The Auris is no more but don’t despair. Its replacement is an impressive midsize challenger...

Toyota South Africa Motors should feel bullish its new midsize hatchback will recapture the attention of buyers who loved the RunX before cooling to two generations of Auris. There’s a confidence present in the new Corolla Hatch, from the brand’s youthful marketing campaign for the five-door to the vehicle’s expressive design, strong standard specification and turbo-only line-up of engines. The big question, though – we’re sure you won’t be surprised to read this – is whether it’s talented enough to oust the until-now undisputed leader of this class, the Volkswagen Golf?

It’ll certainly grab your attention more readily than the staid German hatchback. Toyota’s recent run of launching visually interesting models continues with this five-door, which challenges the likes of the Renault Mégane and upcoming Mazda3 for design honours in a class traditionally favouring more understated lines. We won’t dwell on its looks too long, only to say that – thanks to a body height 25 mm lower than the Auris’ plus a beltline 47 mm nearer to the ground and an increase in width of 30 mm – the Corolla Hatch appears sleek and contemporary. Measuring 4 375 mm tip to tail, it remains one of the C-segment’s more compact vehicles (although a Golf is even shorter at 4 258 mm), but it rests on a wheelbase spanning a generous 2 640 mm (the front overhang has been trimmed by 20 mm), promising respectable interior room.

Eagle-eyed car fans may spot the front light units contain all-LED elements (the ones aft use this, too), which are standard throughout the range of three derivatives, while the scalloped rear-end holds another welcome feature, a camera relaying a crisp feed to the facia’s Multi-Information Display touchscreen system.

Only the standard-fitment 16-inch wheels strike a discord, looking a touch lost in the spacious wheelarches, but their conservative size allows the fitment of generously sidewalled tyres which promise a positive effect on ride comfort.

Tug a door handle – no need to press the unlock button on the keyfob; keyless entry and start is standard on all grades, even entry-level Xs trim – and you’re greeted by a cabin setting new standards for perceived quality in a Toyota hatch. The dashboard is deeply padded down to the front-occupants’ knees, panels don’t creak and deform when pressed and all the controls feel beautifully engineered. There are some trim differences to note between this Xs grade and the flagship Xr CVT (which we’ve just welcomed into our long-term fleet; flip to page 96 once you’ve read this road test). The latter offers additional soft-touch surfacing on the doors, plus neat stitching throughout the interior panelling, as well as Alcantara trim on sportier seat designs. These additions lift the interior ambience to the level of the Golf and beyond anything else in this segment (although the cockpit of the new Mazda3 does look promising).

Xs models sport more traditional front seats but they’re comfortable and widely adjustable, as is the steering column housing a grippy leather-covered wheel with easily deciphered supplementary controls for the six-speaker audio system, Bluetooth connectivity and cruise control, plus the colour-screen trip computer housed in the somewhat austere analogue-instrument binnacle (where some rivals have already switched to digital displays).

Centre stage is an infotainment system that’s logical to use but saddled with a few too many small virtual buttons taking a fraction too long to locate. Happily, Toyota has retained physical volume and tuning knobs and the former is sited exactly where it should be: nearer to the driver. Beneath this screen is a strip of controls for the (again, standard) climate control system, and below that a cubby for a smartphone. Two cupholders and a central storage bin with a sliding armrest complete the facia’s storage options.

Aft, things are ever so slightly less rosy. While the door openings are generous, we measured legroom at 644 mm, which is 16 mm less than the Golf and just about average for the class. Headroom, is sufficient but not as plentiful as some rivals. We noted, too, a lack of air vents for those seated in the rear. The bench, though, is comfy thanks to generous squabs.

The boot, however, is disappointing. While Toyota should be applauded for adding a full-size spare, its impact on the luggage bay is notable; the boot swallowed just 168 litres of our industry-standard ISO blocks.

That, however, is as severe as our criticism of the Hatch gets. In terms of driving manners, it’s a veritable revelation compared with the Auris. The good news kicks off with the 1,2-litre turbopetrol engine. Offering 85 kW and a stout 185 N.m from 1 500 r/min through to 4 000 r/min, the power unit is one of the best in its class. It may not be the punchiest off the line – we recorded a best 0-100 km/h sprint time of 10,83 seconds, which is slower than the Golf 1,0 TSI – but in-gear acceleration is impressively consistent whether you’re in the middle two ratios of six, while even top gear offers sufficient punch to pass slower vehicles. The turbopetrol is notably hushed, too.

One of the Corolla’s best attributes is the harmonious workings of all its major controls, from the transmission through to the progressive clutch action, firm brake pedal and light but direct steering. Constructed on Toyota’s New Global Architecture (TNGA) chassis, which also underpins the C-HR and Prius, as well as myriad other models like the RAV4, the Corolla Hatch combines a well-damped ride with a neutral chassis balance; the Bridgestone Ecopia tyres relent grip long before the suspension is taxed. The TNGA base feels like it could handle more power – always a good indication of a well-engineered platform – which it’s likely to receive in 2020 when the brand is predicted to launch a GR variant.

A bum note is the braking times we achieved on our test strip. An average time of 3,26 seconds is comparatively poor but perhaps not unsurprising considering the eco tyres and the hefty 1 329 kg mass (101 kg more than the VW).



TEST SUMMARY

Offering the expected suite of passive safety systems – seven airbags, ABS with EBD, as well as vehicle-stability control (the Xr gains blind-spot monitoring) – and a long list of standard features for what’s the entry point to the range, on paper the Corolla Hatch 1,2T Xs seems like a compelling new addition to the class.

However, its real appeal lies in how rewarding it is to drive. The Toyota rolls along a road without fuss or fanfare, absorbing impacts quietly. It’s one of those cars that soon faded into the background and, while that may smack of damning the Hatch with faint praise, quite the opposite is true: a well-engineered car’s individual components operate in perfect equilibrium. While it may not have knocked the Golf from the top step – the Toyota lost by two points in voting – it’s come closer than any other rival to dethroning the Volkswagen, and that’s a stunning achievement.

ROAD TEST SCORE

Corolla Toyota Corolla hatch 1.2T XS
81 / 100
  • Price: R343,200
  • 0-100 km/h: 9.5
  • Power ([email protected]/min): 85 KW @ 5200-5600
  • Torque ([email protected]/min): 185 N.m @ 1500-4000
  • Top speed: 200
  • Claimed cons. (l/100 km): 6.1 l/100 KM's
  • C02 emissions (g/km): 141 g/KM