Toyota Corolla 1.8G: It’s all about the drive, really

When Akio Toyoda assumed the leadership of Toyota Motor Corporation in 2009, he talked about changing the culture at one of the largest and most influential car companies in the world. Not that anything was broken at Toyota, far from it, but Toyoda, a well-documented car nut who loves driving, wanted his customers to feel the same way as he does about their Toyotas.

But when your best-selling products are a B-segment sedan and a pick-up truck, it’s a bit hard to get ‘excited’ about Toyotas in Malaysia. A new tagline “It’s all about the drive” which unfurled in 2016 didn’t really change the mood, but Toyota has gradually chipped away at its stodgy image with products such as the unconventional CH-R crossover, the stylish Camry and the revival of its icon, the Supra.

So now it’s the Corolla’s turn

Despite spanning 12 vehicle generations, I’m not sure if there has ever been a signature Corolla ‘look’, unless ‘nondescript’ became a design language overnight. After a few brave but over-the-top styling efforts to distinguish the brand from its past (think first-gen Mirai, current Prius), Toyota has finally settled into a groove, and the new generation Corolla is a product of that.

No wheels were reinvented here but I like how the new Corolla shows off a confident, sporty stance from the onset. In 1.8G trim, 17-inch multi-spoke alloys fill the wheel arches very nicely, the car sitting lower than it has ever been. Toyota also worked in bold elements such as the oversized slatted intake, cut-outs that resemble gills on the front bumper and scalloped surfaces onto what is a conservative three-box shape, and they all seem to work.

Finally, a Corolla that fills its wheel arches and sits close to ground on standard suspension.

Whether the end-product can tempt customers away from the still youthful-looking Honda Civic or the ultra-cool Mazda 3 is debatable however, but it wouldn’t be due to any lack of effort.

Top variant comes with active cruise control that can handle slow speed crawls too.

On paper, it’s not that promising a start when the most impressive items you can draw attention to on a Corolla brochure are its extensive safety equipment – debuting semi-autonomous functions such as the Dynamic Radar Cruise Control and Lane Tracing Assist on a Corolla for the first time ever, with the remainder eliciting a yawn or two.

An engine cover wouldn’t hurt; 139hp/172Nm 1.8-litre performs much better than it looks.

The powertrain is an anti-climax in particular; the naturally aspirated 1.8-litre four-cylinder being a carryover and the sole option, it has been tweaked no doubt but the output of 139hp and 172Nm is unchanged from its predecessor, mated to a CVT too – a cold towel to every petrol head. But wait, there is an independent double-wishbone rear suspension (previously a torsion beam) and the Corolla sits on the new TNGA platform which Toyota can’t tell you enough of (watch this video).

Maybe it’s in the drive?

Instead of looking at it solely from the effects brought on by the new underpinnings, the transformation of the Corolla from a dependable car you don’t mind owning to something you look forward to driving reflects the cultural shift Toyoda-san envisaged for the company, and you can feel this almost from the moment the Corolla starts rolling.

The initial impression is one of structural rigidity, and a composed, sophisticated ride quality. Whereas its predecessor would merely cushion road imperfections and call it a day, this new Corolla, which has appreciably stiffer damping and roll resistance than before, now exhibits poise and surefootedness in corners. The front-end also tracks very accurately to inputs on the pleasantly weighted steering, even the brake pedal have this reassuringly firm response under modulation, which makes stopping smoothly easy.

CVT with seven virtual ratios is frisky and responsive.

Contrary to fears that the powertrain may be the weakest link here, the 1.8-litre four-cylinder and CVT combo actually offers a surprisingly nippy performance that complements the dynamics of the chassis. The CVT with its seven virtual ratios gets a notable mention for its near lag-free response and mimicry of how a conventional auto changes ‘gear’ (there are flappy paddles on the 1.8G). In fact, I’ll go as far as to say that on a subjective level, the Corolla’s powertrain is more alert and hooked up for a hard thrash than the one you’ll find in the new Mazda 3.

Dear Akio, good job on the ride and handling, but please get someone talented to tidy up the instrumentation.

In a way, this is unprecedented for a car synonymous with pain-free transportation for the family, but it’s clear that extra work was done to dial in these fun-driving characteristics which Toyota never really bothered with previously.

A better option over the C-HR?

As glowing as the report card has been, there are a couple of shortcomings in the interior of the Corolla which tempers the upbeat mood somewhat. For one, the head unit has probably the thickest screen bezel in the business, lukewarm acoustics and omits Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, rumour has it that an upgrade is due soon. Toyota would also be wise to update the old-fashioned graphics on the driver’s instrument panel too. It’s 2020, not 1990.

Infotainment display looks like it came from the Blackberry era, though the AC controls are nicely presented.

Otherwise, the rest of the cabin is comfortable and solidly made, as a Corolla should, the seating being particularly supportive for both front and rear occupants, even if space at the back isn’t the most commodious in the class.

Not quite class-leading in cabin space, but it’s comfy place to travel in.

If you’ve been eyeing the C-HR or any C-segment product under the RM150K mark, the availability of the new Corolla poses a ‘good problem’ in that there’s an option that’s easy to live with, boasts cutting-edge semi-autonomous tech and is suitably stylish. If that doesn’t sway you, take it out for a spin – as unlikely as that may sound, the way the Corolla drives could be the deal clincher.

Toyota Corolla 1.8G
: RM136,888  Engine: 1.8-litre 4-cyl, FWD  Output: 139hp and 172Nm  Transmission: 7-speed CVT  Performance: 0-100km/h in 10.0 seconds; top speed 195km/h (both are estimations)  Wheels/tyres: 225/45 R17 Safety: 7 airbags, Electronic Stability Control, Active Cruise Control, Lane Keeping Assist  Warranty: 5-year unlimited mileage