Finally, a hybrid that drives like a real car

Hybridheads rejoice — finally a hybrid that doesn’t look like it’s made out of a mildly adapted cornflakes box and drives like a real car should. This is truly shocking news.

I mean, up to now hybrid cars have sold on the back of their alleged ability to save the planet; now we’ve got one which will help a little to save the Earth — but not much — but doesn’t drive like something that does not conduct itself on the open road like an electric on/off switch. And not only that, but it looks tasty too.

Toyota, of course, made the cornflakes box Prius and the world should be forever indebted to the Japanese company for providing us not with something that will guarantee the future of everything on our little blue corner of the galaxy, but with a whole new stream of comedic material.

Ergo: ‘A new study has found that the worst drivers drive a Prius. Apparently it is very difficult to control your car while patting yourself on the back.’

Or — ‘Carpool in my Prius?’ ‘No thanks, I’ll walk.’

These are just a small taste of the internet’s love affair with the Prius — or the Pius, as some call it — and illustrate that while Toyota might have struck a seam of gold with their original hybrid, their car was still regarded as a complete joke by petrolheads the world over.

But the thing is, as I’ve been saying recently in these august columns, that since Volkswagen did its best to kill diesel off singlehandedly, hybrid options are now top of many people’s list when it comes to sourcing their new car. They may be deluded, but what the hey.

It may well be that hybrids will last but a fleeting moment in the overall history of the motor car — particularly as we are about to see an electric onslaught that would shock (sorry) even Benjamin Franklin himself.

As things are — and while we await this blitzkrieg of electric cars with truly workable ranges and not those many terrible things currently being foisted on us as the sole saviour of humankind — hybrid is in a good position to sell right now and that being so, Toyota is in pole position to exploit its pre-eminence in the segment.

Which is why the new hybrid Toyota Corolla will sell a lot. It has already sold zillions to the masses in two-stroke petrol and myriad diesel formats down many years. So why the heck not in hybrid format too?

When the late, great ‘Toyota Tim’ Mahony sold the Corolla to rural Ireland because it came as standard with a heater and a radio, he became an overnight hero to many and made a bundle of money in the process. Those now running Toyota here are now looking at a similar financial bonanza — albeit without the hero status.

And if they are going to ride the hybrid wave as long as they can, they are in a good place, because there is now a hybrid element to every car in their range — and not a cornflake box in sight. The Corolla is selling to a willing audience. A hybrid with tax advantages. And a radio. And a heater.

The saloon is expected to be their best-seller, even though the reinvented Corolla hatch — replacing the ill-advised Auris, which replaced the old hatch in a name-changing exercise which was as dumb as it was mystifying — is already creating a stir on dealer forecourts.

A new — and get this – terribly attractive Corolla sedan, something which was never the case historically, is going to be the main seller, however, and having just driven it, I can confirm that this is no watered-down sop to the growing environmentally-concerned audience. It is actually a really good mid-sized family car.

It drives well, doesn’t bellow at you like a castrated bull when you get on the loud pedal, enjoys a corner, is terribly practical, well-equipped and well-priced.

I take it that loud and unceasing criticism of the driving qualities of the old cornflake box and other hybrids it spawned — from this quarter and many others — led Toyota to re-think their approach to hybrid. I mean there was, after all, no point selling clean cars if there was zero driving enjoyment to be had from them.

People might actually like being environmentally conscious, but a fair percentage of them actually enjoy the whole driving experience as well, so this was something the company obviously factored into their planning when the development of the new Corolla came around.

The fact too that the long-standing and terribly popular Avensis was being phased out was another element of the company’s thinking and the hope at Toyota was that they could make a Corolla that would fill the void. Now, making a mid-sized family car out of a small family car is no mean feat and Toyota certainly has pulled off a bit of a trick here.

In size terms the new Corolla saloon is longer and wider than before, although in tandem with the sleek new appearance of the car, it is actually lower, which will pose some difficulty for leggy rear seat passengers. But boot space is up and interior legroom is generous. Avensis buyers will be intrigued.

What really got me though was the driving dynamics. Previous Toyota hybrids were notable for the absence of any real pace and a deafening barrage from under the hood when any sort of rapidity was actually achieved.

On top of that it was nothing to write home about as a handler. On top of that, ride comfort was never any more than just OK.

All has changed radically and I am delighted to report that the standard independent suspension layout has dramatically altered the car’s character. Readers might remember years of praise for the Ford Focus for having adopted such a system on its way to world domination.

Ford, in its wisdom, decided to revert to making independent rear suspension an option on Focus — cheaper models simply don’t get that thing which made the car such a drivers’ favourite — and others such as VW and Hyundai followed suit.

Here Toyota has taken the brave step to have such a system across the board on Corolla and I have no doubt it is a decision which will pay dividends. People are not fools, after all.

The result is a car — built on Toyota’s new TNGA platform, upon which also stand the RAV4, the Camry, the CH-R and the Prius — which is beautifully balanced and really neat to drive. It handles really well and is something those who appreciate the finer arts of driving, will truly welcome. The fact the new platform adds some 60% greater stiffness to proceedings is markedly noticeable.

The 1.8 litre petrol/electric combination is not going to win any sporting contests, but Toyota has done a lot to improve low-end performance and dampen a lot of the shouting that previously went on at the higher end of the scale.

And, although hybrid driving is still something you have to re-train yourself for given the unique characteristics of the system, the Corolla is now a hugely more enjoyable thing to pedal along than ever before. The CVT gearbox is still irritating, however.

Kit and tech levels are good and the interior is a big step up from the fantastic plastic days of yore. The materials are both nice to look at and to touch and the car’s systems are easy to use and assimilate. Indeed there is nothing grim to report on this front.

So, there we have it: a hybrid that will do its bit for the environment whilst no longer being insipid and anodyne.

Hybridheads, take your seat at the table of motoring enthusiasts.

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