New Toyota Corolla promises driver fun in a full-sized family saloon

Latest addition features hybrid power along with a host of new safety features

It’s been the new car of choice for more than 46 million motorists – outselling the VW Beetle – since its introduction in 1966. That’s only set to grow as the twelfth generation of Toyota’s most important model is due to arrive in Irish showrooms.

The Japanese car giant chose China to launch the latest iteration of the mid-sized family saloon variant, underlining what has become the biggest market for this model. Its arrival also embodies several significant strategic moves by the brand.

First up is the decision to scrap the Auris name on hatchback and estate variants of the Corolla in the European market. The decision to rebrand the cars in Europe back in 2006 was always a head-scratcher, given the enormous consumer awareness of Corolla. In Ireland, for example, few if any of us didn't either own one, or had a family member who did. At the very least at some stage we were ferried around on a Friday night in Corolla taxis.

More inspiring drive

The issue with the moniker was its reputation as being reliable, efficient, but uninspiring. It was the sensible buy, driven by the sort of people who know their bank account balance to the nearest euro. That's about to change as well. While managing to retain those cornerstone characteristics, the father of the latest Corolla, chief engineer Yoshiki Konishi, told The Irish Times the new generation will offer real appeal to those looking for a more engaging, fun drive. Over one million kilometres of test driving on public roads in five continents by Konishi's engineering team promise to deliver a Corolla that's fun to drive. That, it hopes, will lure more younger buyers to the Corolla range.

Safety tech

The styling changes are noticeably more sporty on the hatchback variant, while the new saloon has become a very smart proper family-sized saloon, and not just a hatchback with a boot. The fit and finish is a noticeable step up, while it also features the latest version of Toyota’s Safety Sense active safety package that includes a Pre-Collision System that automatically intervenes to brake the car in the event of a potential collision with pedestrian detection during both day and night-time, and cyclist detection in daylight hours. There is a also adaptive cruise control, lane departure alert with steering assist, road sign assist and automatic high beam headlights.

Furthermore, the hybrid versions get Lane Trace Assist which means that when engaged with the adaptive cruise control, assists the driver in steering controls with subtle inputs; the first foray for many into the world of autonomous driving. That’s a lot of tech for what is still pitched as an affordable family car, and most of it would have seemed space age back when the Corolla was launched in 1966.

Hybrid’s lure

Another lure is undoubtedly the hybrid powertrain option, sharing the same underpinnings with the current Prius. That means a 1.8-litre petrol engine supported by a 4.4kw/h recharging battery, ultimately creating a hybrid mix which Toyota claims will allow many urban and suburban owners to spend up to 50 per cent of their time behind the wheel in electric mode. As more and more motorists turn their back on diesel, Toyota Ireland estimates over 90 per cent of buyers will opt for the hybrid over the other engine option – a 1.6-litre petrol with manual transmission. After years of ploughing a lonely furrow with hybrids, the company's devotion to this tech format is paying dividends.

The one issue motoring hacks have had with Toyota's hybrid system has been it's tendency to turn to high revs – resulting in high engine noise – when you kick down heavy on the throttle. Chief engineer Konishi believes he has solved this issue with a new variant of the CVT gearbox dubbed Direct Shift CVT. The system will be first launched on Corolla in the United States, but we expect it to be fitted to European models as well.

Expectations are high for the new Corolla to be a sales success, with 1,500 Irish motorists already registering their interest in buying the car, based on nothing more than leaked reports and sneak pictures. Prices for the new Corolla saloon hybrid start at €26,820 when it lands in showrooms in February.

New model army

And this is only the start of the story for Toyota in 2019. The year will also bring a rugged new RAV4 crossover, a long-awaited return of the Camry and Supra models to our shores.

There's a real buzz around the Japanese brand at present and that's largely down to the renewed energy of its chief executive Akio Toyoda, a scion of the founding family and someone determined to reinject some passion into the often conservative brand. The efforts look set to bear fruit next year, starting with a new Corolla offering the most character in generations.

Michael McAleer

Michael McAleer

Michael McAleer is Motoring Editor, Innovation Editor and an Assistant Business Editor at The Irish Times