A trapezoidal grille and sporting stance gives the Corolla hatch new-found design mojo. Picture: SUPPLIED
A trapezoidal grille and sporting stance gives the Corolla hatch new-found design mojo. Picture: SUPPLIED

It seems like the Toyota Corolla has been with us since Noah was in nappies, and for much of that time it’s stood for much the same things: reliable, conservative transport with an anodyne flavour. Things have changed somewhat.

While I wouldn’t insult anyone’s intelligence by claiming that this car for the masses has suddenly discovered its va-va-voom and is going to start challenging a Mini for charisma, there is a distinct fresh wind blowing through the halls at Toyota (that much was demonstrated by the C-HR sports utility vehicle) and it’s good to see the Corolla getting in on the head-turning action.

There is no RSi revival here harking back to the iconic 4A-GE 1.6l engine of the 1990s, which produced a perky (for the time) 115kW of power and 150Nm of torque. But Toyota has definitely discovered some styling mojo with the new-generation Corolla hatch launched in SA last week. The sedan version will follow in 2020.

The hatch has shed its Auris cocoon to emerge with a fresh-faced look that no longer seems headed straight for the rental-car lot. Lower, sportier, a bit more aggro, it appeals to what Toyota calls stylish but sensible customers. Three new colours  — Scarlet Metallic (Red), Oxide Bronze and Caribbean Blue — underline its new-found zest.

Inside too there’s been something of a revolution, with smart soft-touch finishes dominating the cabin, along with some of the most appealingly styled sports seats in the compact hatch segment (Xr model). Covered in leather and suede and finished off with classy brushed metal in the headrests, the front seats not only give the cabin some styling sizzle but they’re very supportive too. One must doff one’s cap to Toyota here.

The interior makeover includes some of the smartest-looking seats in the segment. Picture: SUPPLIED
The interior makeover includes some of the smartest-looking seats in the segment. Picture: SUPPLIED

The car’s slick and modern exterior curves, embellished with LED lights across all grades, could also speak to a boy racer if there were suitable hitting power to match. There isn’t; it’s a humble 1.2l turbo engine fitted across the range, and there’s no prospect of any hot-hatch version on the short-term horizon.

But what it lacks in excitement, the 85kW/185Nm four-cylinder motor makes up for in refinement and easygoing commuting pace. It’s a very smooth unit that’s content to be revved hard, and its smooth-voiced nature led me to inadvertently creep over the 120km/h speed limit a number of times at last week’s media lunch in Cape Town. Our test car was averaging 7.4l/100km.

Excitement, no, but it’s all about very acceptable open-road cruisability and overtaking prowess. And the turbocharging means it should perform much the same at high altitude.

The power’s fed to the front wheels in one of two ways: a six-speed manual or a CVT automatic with 10 programmed steps. Both do the job capably; the manual is slick and precise, and the auto is one of the better continuously variable transmissions I’ve experienced. It does drone a little when you’re accelerating up to cruising speeds (which is cured by switching to its 10-speed manual mode) but in general when left to its own devices it performs unobtrusively without the dreaded rubber-band effect.

There’s not enough power to expect any heroic handling, but the Corolla hatch swept neatly through the Cape’s curviest roads, its steering light and accurate. A new multilink rear suspension improves handling stability, steering response and ride comfort. The car felt impressively composed over bumps, and the lengthened wheelbase prevented it from feeling choppy. Refinement is the overriding theme here.

The multilink rear suspension also makes for less intrusion in the load space, allowing for an impressively sized 503l boot with a full-sized spare wheel.

Toyota offers the expected toys, including an automatic key where you merely touch the door handles to lock and unlock the car; a touchscreen infotainment system with USB ports and Bluetooth; and heated seats (these are model dependent), but it’s not overendowed with cutting-edge gizmos or semi-autonomous driving aids. For instance, it has a reversing camera and blind spot alert (in the range-topping Xr model) but unlike a Ford Focus it doesn’t offer a lane-keeping assist.

To keep things simple there are just two grades: Xs and Xr. Seven airbags, ABS brakes and stability control make up the safety spec in both versions.

It’s a Corolla, Jim, but not as we know it. Now we just need some real fire under the bonnet.


Corolla Hatch 1.2T Xs 6MT – R336,800

Corolla Hatch 1.2T Xs CVT – R347,400

Corolla Hatch 1.2T Xr CVT – R367,100

Includes a three-year/100,000km warranty and six services/90,000km service plan and. Service intervals are set at 12 months/15,000km.