The Toyota Corolla may be a name from the past for British customers, but we’re about to get reacquainted with the badge, because it features on an all-new VW Golf and Ford Focus rival that’ll replace the Auris in UK dealerships from next February. We tried an Australian-spec edition of the Corolla earlier this autumn, but now we’ve had a chance to sample a very late prototype of the European version of the car.

Toyota could be forgiven for thinking that the market has swung wildly in its direction over the past 18 months, with the backlash on diesel and the push towards electrification. And the Corolla looks well positioned to build on that, long before many of its rivals are up and running with even 48v mild-hybrid systems.

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The new car is based on the same TNGA chassis architecture that has impressed us in the Prius and the C-HR crossover. And sure enough, it’s available in the UK only as a hybrid; unlike with the C-HR, there’s no conventional petrol option, and don’t even ask about a diesel. All UK Corollas will be automatics, too, because Toyota’s hybrid system isn’t designed to be used with a manual gearbox. It’s built in Britain too, of course, thanks to fresh investment in Toyota’s Burnaston plant.

The new Corolla’s looks are definitely sharper than those of the Auris – helped, no doubt, by shorter front and rear overhangs, a 25mm lower roofline and an increase in overall width of about 30mm. It’s 40mm longer than an Auris too, although all of this has been inserted into the wheelbase in a bid to improve cabin space. 

For the first time, this Toyota hybrid is being offered with a choice of power outputs. The entry point uses a 1.8-litre four-cylinder petrol engine, an evolution of the set-ups in the Prius and C-HR. In the Corolla it produces 121bhp, enough to take the five-door hatchback from 0-62mph in a respectable 10.9 seconds, and on to a top speed of 112mph. 

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The efficiency figures are pretty impressive too; Toyota’s figures are based on the tougher WLTP fuel tests and then correlated back to the outgoing NEDC system, but on that basis, this is still a car that returns 83.1mpg and emits 76g/km of CO2. The confirmed WLTP figure should dip under 100g/km, we’re told.

TNGA lends itself to driving fun to a far greater extent than the old Auris’s platform, though (the bare chassis is 60 per cent stiffer), so Toyota is also the offering the Corolla with a higher-powered hybrid configuration. It’s based on a 2.0-litre engine, and incorporates a ‘stepped’ transmission with six ratios – or levels of revs, frankly – that can be controlled using paddles mounted behind the steering wheel.

It brings a non-inconsequential 177bhp to the table, slashing three seconds off the regular car’s 0-62mph time, but the top speed stays the same and there is a resulting hit in efficiency, so fuel economy drops to 74.3mpg and CO2 emissions rise to 86g/km. These are still excellent figures for a five-door family hatchback, of course – and well under what you’d find on any of the cars Toyota considers as rivals for the 2.0, such as the 1.5-litre 148bhp VW Golf DSG.

The suspension configuration is MacPherson struts at the front and a double-wishbone set-up at the rear, and Toyota is also offering the Corolla with adaptive dampers that can operate in a number of different modes. Our first chance to try the car in Europe, though, comes with a 2.0 model on regular suspension and 18-inch wheels.

There’s clearly more sophistication in the Corolla’s chassis than the old Auris’s. The front end responds crisply and swiftly to inputs, and while we could see potential for a smidgen more aggression in the initial half-turn of lock, the car is both comfortable with rapid changes of direction and stable on motorways. On this front at least, it’s quite the game-changer for Toyota after the fairly inert Auris. 

The trade-off for this composure in corners is a ride that’s not uncomfortable per se but is perhaps a bit too chatty. There’s a little too much transference of road imperfections up through the front of the chassis, and it can be felt through the steering wheel and pedals. 

That’s a pity because as a fast, refined cruiser, the 2.0 Corolla has real potential; at 70mph you’ll frequently find the engine switched off completely, and when it does feel the need to kick in it’s generally smooth enough to be drowned out by tyre roar. We already suspect that 17-inch wheels could be the preferred choice on British roads, nevertheless.

The steering wheel paddles and extra grunt cannot quite change the fact that Toyota’s hybrid system is not the last word in driver involvement. Early consumer feedback led the development team to try to minimise the number of rev-rising moments that have been known to give the system a ‘rubber band’ feel, where the gaining of momentum doesn’t seem to match the effort the engine is expending. And they’ve made progress, no doubt; there are certainly occasions when the actions of the Corolla’s system don’t feel a million miles away from how a regular torque converter automatic would behave.

But on the whole, it’s best to think of the 2.0 as a faster relaxed cruiser than the 1.8, instead of anything approaching a performance model. This is still not a car that really thanks you for being hassled or hustled; stamp on the throttle and you’ll send the engine’s revs to 4,000rpm and beyond, at which point it does sound a little harsh. And should you switch to ‘manual’ mode, you’ll find the steering wheel paddles themselves pretty cheap to the touch and the effect of flicking them fairly modest.

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Think of the overall set-up as ‘swift but uninvolving’, then, and you’ll be just about there. It is hard, for example, to see how the Corolla will be able to win over 148bhp Golf DSG customers who frequently take over control of the gearbox to really enjoy twisty roads. But for those who choose that spec of VW simply and then drive it round in ‘D’, enjoying the greater performance headroom over a 1.0-litre three-cylinder model, the Corolla could have appeal. It may have enough shove to become a viable alternative for some diesel customers, too.

The cabin has enough room for four adults, although while six-footers should have just about headroom in the rear, they’re likely to find kneeroom much more of a challenge. The driving position feels solid enough, though, and visibility out of the same seat is excellent, thanks to a lower bonnet than the Auris’s, and side mirrors being mounted on the doors instead of on the glass.

The Corolla is pretty much in the mix with the likes of the Golf and Focus on interior space, then – and the same can be said for finish and quality. With the caveat that our car was a pre-production model, it had padded and stitched materials in almost all of the necessary places. The dash layout is clean and uncluttered – although the positioning of the front USB socket, facing down from the underside of the facia, is slightly odd.

There’s no shortage of tech on board, in fact, with an eight-inch infotainment system and scope for a seven-inch digital instrument panel, a wireless phone charging mat and a 10-inch head-up display, depending on your trim level or how brave you’re being with the options list. The central screen is crisper than recent Toyota offerings and quick to respond to inputs but again, there’s desperately poor smartphone integration, with no Android Auto or Apple CarPlay, and no immediate prospect of them becoming available. In this respect, the new Corolla still looks very old-school indeed. 

The boot on 1.8 Corollas is a respectable 361 litres, around 20 litres down on a Golf’s capacity. But the 2.0 takes an extra hit, not least because there’s no room for the 12v battery under the bonnet so it ends up beneath the boot floor. It manages just 313 litres, therefore, which is alarmingly close to what’s on offer in many superminis. Small wonder that Toyota’s target customers for the Corolla are actually couples with at most one child; the firm will point those in search of more space in the direction of the Touring Sports estate instead.

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