Corolla’s empowering battery charge

oyota New Zealand is touting its new battery-assisted Corolla as the country's next hybrid champion. Fair call?


THE fastest category in national motorsport has lapped Manfeild circuit in a shave over a minute.

A family car driven with determination would conceivably be around 30 seconds slower than that Toyota Racing Series single seater.

There’s nothing at all special about a 2m 56s circumnavigation, then: I suspect, when the place is used for cycle racing, some professional peddlers have done better.

Nothing special unless, that is, you’re driving for a prize at the wheel of the latest hybrid car in the Toyota lineup.

The $38,490 Corolla Hybrid, launching on July 1 in identical specification to the orthodox Corolla GLX but with a $3000 premium to account for its implementation of the drivetrain of the now-departed gen three Prius is an emissions and economy champion for which Toyota New Zealand holds high hopes.

The Palmerston North distributor believes a version that – in siting $3500 shy of the flagship ZR – uptakes as the second-most expensive offer in a now six-strong Corolla family can achieve as the country’s top-selling hybrid.

That’s a title that has always been a Toyota holding, having previously gone to the original Prius, the Prius C (the 2013 and 2014 chart-topper) and Camry Hybrid (2010-2012 ace and again in 2015). It predicts 800 sales per annum.

Like Camry, it is expected to be mainly a fleet special, though is unlikely to emulate the larger sedan as a taxi.

Low running costs are the dual appeal, one TNZ sought to highlight by challenging guests to get around the circuit using as little fuel as possible while also getting as close as possible to that target time.

It wasn’t easy, especially as they’d thrown in a couple of extra curve balls - a slalom halfway around that required a steady 60kmh pace – and also a requirement to coast to the line from a point entering the final curve onto the front straight. The idea was to be running at exactly 75kmh at the point of having to get off the throttle; too slow and you’d stop short, too fast and the car would overrun and earn penalty points.

I managed, on a second of two goes, to get the last bit right. Sadly, my effort was nonetheless not smart otherwise as I didn’t take best advantage of the car, neglecting primarily to enact the EV mode which is the only way to make a Toyota hybrid run in pure electric.

EV setting is never much snuff with the Hybrid Synergy Drive - you can only get about 2kms’ running at best on fully electric drive, and only when the car is running under 35kmh give or take – but it got the winner down to a fuel burn of 3.1 litres per 100km, which was 0.7L/100km better than my top effort and 1L/100km under the factory-cited optimal economy.

All very interesting. All rather irrelevant. Anyone road-driving as cautiously as we did on the track would infuriate. But it highlights what we all know about hybrids: That they require extra care to shine extra-bright. Earlier that day on the event’s road drive section, which included a serious hill and 100kmh country roads, I drove the hybrid as I would any orthodox Corolla and saw a 5.2L/100km average.

This is not ground-breaking. But, then, neither is the heart of the car. The nickel hydride batteries, planetary gear set, a couple of electric motors that alternate through driving and regeneration modes, depending on the need … it’s specifically the same drivetrain married to a 1.8-litre petrol that offered in the previous generation Prius, discontinued from sale earlier this year. More broadly, though the petrol engines have enlarged, is the recipe used by every Toyota hybrid since the very first introduced here, a Prius back in 2003.

Still, why change a good thing? Toyota resists suggestion that its system is nearing any kind of use-by. It does not disagree that proper electric cars have advanced the technology edge - all those Hollywood stars have now traded up to Teslas – and vows it will also enter that sector.

“We are not putting all our eggs in the hybrid basket,” managing director Alistair Davis asserted to MotoringNetwork.

Yet while the new wave of plug-in electrics are seen as the future in the long-run, for the here and now hybrids are more cost-effective and still hugely relevant, the brand contends.

 “Hybrids are only one step along the way … (but) they are the first most practical step at the moment,” says Davis.

You could suppose he would say that – Toyota, after all, is the world’s hybrid king; no other brand is anywhere near as heavily invested and one might assume it is too deeply into the game to change course, let alone pull out. It sees hybrids as being the core strength of a brand commitment to reduce its new vehicle CO2 emissions by 90 percent from 2010 levels by 2050, even though it also intends to offer plug-in hybrid, fuel cell and other full electric vehicles well before then.

The commitment to hybrid here is quite intense for an export market – we have six Toyotas and eight Lexus models in NZ – though Japan is the real leader. They’re three times the selection of Hybrid Synergy Drive models.

Also give thought to this: Toyota and Lexus have now sold more than nine million hybrid vehicles to the end of April - including 3,732,700 Prius, 1,249,100 Prius c and 574,400 Camry. The build rate is such that the million car turnover can occur every 10 months at peak output.

Even though pure Prius penetration has seriously waned in NZ, in other more key markets the hatchback still does well. Certainly, too, Japan doesn’t feel peak penetration has been achieved and neither does TNZ.

Having sold more than 6500 hybrids to the end of March this year, and seen an additional 5000 Prius used imports adding to the total on the road as well, the local distributor has plans to add more hybrids. Next will likely be a RAV4, but ultimately even a Hilux is possible, but not to any set timeframe.

“We expect to introduce more as production priorities allow,” general manager of product Spencer Morris says.

What makes the Corolla so promising? Simply by being that: This car line has always been a TNZ sales giant, mainly in fleet, which is the sector the GLX, with its sensible but not startling specification (and shapeless cloth seats), is clearly configured for.

There’s no talk of the hybrid Corolla being the top selling single variant – that’s unlikely given that the major fleet users, notably rental companies, presently prefer the pure petrols. Yet its longer-term importance as being the first hybrid model in the small medium car fleet market is considerable, not least as those users give greater thought to reduce their carbon footprints.

Moreover the battery-boosted car also represents, says Morris, “the start of that normalisation of hybrid technology into popular models.” With this model, he says “Toyota is mainstreaming hybrid’s fuel saving technology further across its model range.”

Fair comment? The Corolla is third in frugality within the Toyota hybrid family, bettered by the latest Prius – which gets down to 3.4L/100km – and the one-size smaller Prius C, which achieves 3.9L/100km from the gen two Prius drive set.

What provides advantage is that it’s also significantly cleaner-burning and a clear 2L/100km better than a regular-engined Corolla while being otherwise identical in general layout: Same five-seater capability and even, due to the placement of the hybrid battery under the rear seat, the same 360-litre luggage capacity.

Of course, the drivetrain dictates that it drives quite differently. Setting aside that it requires a pedant’s right foot to get the very best economy, you’ll hear all sorts of noises, mainly some shrill whining around low speed when electric motor’s contribution is to the fore, that aren’t part of the normal Corolla story. It’s not wholly satisfactory when you decide to push on a bit, either, as the engine becomes noisy and quite thrashy.

There’s also potential to spend a lot of time working with the drive modes, and displays (especially the one in the instrument cluster showing the charge and power condition of the system). Because the pure EV side is so limited, that means alternating between the power setting – in which the car patently feels more zippy (but is obviously thirstier) – or economy, whereupon it is frugal but less assertive.

On top of this, the actual road driving conditions also have effect; climbing hills clearly asks a lot more from the system (though heading down the other side is good for replenishment) but even the act of driving down a winding road, when you’re on and off the throttle, can impinge. Really, it’s going to be at its actual best in the condition you rarely find: A flat, no bends route.

Not that it struggles through the bends otherwise. Toyota says it is the only Corolla in the line-up fitted with specific “driver- focused” features including double wishbone rear suspension, electronically controlled brakes and larger ventilated front discs. It’s actually quite playful because of this – far more so than a Prius - and though the battery pack’s weight probably helps it feel all the more surefooted, a good thing since it also runs special eco tyres, the sort that generally trade grip for low rolling resistance.

So it’s a match for the best diesels in this category? There are pros and cons. The Corolla’s theoretical driving range of about 1100km suggests it has their measure and it simply cleans up in respect to emissions. Also, there are no Road User Charges to worry about.

Drive-ability is a more area; it’s better than any Prius, even though the latest is proclaimed more of a driver’s car .  The sophisticated rear suspension has certainly helped reduce the impact of lumps and bumps, and those impacts are dealt with in an acoustically refined manner. Yet impression gained from our first drive is that diesel cars just operate more fluently. There’s less weight to haul – there’s no escaping that hybrid batteries are heavy – but diesels also have significantly more torque.

Toyota always avoids quoting a maximum muscularity output from its hybrids and it’s no different here; the engine alone creates 142Nm but the electrics could conceivably easily double that. Who can say?

It does say the combined output from the Euro 5 Atkinson Cycle 1.8-litre four-cylinder petrol and the 60kW electric motor comes to a combined output of 100kW, which feeds through a continuously variable transmission (CVT) driving the front wheels. 

The petrol engine includes “efficiency features”, such as cooled exhaust-gas recirculation, an electric water pump and a compression ratio of 13:1 – the petrol-only Corolla’s is 10:1. What it doesn’t have, though, is a heap of urge.

Even the lack of initial performance that is part and parcel of the CVT can be quite frustrating. Bury the accelerator pedal away from the mark and the subsequent frantic leap in engine revs seems totally at odds with relatively leisurely increase in road speed.

To be fair, it’s only really sprints away from the lights where this trait is fully exposed, and once you're above 60kmh, where you’re less inclined to demand full load from the engine, additional acceleration comes on relatively strongly and in a more hooked-up fashion. 

Still, it’s the same lesson as on the track: You need to drive as it was designed to be driven, making the most of the EV mode and accelerating gently when engaging the petrol engine. If you can do that, it’ll work.