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Strange passion when head rules the heart

MOTORING

2013 Toyota Corolla

What exactly is it? If you’re not sure, you probably haven’t been paying attention for the past 46 years – or 43 in New Zealand – and 10 model cycles. Corolla is Toyota’s biggest-selling car globally and the default small-car choice for business buyers and brand loyalists everywhere.

Powertrain: 1.8-litre petrol four producing 103kW/173Nm. Six-speed manual (GX only) or Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) automatic, front-drive. Combined fuel consumption 7.1/6.6 litres per 100km (manual/CVT), 0-100km/h 9.7/10.0 seconds.

Anything interesting in the equipment list? The base GX and GLX models are all business but Toyota has introduced two high-end versions in an attempt to add some glamour to Corolla. The Levin SX and ZR feature larger alloy wheels, different instrumentation, paddle-shift levers for the CVT and sports seats. The flagship Levin ZR also has gas-discharge headlights, leather upholstery, dual-zone climate air conditioning, smart entry/start with alarm and the option of a glass roof. A genuinely sporty Toyota Racing Development (TRD) Corolla is under consideration for 2013.

Price: $33,490 (GX manual) to $38,990 (Levin ZR).


The Toyota Corolla was launched in New Zealand in the year of my birth.

I’m usually quite sentimental about this kind of thing. I collect a certain type of sneaker that was introduced that year and I also possess a carefully preserved copy of my favourite motoring magazine of the same vintage.

I should be quite attached to the Corolla. But I’m not, because it’s really not that kind of car. Corolla’s longevity/appeal is based on ubiquity.

Like the automated teller machine (ATM) or quartz watch – two other gems from my very special year – a Corolla is supposed to serve the general public with faultless reliability and be completely free of surprises.

It’s hard to trust something that serves up surprises.

Eleventh hour

There is an all-new Corolla on sale which is undoubtedly a major automotive event.

There is something Toyota NZ would like me to communicate to you about this model: while it acknowledges Corolla has a solid reputation for providing a positive ownership experience and reliable transportation from A-to-B, the new 11th-generation model has been styled and engineered with “passion”.

Consider, in particular, the introduction of two premium Levin-badged models to the range.

All nonsense, of course. A Toyota 86 coupe is the product of passion because it’s a sports car created with a narrow focus. A Corolla must be everything to everybody and passion is a luxury it cannot afford.

Nor can we in the motoring media afford to swallow that same marketing message about each new generation of Corolla finally introducing excitement to the brand.

The truth is, Corolla is a small car that must have the widest possible appeal or it will fail. It cannot polarise people by prioritising entertainment over ease-of-use or risk reduced sales by offending the company accountant.

Passion or fashion

The new Corolla looks a lot more aggressive than the previous model. Aggressive but not exactly original. The new one does what each generation of Corolla that has come before it has done: interpret the fashion of the day in a carefully considered way.

Circa 2012 that means a narrow nose, high waistline, “pinched” roofline at the rear and complex tail light shapes.

It’s well executed but strangely similar to the Hyundai i30, Kia Cerato or even the new Nissan Pulsar launched at last month’s Sydney Motor Show.

The most dramatic change in proportion over the old Corolla is reduced height. The new car sits 55m lower, yet is 30mm longer.

Inside, it is quite old school, which comes as a surprise after the flight-deck ambience of the old car. The dash is flat and imposing, but it does give the car a feeling of substance I rather like.

Drive to succeed

Under the skin, the Corolla carries a whiff of lowest-common-denominator: the 1.8-litre engine is a modified version of the previous model’s powerplant. The sole transmission choice from the GLX upwards is a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) and the platform sticks with torsion-beam rear suspension.

Yet serious engineering effort has been applied in select places. The car is up to 45kg lighter than before, there is a wealth of extra sound insulation and the suspension has been reconfigured in a way that does seem to inject a little dynamic sparkle into this Everyman’s car.

There is little to choose from in ride/handling across the various models (the only real difference is wheel/tyre size) and they are all rather composed, with good steering feel, impressive chassis flow over broken back roads and a compliant ride.

Not in the least bit sporting but as capable as anything in the class, save perhaps the outstanding Ford Focus.

CVT is not my thing. It guarantees excellent fuel efficiency but anesthetises the driving experience. The Corolla’s gearbox is no different but it does have a couple of saving graces.

The first is a seven-step mode, which does a reasonable job of pretending to have proper ratios, along with paddle-shift levers on the Levin models.

The second is a programming protocol that attempts to match engine speed with road speed under hard acceleration, which prevents the stratospheric revving that otherwise occurs with CVTs.

So it’s quite good … for a CVT. But a quick reality check. Despite the allusions toward sportiness with the revival of the Levin name from Toyota’s past, the fastest and most entertaining Corolla is actually the basic fleet-focused GX.

It has the same engine and suspension setup as the rest but comes with the option of a rather good six-speed manual gearbox.

We all know that manual gearboxes are out of favour in this country, which is why you cannot buy a manual Corolla Levin. But, apparently, there is strong demand for manual cars from rental fleets, because many of their clients from Europe demand three pedals. I find that a bit sad.

I fear I’m starting to sound a bit negative. I don’t mean to. I cannot be passionate about the Corolla and I must caution anybody against assuming Toyota is pushing the small-car segment forward with this car.

The Japanese giant is doing what it always does – bringing the model comprehensively up to date but remaining risk-averse.

I’ve always liked the unpretentious nature of the Corolla, and that goes hand-in-hand with Toyota taking the middle ground on design and engineering. As does utter reliability and customer loyalty.

With projected sales of 4000 next year – not to mention another 1200 sedans and wagons – Corolla is a sure thing. And it doesn’t look a day over 40.

 

More by David Linklater

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