When the first pictures of the 11th generation Corolla were released it looked like a revolution was at hand. Here was Toyota’s mid-sized family sedan sporting sleek, sexy lines that ripped apart all our perceptions about it being conservative and frumpy.
Then it turned out that we were looking at the US-spec Corolla. A second, more conservative body style was created for other markets, including our own, where Toyota evidently believes that Corolla customers aren’t ready for too much styling flamboyance. Possibly they’re right, and who are we to argue when Corollas have sold in such vast numbers over the years, but it would have been refreshing to compliment a Corolla on its styling for a change.
As it is, the SA-spec version (which is also locally built) is not a bad-looking car. It’s just that it follows a paint-by-numbers trend of modern styling, doing nothing to forge a new path or stand out from the crowd in any way.
There’s been no revolutionary change here, with any big ideas. Quiet evolution is how Corolla rolls, and what you’re getting in version 11 is a car that’s a little more spacious and a little more refined than the previous one. The obligatory growth has taken place in length and width, but a slightly lower roofline gives the car a more hunkered-down stance.
Toyota has chosen an even more low-key styling route with the interior, which looks decidedly retro compared to modern rivals like the Hyundai Elantra and Kia Cerato. There’s leather covering on the seats and some shiny features on the dash to try and break the monotony, but otherwise there’s little design flair in the plain-Jane interior.
However, roominess reigns supreme in the new Corolla and the very generous rear legroom is reminiscent of a larger class of car. The 452 litre boot’s a good size too – even with its full-sized spare wheel – and the seats fold down to increase luggage space.
Finding a comfy driving position is no problem thanks to a height- and reach-adjustable steering column, and the various dashboard controls are fairly simple and intuitive.
What you get in the new Corolla is a feeling of solidity. The car’s very well screwed together and once you start moving it’s a quiet and refined experience, thanks to an acoustic glass windscreen and improved insulation.
The version on test here is the Corolla 1.4 D Prestige six-speed manual, powered by a new-generation 1.4-litre D-4D turbodiesel engine with outputs of 66kW and 205Nm. It’s a very smooth power unit with very little diesel “chug” to be heard, and contributes to the car’s general aura of refinement.
The engine has minimal turbo lag, making it an easy and chore-free drive that doesn’t involve lots of revving or double-clutching. The six-speed gearshift moves smoothly through its gate, with no notchiness. That said, there’s also no real power band nor any kick anywhere in the delivery. What you have here is pedestrian commuting pace and the ability to cruise at the national speed limit with relative ease, but overtaking moves need to be planned well in advance. The factory quotes a 0-100km/h time of 12.5 seconds and a 180km/h top speed.
The engine’s best feature is its fuel consumption and our test car averaged an impressively economical 5.5 litres per 100km, a strong selling point in these dark days of record fuel-price highs.
A slight weight reduction in the new Corolla comes with improved torsional rigidity, along with revised suspension. Probably the car’s best feature is its smooth ride, and the suspension deals very gracefully with rough roads. This comfy ride – which I rate as one of the best in its class – doesn’t come at the cost of handling, and the Corolla displays neat manners around corners. It’s no sports sedan but neither does it display any excessive body roll or a squishy feel, and the sharpened-up electric power steering feels nicely weighted.
Overall it’s the kind of drive that won’t thrill you but will never annoy either, and it just unobtrusively goes about its business.
The Corolla 1.4 D is available in two spec levels, with the basic Esteem version offered with comforts such as aircon, electric windows and mirrors, remote central locking, and a sound system. Safety comprises four airbags and ABS brakes.
For 12 grand more the 1.4D Prestige version comes with extras such as leather seats, a Bluetooth handsfree system, 16” alloys, a leather-clad multifuntion steering wheel, and a touchscreen audio system with reverse camera.
At a price of R249 900 - which includes a three-year/100 000km warranty and five-year/ 90 000 km service plan - the car’s not badly specced, but it lacks some of the items we’re starting to take for granted in some rival cars, such as automatic headlamps and windscreen wipers.
Also, there’s no traction control, which is only available in the petrol-engined Corolla Sprinter and Exclusive models.
The Corolla is the best-selling car of all time and every minute of every day, two brand new Corollas drive out of a Toyota factory somewhere in the world. The conservative-but-solid formula has stood the car in good stead over the years, although its once bulletproof reputation for reliability took a knock with some highly-publicised mechanical recalls in recent years.
Toyota hasn’t messed with the basic formula in Corolla version 11. It’s played the safe game with the styling, but under that relatively conservative shell is a car that’s upped its game in terms of space, refinement and ride quality. Time will tell whether the reliability is back up to scratch as well. -Star Motoring