CAPE TOWN – Contrary to popular belief, volumes in the C-segment hatchback market are skewed towards mid- and high-spec models instead of entry-level, cheaper derivatives. So says Toyota, at least, which explains its decision to rationalise its local hatch line-up by introducing just three models spanning one engine choice and two transmission variants across two generously specced trim grades. It ditches the Auris name after two generations, too, adopting the iconic Corolla nameplate for the first time locally on a five-door model since the 1990s.

On the local launch in Cape Town and the Winelands, we had a chance to drive the entry-level 1,2T Xs manual, plus the flagship 1,2T Xr CVT, and both were hugely impressive. Volkswagen Golf-impressive? Read on…

The range and spec

Starting at R336 800 for the manual, rising to R347 400 for the Xs CVT and peaking with the Xr CVT at R367 100, the new Corolla Hatch directly targets the Golf 1,0 TSI Comfortline on price and undercuts the 1,4 TSI Comfortline DSG. I’m curious to see what Ford SA does with upcoming Focus pricing, although I suspect its 1,0 EcoBoost variants will be a touch cheaper than these two.

While it would appear unwise to price your new competitor on par with the class-leader, Toyota has equipped the Corolla to a higher level than the Golf. Items such as LED headlamps, automatic climate control, a rear-view camera and keyless entry and start are standard on the Japanese hatch’s Xs grade and extra-cost options for the German. The Xr adds sport seats trimmed in Alcantara and cloth, stitched coverings on the door cards and facia, seat heating and blind-spot monitoring. All models run on 16-inch alloys wrapped in plump eco tyres.

Striking design

But it doesn’t have only strong spec to boost its case; the design is rather striking, too. A rarity on new cars, the front and rear lights echo the same design theme, while curated swathes along the flanks give the Corolla a multi-dimensionality on the move missing from its more straight-laced rivals. Sure, the 16-inch wheels look feeble in their arches but I’d happily sacrifice inches for comfort.

The interior, meanwhile, is a touch more restrained but leaves an indelible impression of quality. I’d wager this is the best-finished cabin in the class alongside the Golf’s. There’s a uniformity to the material choices that isn’t always a given in a Japanese car’s cabin, plus the panels don’t deflect unduly under prodding and I couldn’t detect a single rattle or peep on the two vehicles we drove during the launch. Really impressive stuff.

Space is good, too – my 1,85-metre could fit behind my driving position without much hardship – and headroom’s sufficient all round. The 294-litre boot, unfortunately, is at the smaller end of the scale to accommodate a full-size spare wheel.

Happily, Toyota has retained analogue controls for the climate-control system and they’re easy to use on the move (although the supplementary display might be a touch too small for those occupants lacking 20:20 vision). There’s the latest evolution of the brand’s touchscreen infotainment system, too, and it’s equally simple to navigate. Note that satellite navigation isn’t offered, nor is smartphone-mirroring for the first few months of retail.

Under the bonnet

CAR’s team adores Toyota’s 1,2-litre turbopetrol engine and it’s great to find it in another product aside from the C-HR. Offering a linear delivery from 1 500 r/min, impressive punch mid-range considering its modest displacement, and cultured manners even when approaching the red line, it’s a great example of a small turbocharged engine. It’s nicely frugal, too; we registered in the mid-sevens on our long launch drive. I suspect that reading could be lowered to a figure starting with a six when the car is driven conservatively.

And on the road

Perhaps the most impressive part of the new Corolla Hatch is its driving habits. I was genuinely impressed with how composed and comfortable the TNGA platform is (it serves in the Prius and C-HR, too). There’s absorbency to spare in the suspension, even on nuggety gravel roads like the ones we drove on the launch, but not at the expense of composure. The Hatch leans progressively in corners, steers cleanly and has a consistency to the weighting of its controls – the manual’s shift quality is sublime – that reminds me once again of its German rival. It certainly feels like a chassis that could take more power, which it will get in an upcoming GR variant (that’s as much as Toyota’s communications department was willing to divulge).

So, better than a Golf?

Perhaps not quite, but near as dammit. The Volkswagen has the edge in terms of space utilisation and rolling refinement, but the Toyota isn’t far behind in these disciplines while adding better spec, a brilliant little turbopetrol engine and a great design. Although Toyota’s decision to return the revered Corolla name to a five-door may bolster the Hatch’s chances in a segment under threat from crossovers, it doesn’t need it; the Corolla Hatch deserves to succeed because it’s great. Simple as that.

Original article from Car