The Corolla ZR Hybrid adds sporty tinsel over the mid-spec SX, but it’s the small things like the a contrast roof and suede seats that make all the difference
When Toyota launched the 12th-generation Corolla small car in August 2018, the ZR was considered quite steep at its $31,870 list price – but how quickly things change. With huge price hikes on rivals like the Volkswagen Golf (which went from $25,790 to $29,250 in base manual form) and Honda Civic ($23,790 entry to $47,200 driveway), the top-shelf Corolla ZR hybrid hatch now looks like a bargain, particularly given its frugal 4.2L/100km claimed fuel consumption.
On the subject of hybrids, the Corolla is still the only small car in Australia to offer a self-charging hybrid powertrain, though Honda has confirmed a 135kW 2.0-liter petrol-electric hybrid powertrain will be available in Australian Civics later this year. But for now, the Corolla remains peerless.
Our Corolla ZR’s sharp appearance – finished in silver pearl ($575) paint with contrasting black roof ($775) and machine-faced 18-inch alloy wheels – further bolsters this hatch’s driveway appeal.
The Corolla’s frugal hybrid powertrain and handsome looks proved prominent draw cards last year with the hatch and sedan recording the fourth best sales result of any vehicle in Australia (28,768), but in the first quarter of 2022 the Corolla slipped back to ninth spot behind its Hyundai i30 arch-rival in the sales charts.
Much of the Corolla’s sluggish results in 2022 are down to extended wait times – six months in some cases – but is there more to the story? Have rivals beaten the Corolla’s blend of practicality, frugality and durability?
The sheer refinement of a hybrid-powered Toyota strikes you as soon as you press the power button and hear … nothing. Without the usual din of a combustion engine firing into life, the only experience is listening to the whir of electric motors and a light hiss from the air conditioning.
From a standing start to 50km/h the Corolla is pretty nippy thanks to the boosty torque from its electric motor. Toyota says the Corolla makes only a modest 90kW of power, while engine torque from the 1.8-litre four-cylinder is a measly 142Nm, but in practice the Corolla hybrid feels to have between 180-220Nm of twisting force at full throttle thanks to the contribution of electricity.
This doesn’t lend to blistering acceleration times – Toyota doesn’t claim a 0-100km/h sprint time for the Corolla, but we measured the mechanically identical Ascent Sport at 11.5 seconds – and the ZR hybrid feels like it runs out of steam above 80km/h. Still, for people that drive mainly in town, this car really does feel quick below that speed.
For regular urban use though the ZR’s hybrid powertrain is serene and refined. The transition between electric and petrol power is now extremely polished and the brake pedal feel is far more natural than Toyota’s previous-gen hybrid drivetrains.
Where the ZR diverges from the lower grades is its 18-inch alloy wheels shod in 225/40 R18 Dunlop SP Sport Maxx tyres. Undoubtedly these add a crisper turn-in to the Corolla experience, but the trade-off is that they pick up a hint more urban harshness than the base 16-inch alloys or 17-inch items fitted to the SX.
But the Corolla’s ride is still more than acceptable thanks partly to standard independent rear suspension. The TNGA-C platform has plenty of talent and when you get some speed on the Corolla it steps up to the challenge, responding confidently to the driver’s instructions.
Revisiting the crisp handling Corolla at this point in its life cycle was a timely reminder of how talented these underpinnings are, and only serves to increase excitement about the 220kW rally-honed all-wheel drive GR version on the way – we simply can’t wait.
Safety systems are the only real aspect of the Corolla that could do with improvement in its imminent facelift (expected some time in 2023). The adaptive cruise control works well enough, and front AEB with pedestrian and cyclist assistance combined with reverse AEB, blind-spot monitoring but it’s the weak and inconsistent lane-keep assist that lets the package down.
Inside, the Corolla ZR gives off sporty vibes with black suedecloth-faced seats with two-stage heating and eight-way power adjustment (including lumbar) for the driver. This allows a good, comfortable, low-set driving position. Annoyingly, the manually-adjustable passenger seat misses out on the adjustable lumbar and height adjustment, making it less comfortable for taller people.
It’s a little tight in the back too, so if you need to install child seats, the longer Corolla sedan, a Camry or a RAV4 SUV will be more appropriate (if you can stand the wait times). A small rear door aperture and low roof line further hampers the fitting of child seats in the Corolla. Keep in mind a new Corolla Cross SUV model will launch soon, which may be more practical – though we haven’t tested it yet.
Thankfully the materials are all generally high quality in the ZR’s front cabin with attractively-grained squishy plastics on the dash and door tops. The adjustable centre armrest also offers good support for the driver’s elbow and a decent amount of storage space below with a 12-volt socket and USB-A charging port. You won’t find newer, faster-charging USB-C connectivity, though.
Ahead of the gear shifter is a wireless charging pad in this range-topping ZR (also standard on the $30,795 SX Hybrid hatch) and a smartly-placed USB port that allows you to run wired Apple CarPlay or Android Auto through the 8.0-inch touchscreen.
You’ll probably want to hook your phone up for mirroring as Toyota’s software looks dated and low-resolution next to rivals such as the Hyundai i30. Navigation with live traffic and three years of free map updates does feature, but it doesn’t work as well as using Waze or Google Maps.
Toyota outfits the ZR with a 7.0-inch digitised instrument cluster that can display fuel economy, music and outside temperature info though its blue and green colour scheme looks dated now. The standard head-up display gives a digital speed readout and traffic sign information and is bright enough to be seen through polarised sunglasses.
The 10-speaker JBL sound system fitted to the ZR is good for the class and although the sound quality is slightly cold and digital, it boasts powerful bass and plenty of volume to nicely round out the ZR’s technology package.
In the rear is where the 12th-gen Corolla hatch has traditionally suffered, the privacy glass and black headliner of this ZR add to the dark and cramped feeling. That said, the room on offer is acceptable with just enough head and legroom for a 188cm tall person, a fold-down armrest and adjustable air vents.
This ZR Hybrid hatch is also the mythical ‘one with the good boot’ thanks to its lack of space saver spare tyre under the floor.
Compared to an Ascent Sport or SX Hybrid, the ZR bumps cargo space from 217 litres to 333 litres, increasing its soccer ball capacity from a weak 22 to an impressive 39. And if you need more space for ridesharing or family duties there’s always the Corolla sedan with a 470 litre boot.
One of the chief reasons to buy a Toyota are its low running costs and expansive dealer network – and the Corolla Hybrid certainly offers low fuel economy. The official combined figure is 4.2L/100km for the ZR Hybrid hatch, and we nearly matched that recording an impressive 4.4L/100km in mixed driving.
That makes the Corolla hybrid genuinely very frugal. Compared to a Hyundai i30 with a 2.0-litre engine, which uses about 10L/100km in testing, a Corolla hybrid would save you around $1400 per year at the bowser while emitting less than half the CO2 emissions.
Scheduled maintenance is required every 12 months or 15,000km, which is a longer distance interval than the Mazda 3 or Honda Civic (12 months/10,000km) – convenient. Service pricing is capped for five years/75,000km at $205 per visit for a total of $1025, which is inexpensive for the class.
Honda does offer more affordable servicing for its Civic small car at $125 per visit to the dealer for a five year total of just $625, however both the Hyundai i30 ($1495) Mazda 3 G25 ($2002) are dearer to maintain over five years than the Corolla.
Toyota backs all its cars in Australia with a five year, unlimited kilometre warranty with a further two year guarantee on any of the brand’s genuine parts used in servicing.
In base model Ascent Sport or mid-spec SX guise the Toyota Corolla is delightfully fit-for-purpose, but the ZR adds a sprinkle of sporty tinsel on top that just makes it a more visually attractive proposition to walk out to in the morning.
That contrast black roof paired with the 18-inch alloy wheels makes the Corolla look more aggressive and exciting. Even though the ZR’s driving experience is almost identical to an SX or Ascent Sport, there’s a lot to be said for being interested in the car you own.
Only the unattractive user interface and slightly lacklustre packaging (when compared to a Golf or i30) hurt the Corolla’s chances as an everyday proposition.
But in ZR Hybrid guise, the Corolla hatch still offers impressively low running costs matched with a more fun and comfortable driving experience than you might have expected from this nameplate in the past.
Headlined by an elevated new look and an elevated price, the new-gen Civic is a fine car with deeply impressive handling. But is its excellence worth the entry ticket?
The highly-anticipated eighth-generation Volkswagen Golf has now arrived in Australia – and it’s still the well-judged small car it always has been.
Variant tested ZR TWO TONE OPTION HYBRID
Key specs (as tested)
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