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Toyota's British built hatchback takes on the Golf class with hybrid power

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The Toyota Corolla is one of the longest-running and best-selling nameplates in the industry.

It has been on sale here since 1966, though it went away for a bit in 2008. 'Corolla' had become synonymous with boring cars, so Toyota replaced it with the Toyota Auris, which was equally grey.

Looks are, as ever, subjective, but if the Auris was blandly handsome, then in the metal the Corolla is just handsome

Along with chairman Akio Toyoda’s “no more boring cars” edict, Toyota realised that it wasn’t the name that was the issue, so when this generation launched in 2019, it brought back the Corolla name, and went to quite a bit of trouble to make it compete at the sharp end of the hatchback class for looks, handling and fuel efficiency.

Five years later, 12th-generation Corollas are everywhere in the UK, and it’s easy to forget what a sharp-looking, handsome car it is, looking rather trim in a world of SUVs. For that reason, the 2023 facelift didn’t mess with the looks too much, though it did introduce a few worthwhile technical updates.

Should the British-built hatchback be on your shortlist? Read on to find out.

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DESIGN & STYLING

02 Toyota Corolla review 2024 rear cornering

The Corolla uses the TNGA platform, which underpins most of the Toyota range and has proven to be capable of spawning efficient and pleasant-handling cars. Certainly, the Corolla has all the right ingredients. Compared with its Auris predecessor, it has a 10mm-lower centre of gravity and a body that is 60% more rigid. It’s blessed with a multi-link rear axle, which is quite unusual in the hatchback class, which includes everything from the VW Golf and Vauxhall Astra to the Mazda 3 and Mercedes A-Class.

The design manages to be dynamic and sleek without being remotely polarising. Its bottom might jut out in the manner of the old Renault Mégane, but sitting 40mm longer, 30mm wider but 25mm less lofty than the old Auris – and with smaller overhangs – the proportions are there. Size-wise, it’s right in the middle of the segment, being slightly longer than a Volkswagen Golf but quite a bit shorter than the latest Honda Civic.

In 2023, Toyota gave the Corolla a facelift with some new wheel styles and redesigned headlights. On upper trim levels, these became adaptive LEDs with a J-shaped daytime-running light strip. The most important changes were to the infotainment and the mechanicals, which we’ll get to in a minute.

From launch, the 12th generation was available as a five-door hatchback, a Touring Sports estate with a 60mm-longer wheelbase, and a saloon, but the saloon was a slow seller over here so it didn’t return after the 2023 facelift. For those mourning the loss of the Vauxhall Astravan, there is the Corolla Commercial, which is an estate shorn of rear seats and belts, with the rear windows blacked out and with a bulkhead between the front seats and the cargo area.

The engine range has also gone through a few changes over the years. Diesels were never on the menu, and while it probably wouldn’t be impossible for Toyota to engineer a plug-in hybrid version based on the drivetrain in the new Toyota CH-R, that’s looking unlikely until the next generation.

At launch you could spec your Corolla with a 114bhp 1.2-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol and a manual gearbox, or a choice of 1.8 and 2.0-litre full-hybrids. The lone pure-petrol engine was removed from sale at the start of 2020, as Toyota focused its range on hybrids.

Both hybrids work to the same concept that’s familiar from Toyota hybrids. A naturally aspirated four-cylinder petrol engine works together with two electric motors in a planetary gearset. The larger electric motor drives the ring gear (and therefore the wheels) directly. Because the smaller electric motor drives the sun gear, it can act both as a starter-generator for the engine and make the whole gearset function as a continuously variable transmission by spinning faster or slower.

Both versions were updated in 2023, with the 1.8 more substantially revised than the 2.0. The engines remained unchanged: they’re Atkinson-cycle units with 97bhp and 150bhp, respectively. The change was in the electric motors. The one in the 1.8 got uprated from 71bhp to 107bhp, for a system output of 138bhp. The motor in the 2.0 got a smaller boost, from 94bhp to 111bhp, for a total of 193bhp. Toyota has also reduced electrical losses in both systems, and swapped the 2.0-litre’s nickel-metal-hydride drive battery for a lighter lithium ion one.

In all hybrid Corollas, the drive battery is located under the rear seat, where it doesn’t intrude into the boot space. However, due to the 2.0-litre engine being physically larger, its low-voltage 12V battery has to live in the boot, where it does eat into the load volume.

Range at a glance

Version power
1.2 Turbo (2019-2020) 114bhp
1.8 Hybrid (2019-2023) 120bhp
1.8 Hybrid (2023-) 138bhp
2.0 Hybrid (2019-2023) 178bhp
2.0 Hybrid (2023-) 193bhp

Transmissions: 6-spd manual (1.2), CVT automatic (all except 1.2)

INTERIOR

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07 Toyota Corolla review 2024 dashboard

What does the word ‘quality’ mean to you? When talking about the interior of a BMW or Range Rover, it’s often taken to refer to how subjectively ‘nice’ the materials feel. If that is your priority, the Corolla is not the car for you. However, if you take it to refer to the longevity of the components, that’s a different story.

Obviously, we can’t test how a car will hold up over 10 years, but the Corolla feels like you could set off a grenade in its interior and the grenade would come off worse. There is no frivolity to be found among the expanses of black rubberised 'elephant skin' and plastic, but it sure feels built to last.

Most of it is extremely easy to use too. There are obvious knobs and buttons for the climate control, chunky switches for functions like the traction control and handbrake, and a pair of military-grade rocker switches for the heated seats. They’re not pretty, but on a cold morning, you’ll be very thankful you can just jab the switch rather than wait for a screen to boot up.

While the Corolla’s interior is pleasantly old-school in its approach to switchgear, it is somewhat unpleasantly old-school in its versatility. The door bins are quite small, and the cupholders are espresso-sized as well. There’s a tray in front of the gearlever. On higher trims, it’s a wireless phone charger, but on lower trims, it’s just hard plastic and stuff tends to slide out of it.

Overall, the Corolla is not the roomiest hatchback you can buy. Compared with a Seat or Cupra Leon, the Corolla 1.8’s boot is slightly smaller (361 litres versus 380) and the 2.0-litre’s boot even smaller still, at 313 litres. It’s in the rear where the Corolla is pretty cramped: by our measurements, the Leon has 10cm more leg room, as well as a decent chunk more head room. The estate is more comfortable in the rear thanks to its longer wheelbase and straighter roof line, but most of its estate rivals will be roomier still.

Infotainment section – 3 Stars

Infotainment has long been Toyota’s Achilles heel. It muddled along with a painfully dated system for a long time, only to replace it with an all-new interface that takes a few steps forwards, but a few steps back as well.

The Corolla launched with Toyota’s old system, which had ugly graphics and a poor navigation system, but did feature some chunky shortcut buttons, and gained wired Apple CarPlay and Android Auto in 2020.

In 2022, all trims except Icon got the newer Toyota Smart Connect+ on an 8.0in screen. The 2023 update kept the same interface, but upgraded the screen to 10.5in for all trims except the van. The new graphics look crisp and modern, the menus aren’t too deep and are pretty logical. There’s no home screen combining media and navigation, however, and it loses its physical controls apart from the volume. There’s a virtual shortcut bar, but it inexplicably disappears when you use smartphone mirroring (which is now wireless), which makes switching between the native interface and phone mirroring quite difficult. As standard, there’s just a solitary USB port, which is joined by another on higher trims.

Some early, low-spec versions had analogue gauges with a smaller screen, but the majority of Corollas have a mostly digital gauge cluster. It has never been the prettiest, most configurable or clearest interface on the market, but for the most part, it has always been largely inoffensive. The 2023 update brought a much more modern and clearer interface that allows for more personalisation. The biggest annoyance remains, however: some vehicle settings, including some of the driver assistance systems, need to be adjusted in a clunky, black and white interface that’s full of impenetrable abbreviations.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

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01 Toyota Corolla review 2024 front cornering

We performance tested a 2.0-litre estate in 2019, and a 1.8-litre hatchback in 2023. Because both are versions of the same concept, the manner in which they deliver their performance is very similar – there’s simply a bit more of it in the 2.0-litre. But while the difference in performance used to be large enough to make the 2.0-litre the one to go for if you had the cash, since the latest round of upgrades, the 1.8 will be sufficient for most people.

Our 138bhp 1.8 hatchback powered to 60mph in 9.4sec, suggesting it’s somewhat shy of its 9.1sec official 0-62mph time. There’s very little to it: just press the throttle and go. It’s not an encouraging-sounding engine, and under full throttle, you get the CVT-typical high-rev mooing, but noise isolation is decent and, for the occasional squirt, it’s not too onerous.

Besides, performance for typical everyday use is perfectly adequate. The powertrain is very cleverly tuned to encourage you to drive gently by giving you enough initial electric shove for some low-speed zip, but then dulling the throttle response to avoid rousing the engine. It makes for quite a relaxed but by no means sporty driving experience.

For that, you might be tempted by the 2.0-litre ‘Performance Hybrid’, with its 193bhp and ‘manual’ gearbox mode. In hatchback form, it can supposedly crack 62mph in 7.4sec. We’ve not tried the updated 2.0-litre yet, but we’d be surprised if it’s vastly different from the earlier car. That was appreciably quicker than the 1.8, especially under full throttle, but to drive it like that is to miss the point somewhat. The Toyota hybrid powertrain is at its best when mooching. The manual mode is fairly pointless: it doesn’t suddenly transform this into something exciting, especially given how soft and slow the changes are.

A CVT is anathema for sportiness, but more important for most drivers will be the Toyota e-CVT’s impeccable smoothness. No gearchanges means no jerky gearchanges, the transmission always responds instantly to demands for more power, and because there are no gears to engage or clutches to be slipped, manoeuvring is as easy as in an EV. The latest generation makes it easy to drive gently and is very good at keeping the revs down in everyday motoring.

Toyota’s hybrid powertrain has a couple of notable quirks. There’s an ‘EV’ button, but the car’s pure-electric capabilities are so limited that you’re much better off just letting the computers decide. Then there is regenerative braking. Contrary to what you might expect in other cars, the B-mode on the gearlever doesn’t just increase the regen. It also fires up the engine to provide engine braking. It’s meant simply for descending hills, rather than economical driving.

On the subject of regenerative braking, there was a change for the 2023 facelift. The pedal feel improved markedly and Toyota introduced an adaptive regen function that uses various sensors to guess how much retardation is needed. It works okay and can be turned off.

RIDE & HANDLING

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15 Toyota Corolla review 2024 front cornering

It is arguably a greater challenge to set up the suspension of a relatively affordable mainstream hatchback, one that needs to appeal to interested and disinterested drivers alike, than it is to set up a hardcore sports car or a money-no-object luxury car. Toyota got it pretty spot-on for the Corolla.

Whatever their colleagues in the powertrain department were likely to achieve, Toyota’s chassis engineers were clearly never going to be the reason why this new Corolla missed its ambitions to force its way in among the more dynamically gifted cars in this class. You’ll tell that much pretty clearly having negotiated your very first proper corner in the car – and quite possibly having simply driven it off the dealer forecourt, judging by how harmoniously the component parts of its handling come together, and how intuitive and easy to drive it is as a result.

The Corolla has the kind of chassis that seems to create very creditable lateral grip and cornering balance, and a crispness of handling response and tidy closeness of body control, without working for it.

It’s probably one of the more softly sprung cars in its class, and yet it handles very impressively anyway, with steering that matches directness, weight and a bit of feel very skilfully; and a chassis that stays flatter than you imagine it might and grips and rotates underneath you in more agile fashion than you’re anticipating but also remains entirely predictable at all times and goes where it’s pointed very obediently.

Given the talent on show in the regular Corolla, it’s a pity there isn’t a warm or hot version with a slightly sportier suspension tune and a more engaging engine and gearbox combo. Some countries get a full-blown GR Corolla with an uprated version of the Toyota GR Yaris’s turbo triple and four-wheel drive system. Then again, that might be a bit too much of a good thing.

Comfort and isolation – 4 stars

The relatively soft suspension means that this hatchback doesn’t beat you up over rough roads either. That said, we’ve noticed an appreciable difference between the hatchback we’ve tested in GR Sport trim with 18in wheels, and our long-term Corolla Commercial on 15in steel wheels with 65-aspect tyre sidewalls. The 16in items on entry-level Icon trim would be a good compromise.

Whichever version you go for, you get plushly padded seats that are very comfortable. On more expensive versions, they’ll be electrically adjustable, but even on the lowly van, they’re heated and have adjustable lumbar support. Taller drivers may wish for a tilting cushion, but even as is, they’ll be less achy after a long drive in a Corolla than in many more expensive cars.

The one thing that might start to annoy on long journeys is the road noise. It’s by no means bad, but the best rivals do better than the Corolla’s 70dBA at 70mph.

Assisted driving – 4.5 stars

Post-facelift, every Corolla comes with the basic Toyota Safety Sense package, which includes emergency braking, adaptive cruise control with lane following and road sign recognition. However, in order to get two of the more useful systems, blindspot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert, you need to upgrade to Excel, the most expensive trim.

The systems that are fitted as standard are some of the best on the market. The adaptive cruise control is smooth, alert and not prone to slowing down for cars that aren’t there. It can also very easily be switched between adaptive cruise, standard cruise control and speed limiter. The lane following can easily be toggled with a button on the steering wheel. Lane keep assist is harder to turn off, but it is one of the least intrusive systems we’ve tried. None of the Corollas we’ve driven has had a speed limit warning, but from some point in 2024, all new cars will be required to have one.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

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01 Toyota Corolla review 2024 front cornering

You might expect that the hybrid-only Corolla would be a fairly pricy option – those batteries cost money, after all. However, at the time of writing, in January 2024, the Corolla is looking like relatively decent value, although there are cheaper options out there if you’re happy to stick with a manual gearbox.

Entry-level Icon trim is actually very well equipped, with keyless entry, heated seats, adaptive cruise control and a 10.5in touchscreen with navigation and wireless phone mirroring. We would have liked to see blindspot monitoring, but you have to upgrade to the most expensive grade for that.

A mild-hybrid VW Golf 1.0 eTSI automatic with a few options to match the Toyota is very slightly cheaper on list price, but about £10 a month more on a PCP. A Vauxhall Astra 1.2 automatic in GS trim is similar too, but not as well equipped. Peugeot is currently offering some excellent finance deals, making a Peugeot 308 Active significantly cheaper per month.

When it comes to fuel economy, it doesn’t matter a huge deal whether you go for the 1.8 or the 2.0. The 1.8 might be a little more frugal in town, while the 2.0-litre is the slightly better choice for faster motorway work. Either way, 50mpg is easily doable in both.

Like most Toyotas, the Corolla comes with three years of warranty as standard, but gains another year and 10,000 every time you take it to a Toyota dealer for its annual service, up to 10 years and 100,000 miles. For the hybrid battery, that can go up to 15 years. That said, given Toyota and Lexus always tend to top the reliability surveys, you’re unlikely to need it very much.

VERDICT

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18 Toyota Corolla review 2024 Verdict

The Corolla isn’t the hottest, most exciting, or trendiest thing around, but there’s something very pleasingly fit for purpose about it.

It’s the right size for UK roads, and while the hatchback isn’t excessively roomy, the estate version takes care of that. The Corolla also takes advantage of its relatively low weight and height to deliver a near-perfectly judged balance of ride and handling.

Toyota has also perfected its hybrid powertrain over the years. It’s still fundamentally a CVT, so neither the 1.8 nor the 2.0 is what you’d call exciting. But since the last round of upgrades, both have enough grunt that you don’t have to rag them to make some progress. Naturally, they’re capable of excellent economy, they’re generally quiet, and the gearbox is perfectly smooth.

If you’re after premium sheen, look elsewhere, because the Corolla’s interior feels indestructible but rather drab, and the multimedia system is rudimentary at best. It’s also a little noisy at a cruise.

Overall, those are fairly minor gripes, making the Corolla very pleasant, cheap to run, stress-free, and even mildly entertaining if the mood takes you.

Illya Verpraet

Illya Verpraet Road Tester Autocar
Title: Road Tester

As part of Autocar’s road test team, Illya drives everything from superminis to supercars, and writes reviews, comparison tests, as well as the odd feature and news story. 

Much of his time is spent wrangling the data logger and wielding the tape measure to gather the data for Autocar’s eight-page road tests, which are the most rigorous in the business thanks to independent performance, fuel consumption and noise figures.

Toyota Corolla First drives