OPINION: The sporty version - if that is the best description - of Toyota's new 11th generation Corolla range is the Levin. Rob Maetzig tries one out for size.
O K, let's get this out of the way first - the new Toyota Corolla Levin is not named after the capital of Horowhenua, even though the town is just a few kilometres south of Toyota New Zealand's head office in Palmerston North.
And anyway, if the car was named after the town of Levin it would probably have to be pronounced Levene, because apparently that was the preferred pronunciation by the family of William Levin, a director of the Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company after whom the town is named.
But if that happened, people would probably get all confused over whether they were buying a car or a tin of paint . . .
Seriously though, in the case of the new 11th generation Toyota Corolla, the Levin badging is the revival of a name that was attached to some sporty Corollas that began to be produced from 1970. It is actually an Old English word that translates to "lightning".
None of these Levins was ever sold new in New Zealand, so the fact that two Levin models - SX and ZR - are included in the new range makes rather good marketing sense.
Not that mechanically they are any different to the other Corollas. They are just more highly specified and slightly sportier, to the extent that Toyota New Zealand claims they bridge the gap between small hatches and medium-sized sedans, which allows customers to upgrade or downgrade to suit their particular needs.
The Levin models have been made slightly sportier via installation of paddle shifters on their steering columns, which the TNZ people say allows drivers to enjoy a more involved motoring experience by moving manually through the gears. They also get 17-inch alloys shod with 45-series tyres, while the rest of the Corolla range get 16-inch wheels.
There is a swag of other lesser items too, some of it ornamentation, such as a front grille with chrome accents, and some of it specification, such as a premium LCD multi-information display panel in the instrument cluster.
This additional specification also includes leather upholstery with the top model, the $43,690 Levin ZR. Our test vehicle, the $38,990 SX, had a high-grade black fabric upholstery with red stitching that helped give it sporting ambience.
So the best way to describe the Levin is that it looks special, even though it isn't particularly so.
The vehicle is powered by the same engine that is under the bonnet of every other Corolla, an in-line four-cylinder 1.8-litre dual VVT-i petrol engine with Toyota's acoustic-controlled variable induction system, which develops 103 kilowatts of power and 173 newton metres of torque.
This is a further development of Toyota's well-known 2ZR-FE 1.8-litre petrol engine, and the power figure is 3kW more than before and it is reached 400rpm further up the rev counter in the interests of sportier performance.
Meanwhile, the torque is 2Nm less than before but it reaches this maximum at 4000 rather than 4400rpm for more flexible operation.
These changes help make the Corolla a flexible car to use. What impressed me was that around town it has an ability to cruise at very low revs, while at the higher speeds there is the choice of relying on the efficiency of the car's continuously variable automatic transmission, or using it manually as a seven-speeder via those paddles on the steering wheel.
I wouldn't call the Levin sporty though. It's simply a very good new hatchback that's dressed up to the nines. But it also has to be said that the entire 11th generation Corolla hatch range offers a much better ride than the range it replaces.
Much of this is to do with the fact that the car's roofline sits 55mm lower than its predecessor so it can enjoy a lower centre of gravity. This in turn has allowed a reduction in spring rates and anti-roll bar diameter, which has improved ride comfort and body control.
The Corolla's weight has also been reduced by up to 60kg through extensive use of high-tensile steel in the bodyshell construction and this, again, has improved the car's agility.
Corolla's electric power steering has been revised to offer a more direct feel, and I liked it. I wasn't quite so enamoured of the CVT which, while it probably rates as one of the best continuously variable transmissions on the market, it simply doesn't involve the driver. There are the paddles that allow the Levin to be used manually, but I didn't bother.
What the CVT does do, however, is help the new Corolla achieve very good fuel consumption.
The car's average is 6.6L/100km, which is a lot better than the consumption offered by the single manual transmission model in the new Corolla range, and that underlines just how efficient these CVTs are.
In marked contrast to the rather bland body of the hatch it replaces, the new Corolla has a sculpted appearance that is fresh and attractive.
It is longer than before even though the wheelbase remains the same, and the roofline is 55mm lower.
The cockpit area features a considerably more upright and more imposing dash area than before, the front seats now sit slightly lower, which means you are sitting a little more behind rather than over the steering wheel, and this seems to contribute to a more dynamic driving experience.
So can the new Corolla be described as dynamic?
Compared to the Corolla fare we've had thus far it certainly can. It's an excellent drive in the true Toyota tradition - comfortable and exceedingly easy to use.
But can the Levin model be described as sporty? Probably not.
It certainly isn't a hot hatch, and in fact I wouldn't even go so far as to describe it as a warm one.
But, at the Levin level of specification, it is a desirable small-medium hatch, and that's what makes it just a little special.
AT A GLANCE
Power plant: 1.8-litres DOHC petrol engine with variable valve timing, 103kW at 6400rpm, 173Nm at 4000rpm.
Running gear: Front-wheel drive. Continuously variable automatic with seven-speed electronic manual override. MacPherson strut front suspension, torsion beam setup at the rear. Electric power steering. Stability control, traction control, hill start assist on auto models.
How big: length 4275mm, width 1760mm, height 1460mm, wheelbase 2600mm.
How much: $38,990.
What's good: Body design more characterful, good drive, I like the whole Levin concept.
What's not: Performance remains modest when compared to some of the opposition.
Our verdict: Arrival of the Levin adds to the appeal of the Corolla, which means it will help the range hold on to its spot as the best-selling car in New Zealand.
- © Fairfax NZ News