Toyota's top model is now better-looking, better equipped and more efficient
The complete Corolla The Toyota Corolla has undergone a transformation and now looks sharp with more upmarket features inside. -- ST PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN

In old gongfu movies, the protagonist often starts out as a nobody who gets kicked around.

He endures, until his house is burnt down or his pet turtle becomes soup. He then leaves for the mountains, finds a rare martial arts manual and returns years later to take on the toughies who have now taken over his village.

That could well sum up the story of the Toyota Corolla.

Up till recently, the model had been leading a peaceful existence as a family staple. It hogged the bestseller list, but somehow remained out of the spotlight.

Then, about five years ago, the Germans and Koreans started muscling in. Cars like the Elantra, Cerato Forte, Jetta and Golf were stylish, well-built and boasted lots of new features.

It did not help that the Corolla had grown a little dull and insipid - perhaps from a lack of real competition for decades. It started to fade into the background.

But now, it is back. And the car - the 11th model since 1966 - has undergone a dramatic transformation.

For starters, it has shed its safe but drab design. The new car looks really sharp, with a stretched wheelbase, short overhangs and a slim grille flanked by equally slim LED headlights giving it a low-slung stance.

Its sculpted body sits on 16-inch two-tone alloys that will not look out of place on a Lexus IS. Toyota has also tucked the windscreen washers beneath the bonnet, so the sheet metal above is completely smooth.

On the whole, it is sportier and more modern than the VW Jetta, but is not as brash and loud as the Kia Forte.

Inside, the car has gone appreciably upmarket. Standard-issue features include climate control with in-built ioniser, keyless access and ignition, a factory-fitted infotainment system with satellite- navigation and Bluetooth connectivity, automatic headlights and wipers, as well as an anti-glare rear-view mirror.

The cabin is roomier, thanks to the longer wheelbase and flat rear floor. The boot is also sizeable, with 60:40 rear seat-backs that you can fold down to accommodate larger items. And for the first time, you can pop the boot with an electric release underneath the lid.

Powering this impressive package is a polished 1.6-litre Dual VVT-i engine that has remained largely unchanged. But it is now mated with a continously variable transmission - which is a big step for the Corolla.

As expected of Toyota, whatever new technology it adopts, it makes sure it is better than most.

In this case, the gearbox offers the efficiency, eagerness and seamlessness of a CVT, but is also programmed to mimic the entertaining shifts of a traditional autobox.

Flick the gear lever over to the right, and you can drive the car like a seven- speed manual.

You hardly need to, though, because the Corolla is energetic enough when simply left in D. While not as quick as the European turbos, it acquits itself in a commendable manner on local roads.

On top of that, it is fairly frugal, averaging 8 litres/100km over a three-day test-drive. That's quite close to the

6.5 litres/100km declared by the manufacturer, and better than most 1.6-litres in real life.

Its efficiency earns the car a $5,000 carbon rebate. But at $132,988, it is still not cheap (its predecessor cost $50,000 less just four years ago). This has largely to do with prevailing COE prices, as well as the car's open-market value, which has risen by 20 per cent to $18,500.

All things considered, it is a lot of car for the money. But it is not flawless. While it handles better than previous Corollas, with creditable road-holding and cornering abilities, its ride is comparatively inferior.

The front passenger seat of the test-car rattles and squeaks - possibly because the local leather upholsterers did not reinstall it properly.

Everything else works as well as you would expect of a Toyota. The car is numbingly easy to drive and park (the reverse camera is superfluous in this case), its cabin is cushy and well insulated (which is why the squeaky seat is so obvious), and the air-conditioner is possibly the most powerful unit among all cars (luxury models included).

In short, the car is now much better equipped to fend off rivals than its predecessor. Whether it will actually succeed in regaining lost grounds remains to be seen though.