Tuesday 21 May 2019

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Motors

Now, it’s truly hybrid for all

Wednesday, 27th February, 2019 3:22pm

Toyota has spent the past twenty years turning hybrid power into an overnight success.

It began, back in 1997, with the original, awkward-looking, Prius saloon. That car was an oddball, and its hybrid engine-and-electric-motor setup would only return decent economy figures if you drove it in a very specific way.

That way was, specifically, to drive in tiny inch-it-forward bursts, as if in a Tokyo traffic jam. Most wrote it off as an interesting, but expensive, diversion by Toyota and got on with building and buying diesels.

Toyota persevered, making successive generations of Prius better to look at (no, honestly, go back and look at a third-gen model; it’s quietly handsome), better to drive, and broadening out the scope of its talents.

The idea of hybrid drive itself was broadened out too, to the rest of the Toyota and Lexus range. Still, it was often seen as an oddball thing, something strictly for those of us living in town, and more specifically for those with taxi bars on the roof.

Dieselgate changed all that. Suddenly, fuel-sipping diesels became seen as evil, and an alternative was badly needed. Toyota quietly tapped us all on the shoulder and gently reminded us what it’s been at for two decades…

It is the coincidence of all coincidences that Toyota’s hybrid tech matured into a genuinely capable all-round powertrain just as Dieselgate started to bring down the black-pump side of the game.

In order to capitalise on that potential, Toyota has decided to bring its number one car badge back to the market, properly.

For the past decade, Toyota’s family car lineup in Ireland has been divided between hatchback (and little-seen) estate Auris and sober saloon Corolla. Now, though, the Corolla name — the single best-selling car badge in the world, ever — is back in five-door form, and we have a new three-car Corolla lineup of hatch, estate, and saloon.

And I do mean all-new. There’s no carry-over from the old Auris, with the exception of the 1.8 hybrid engine and the 1.2 turbo petrol D4-T engine. The chassis is entirely new, and it’s the same TNGA (Toyota New Generation Architecture) that we’ve already sampled underneath the Prius, CH-R, Camry, and RAV4.

Using it means that, relative to the old Auris, the Corolla’s centre of gravity drops by 10mm (and its overall height is around 30mm lower), plus the structure is 60 per cent stiffer than it used to be — that’s good for safety, good for handling and ride too.

It’s also the most physically attractive Corolla since…possibly ever? Maybe the old eighties Corolla Sprinter fastback comes close, but with the ground-hugging front bumper, its gaping air intake, and those narrow, piercing headlights, this Corolla looks sharper by far than any of its predecessors.

Actually, the estate Touring Sports is the best looking version, with more than a hit of Lexus about its rear styling, but the four-door saloon (which will make up the majority of Corolla sales in Ireland) looks a little too timid, as the designers have toned down the hatchback’s styling for saloon-buying public that’s rather more conservative.

Thankfully, all three versions share the same chassis (with a longer, 2,700mm wheelbase for the saloon and Touring Sports) and that means that not only is the new Corolla the best-looking car ever to wear the name, it’s also the best to drive.

As part of Toyota boss Akio Toyoda’s diktat to make “no more boring cars” Toyota’s engineers have really gone to town on the Corolla’s chassis.

It uses conventional McPherson strut suspension up front, but at the rear there’s an expensive multi-link wishbone setup, which is far more sophisticated than the simpler, cheaper torsion bars used by rivals such as the Ford Focus and the incoming new Mazda 3.

The result is a Corolla that’s genuinely fun to drive. The steering falls slightly short of chatty, but it’s positive and well-weighted, and the supple suspension and good body control means that you can set this car up into a gorgeous rhythm on a twisting, turning road.

It’s really, really good.

So too is the hybrid engine. There will be the option of a new, more powerful, 2.0 litre hybrid version but most Irish sales will be taken up by the carried-over 1.8 122hp hybrid Corolla. While it’s basically the same engine as before, with the same electric motor and the same stack of nickel batteries under the back seats, Toyota has tweaked its software and operating systems a little. That means that the electric motor takes more of the strain, more of the time.

In fact, on a typical urban commute, Toyota says that you should spend around 60 per cent of your journey running on just the battery and electric motor. That’s good for around-town fuel economy, but Toyota has worked too on making long-haul motorway miles more economical, and it’s worked.

The Corolla Hybrid isn’t quite as economical as the Prius, but it easily breaches the 5.7 litres per 100km barrier (50mpg) on long runs, and can even creep up to 4.7 litres per 100km (60mpg) around town.

Yes, it still revs too high and too long when you accelerate hard (a consequence of Toyota’s continued love of the CVT continuously variable transmission) but that effect is less intrusive than it used to be, and you do become accustomed to it.

Other good stuff includes the interior (beautifully-built, as handsome as the exterior, and very comfortable) and the inclusion of the high-tech Toyota Safety Sense package, which includes autonomous emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, and more.

Downsides? Space in the back seats is rather tight, and the boot (361 litres) is rather small, but you can rectify that by packing the lovely Touring Sports estate with its 598 litre cargo area. Tyre noise is a touch rampant at motorway speeds too.

Overall, though, the new Corolla is hugely impressive. It’s good looking enough, and fun enough to drive, to seriously worry the Focus and Golf, and its hybrid powertrain is now good enough to be considered superior to most rivals’ diesel engines, never mind their petrol alternatives.

Twenty years on, the overnight success is finally happening.

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