptic into a convert? We’re living with one for three months to find out.

Part 1: September 2020

It had been a while since I’d driven a Corolla before I accepted this loan. I’m glad I did though, even though this current (E210) Corolla landed in 2018, it still feels every bit as good as its competitors from the moment you hop behind the wheel, even more recently updated ones. As a perennially popular model in the grand scheme of Australia’s motoring landscape, it would also be a critical piece of context and ideal palate cleanser between weekly review cars.

As mentioned, ours is a top-spec ZR Hybrid wearing an MSRP of $34,965. Pricey, but will be good to give myself and my partner a full breakdown of all the features available in the Corolla hatch range.

Rivals we might (literally) be considering against it include the Hyundai i30 N Line (auto - $31,420), Mazda 3 G25 GT (auto - $35,090), Kia Cerato GT (auto - $33,490 – the sedan version of this is my partner’s current favourite), and the Honda Civic VTi-LX (auto - $34,590).

Also worth considering is the Hyundai Veloster Turbo Premium which we just hopped out of at a staggeringly pricey $42,410.

We loved how quiet and comfortable the cabin of the Corolla proved to be, with its smooth acceleration and forgiving ride quality. We loved how quiet and comfortable the cabin of the Corolla proved to be, with its smooth acceleration and forgiving ride quality.

Importantly though, what primarily sets this Corolla apart from its rivals is its hybrid drivetrain. No turbochargers or dual clutch transmissions to be seen here, this Corolla instead mates a 1.8-litre engine to dual electric motors via a continuously variable transmission.

This technology is derived from the Prius (essentially signalling the end of the Prius’ purpose as we know it) and seems on the sales figures to be the ideal level of electrification which Australian motorists are ready for.

It’s worth noting that this combination is not ‘powerful’ in the traditional sense. The combined output of 90kW is well below even the pure petrol 2.0-litre version of this car, and well below similarly priced turbocharged rivals from the likes of Hyundai, Kia, and Honda.

Instead of performance though, Toyota is willing to bet consumers are willing to pay for the efficiency and refinement on offer from this drivetrain. Indeed, I was taken aback with our first month and almost 1000km in this car producing a computer-reported figure of just 4.9L/100km, plus it even sips base 91 RON! We’ll have more to share on this in instalment two!

I was taken aback with our first month in this car producing a computer-reported figure of just 4.9L/100km. I was taken aback with our first month in this car producing a computer-reported figure of just 4.9L/100km.

To live with, the Corolla is just nice. It entered our car rotation quite heavily, with my partner and I sharing trips to her workplace in the morning. Both of us loved how quiet and comfortable the cabin of the Corolla proved to be, with its smooth acceleration and forgiving ride quality being preferable to most of our review cars for the daily traffic grind.

I was a bit iffy on the fake suede trim on the seats in the ZR but have come around to them in a big way. They are wide and low enough to offer great comfort levels, while providing plenty of side bolstering for this car’s limited performance levels.

My partner loves the ‘Electric Blue’ colour our car came in and tells me she finds the quality of the cabin a cut above. Especially over the Yaris which we had alongside it for a week. She’d even now strongly consider the Corolla, having previously been an i30 fan.

Design-wise this Corolla cuts a silhouette like few before it. Even after a month in the garage I still find parts of its design engaging, even exciting. I guess Mr Akio Toyoda himself meant business when he said Toyota was going to be fun again.

Design-wise this Corolla cuts a silhouette like few before it. Design-wise this Corolla cuts a silhouette like few before it.

There are clear areas of compromise on the inside though. It’s immediately evident this Corolla doesn’t offer the same kind of practicality promise as the i30, Cerato, or Civic. There are your usual complement of door bins and centre console storage areas, but there is no large binnacle under the climate controls, no extra nooks or crannies, no nets, and a limited complement of connectivity methods.

That last one is particularly annoying, as the primary USB port used to connect your phone to the multimedia system awkwardly juts straight out of the dash cladding near where the passenger’s knee should be. Weird, especially since there are two more USB outlets in the console box. These don’t allow you to use phone mirroring through the multimedia system though.

While it’s a cozy place for front passengers, rear passengers are left wanting for space. The same can be said for the boot design, even though the end of the bumper is notably much further back than the bootlid. Sadly, Australians don’t get the practicality-boosted Corolla wagon variant available overseas (yet…).

So, it’s notably less practical than many other options in this segment, but for a couple like us it’s more than adequate, and we appreciate the extra design and comfort of those front two seats as a result.

It rides on 18-inch wheels. It rides on 18-inch wheels.

Will we get sick of it, though? And, how did I get addicted to driving it over the many other cars which circulate through my garage? Find out in part two!

Acquired: September 2020

Distance travelled this month: 948km

Odometer: 957km

Average fuel consumption for September: 4.9L/100.

Part 2: November 2020

Ok, I’m hooked.

Toyota’s hybrid drive is downright addictive. It gamifies fuel saving in such a way that it even has me driving it painfully slowly at times just to extract the most value out of its electric motors.

Toyota’s hybrid drive is downright addictive. Toyota’s hybrid drive is downright addictive.

I’ll explain how it works. The Corolla has an ‘eco indicator’ tied to your accelerator input which can either be shown in the dash cluster or in our top-spec ZR’s holographic head up display. It has three tiers, two for ECO and one for PWR. Generally (if the hybrid battery has sufficient charge) the first ECO tier entirely uses the electric motors to pull the Corolla along in sweet, smooth silence.

Push the go pedal any harder though (it really doesn’t take much…), and the 1.8-litre engine switches on to help. Can you see where I’m going with this? If you’re willing to accelerate slowly enough, you can maximise the amount of time you’re driving around on electric propulsion.

If you’re willing to accelerate slowly enough, you can maximise the amount of time you’re driving around on electric propulsion. If you’re willing to accelerate slowly enough, you can maximise the amount of time you’re driving around on electric propulsion.

It has other quirks too. Like, once you’re up to cruising speed if you let off the accelerator it will switch off the engine and attempt to coast on the electric motors. Again, this has built in a particular accelerator habit I fall back on when driving this car. 

Then there’s the regenerative braking. Spend too much time thrashing the poor little electric motor as hard as you can and the Corolla’s nickel hydrid battery pack (again, monitored through displays) will drain quick. Thankfully it charges fast too, but if you let it fall below the last three bars it will start to use the engine more, even under light acceleration. The regenerative braking can maximise your charge uptime, but it has its limits. Peering at the eco indicator which also has a ‘charge’ bar for braking, you’ll figure out exactly how much brake pedal is required to feed energy into that battery without relying on the car’s discs.

The regenerative braking can maximise your charge uptime. The regenerative braking can maximise your charge uptime.

Following so far? You can only use a limited amount of the brake pedal to do this, so I’ve started braking earlier and much further away from traffic lights and stopped cars to try and maximise the amount of power going back into the battery. I also imagine this will extend the life of your regular old brake pads somewhat.

To really ram all this eco, fuel saving, energy holding stuff home, the car even gives you a score at the end of each drive and suggests how you might improve to save more fuel. My favourite is the 5 min drive down to the shops where I can use the electric motor for about 90 per cent of the trip (again, if I drive slowly enough). The car is at a loss for what to tell me, but other commuters stuck behind me might not be so impressed.

It’s as addictive as the same features in a plug-in or full-electric car, but the best part about the Toyota hybrid system is it’s totally foolproof. You could straight-up ignore any of these features and drive it like any old combustion vehicle and it would still save you fuel regardless. Plus, there’s seemingly no consequences. The car manages the amount of power it pulls from the motor and the remaining battery life on the fly, so it’s not as though you can run out of battery or drive it ‘wrong’. It doesn’t even cost more to service.

The multimedia system comes with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The multimedia system comes with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

With all of that out of the way, it’s time to look at the downsides. Yep, while this car is a fuel sipping hero around town, the hybrid drive doesn’t come without its trade-offs. The 1.8-litre engine uses an ‘Atkinson-cycle’ which, to save you the technobabble, sacrifices power density for fuel efficiency (this is why Toyota’s hybrid models all have less power than their standard combustion counterparts). Makes sense mated up to an electric motor which can provide some of the missing required torque, but it also means when you really need to push this car the engine flies up the rev-range to 4000- or 5000rpm rapidly, making a racket in the process, producing a disappointing amount of peak power, and really pulling you out of that smooth electrified immersion this car provides at low speeds.

This is especially evident on the freeway where this car is at its worst. The thrashy engine is relied on much more often, and its weakness for overtaking when you really need it is notable.

So, it’s no athlete. It also won’t get any more fuel efficient on the open road as it relies on the electric motor primarily for those sorts of gains. In the month of September, we used the Corolla primarily for some longer drives up and down the coast, and still the average fuel consumption only dropped by 0.1L/100km to a grand running total of 4.8L/100km.

This is still a fantastic result, but interesting that no matter what I do in this car now, I can’t get it to go any lower. The official 4.2L/100km rating is always just out of my grasp!

Boot space is 333L. Boot space is 333L.

On a final note, despite the hybrid Corolla’s slightly smaller 43-litre fuel tank, I’m extracting close to 1000km range between fills. This means even while I’m trying to drive it as much as possible, I only need to refill it once a month. Convenient!

In our final part I’ll look at the car from a practicality point of view once more, perform an at-the-pump fuel test (to see if it's any lower, come on 4.2L/100km!) and offer some final notes for anyone considering one. Stay tuned!

Acquired: September 2020

Distance travelled this month: 1179km

Odometer: 2127km

Average fuel consumption for November: 4.8L/100

Part 3: December 2020

As we reach the final chapter with our Corolla Hybrid, we agree it’s going to be missed as a comfortable and efficient commuter to fall back on.

Even as many cars, SUVs, utes, and sporty machines have come and gone through our three months of testing, there was something homely about hopping in the Corolla each time. It’s comfortable in every sense of the word.

That is, as long as there’s only two of you. The Corolla’s annoying lack of cabin storage frequently got on our nerves, with little room for more than a handful of objects, then there’s the weird thing about a lot of new Toyotas.

The rear doors barely open. Once you notice it, you can’t not notice it. The doors open about two thirds as far as you expect them to. I assume there’s a good reason for this (safety crumple zones perhaps…) as it is common to other Toyota models, but if we had kids or frequently needed to load luggage into the second row it could become quite a problem.

Our Corolla is going to be missed as a comfortable and efficient commuter to fall back on. Our Corolla is going to be missed as a comfortable and efficient commuter to fall back on.

Clambering in for someone my height (182cm/6'0") is less graceful than it should be thanks to a descending roofline, and chunky doorcards which feature a full-size bottle holder (neat, but easy to whack your knee on when getting in our out.)

It’s dark back there, too, making the space feel even smaller, but I will give the Corolla points for having the same nice seat trim in the rear and adjustable air vents which my partner’s two King Charles cavaliers appreciated after long walks.

I’ve covered it in length in the previous part of this review, but it’s worth noting the Corolla’s hybrid system is by far the best in the business.

The 20-odd years Toyota has put into developing and refining this system is evident when you line this car up against its competitors.

As much as we've loved the Corolla, the back row has its downfalls. As much as we've loved the Corolla, the back row has its downfalls.

We’ve driven this car back-to-back with a plug-in hybrid Mercedes A-Class and new Hybrid Subaru XV and neither came close to matching the flawless hybrid/combustion switch which this Toyota has mastered.

Strangely, I also found the Corolla even compared well to newer cars in Toyota’s stable. The hybrid three-cylinder Yaris hatch and Yaris Cross small SUV both boast lithium ion battery tech, but their gruff three-cylinder powertrains simply couldn’t match this Corolla’s seamless transition between electric and internal combustion power.

Which brings us to the fuel number. Try as I might, I couldn’t get our Corolla’s fuel number to budge. At the end of my three month and roughly 3000km test the trip computer was still reading the same 4.8L/100km as it was earlier.

To be sure though, I spent my last tank of fuel in the Corolla performing a real-world fuel test, measured at the pump. Over about 700km, the real figure came out as 4.9L/100km, showing only an 0.1L/100km variance from the computer’s number.

The Corolla even compared well to newer cars in Toyota’s stable. The Corolla even compared well to newer cars in Toyota’s stable.

Even though I couldn’t get to this car’s official combined cycle figure of 4.2L/100km, it’s still impressive all-round, especially since popular non-hybrid rivals struggle to not double this figure.

Any final things I’d want from the Corolla? Can I say I want more Corolla? This car is lovely to drive, but the capability of its underpinnings is but a tease with its conservative power outputs.

We know a performance version is coming, but this car desperately needs not just a GTI-style variant, but also a less powerful sporty model in the vein of Hyundai’s turbocharged N-Line i30 to add a bit more excitement.  

We also know there’s a Corolla wagon overseas, which sadly doesn’t seem to be set for an Australian launch, and a Corolla Cross SUV will arrive in the future, hopefully to offer this car’s key attributes with a better practicality promise.

I still can’t help but feel like it’s a long wait for these much-needed varieties though, especially since we’re now going into this car’s third model year. It’s not as though Toyota is a company without the resources to offer more flexibility.

The Corolla’s hybrid system is by far the best in the business. The Corolla’s hybrid system is by far the best in the business.

Acquired: September 2020

Distance travelled this month: 745km

Odometer: 2872km

Average fuel consumption for December: 4.9L/100 (measured at the pump)

After three months and nearly 3000km, the ultimate question: Would my partner and I actually part with our own money to buy a Toyota Corolla ZR Hybrid? I think the answer is a quite confident ‘Yes’.

We loved the way it drives, its good looks and its superb real-world economy. But ultimately the lion’s share of the good stuff about this car can be had on the entry-level Ascent Sport or SX. The rest is just (very nice) garnish.

Keep in mind though, this car is very much suited to a single or couple in a city. If you’re a growing family, frequently move things around, or often need to do long intercity or rural drives, you won’t necessarily be getting the most out of what the hybrid Corolla offers, and there may be other options less limited on cabin space more worthy of your consideration.

My next long-term car starting in January 2021 is a more recent direct competitor, the Subaru XV hybrid. We’re excited to see how it compares, so stay tuned for our next long-term instalments.

$34,695

Based on new car retail price

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Score

3.9/5
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