They still had the camouflage on parts of the new Toyota Corolla five-door hatch and Touring Sports estate when we drove pre-production models around Madrid recently.
But there can be no disguising the fact that a period of massive change is under way for these cars and the people who buy them.
This is a major statement of hybrid intent by Toyota, which insists diesel is dead.
There will be three Corollas: the aforementioned duo (previously under the Auris name) early in the new year and the saloon in February. It was apposite we drove them as we prepare for a year when the company will not sell any diesel passenger cars.
The five-door Corolla hatchback will have two hybrids: the well-known 1.8-litre (122hp) and a new 2-litre (180hp), as well as a 1.2 turbo petrol (116hp). The hybrids cost from €26,370, the 1.2-litre from €25,995.
The Touring Sports (estate, 2,700mm wheelbase,4,653mm long) is claimed to be best-in-class for rear seat passenger legroom. It has the same hybrid and petrol line-up.
Prices start from €28,420. The saloon has yet to be unveiled, but it will, for the first time, major on hybrid power. All cars are driven by CVT (continuously variable transmission). We drove only the new 2-litre hybrids. I suppose Toyota wanted focus on the new.
We started with the Touring Sports. It looked long, sleek and substantial. Inside was smart, modern and new. I liked the sweep and edge/curve mix of the dash. As if to underline the potential performance, those 2-litre versions had gear-shift paddles on the steering wheel.
I also liked the main gearstick – better than the current Auris hybrid. These cars are 100pc new, and it showed. Even the air vents looked smart. With a tall passenger in the rear, the amount of space back there was patently obvious.
It scored on boot room too. With the rear seats down it would be massive. As a package I can see why Avensis diesel buyers might think of opting for a Touring Sports. But I imagine there’s a job still to be done convincing them to switch.
The other hurdle is getting Irish people to buy an estate – we are not that fond of them. An opportunity to change the culture perhaps? The 2-litre Touring Sports drive was passable, without being madly exciting.
You can see the reason for Toyota making this model – to compete with 2-litre diesels out there with that sort of power and pull, without necessarily crackling performance. One noticeable element was the lack of wind and tyre noise.
The distinctive CVT hum was most noticeable, but not irritating, in the higher-performance modes such as Sport and Sport+ (modes range from Eco to Custom).
The hatch did not compare as well as the estate on space overall, but again I liked the dash and excellent driving position. One criticism: the row of buttons for ventilation etc were far too small – I had to squint.
Other than that switches and dials worked well – thank goodness for tactile control buttons. The central interactive display screen was idiot-proof – and I say that for myself. Strangely, however, I found the seat bottom (the portion that supports the back of your thighs) too short for me.
I’d have liked a couple of inches more. The new global platform (TNGA: Toyota New Global Architecture) is designed to provide better ride comfort, stability and handling.
It conveyed a feel of substance with reasonable response in the Touring Sports, which drove okay on good Spanish roads without being massively memorable. Then I took the 5dr hatch on my own for a good runout.
I immediately felt the difference. There was a markedly better drive, giving greater proof of the new platform’s ability to underpin agility and dynamics. There was excellent composure. Here was the sort of hatch you could enjoy driving.
The estate is longer, yet, allowing for that, we were puzzled by how much the two cars – virtually the same except for length (estate is 283mm longer) – could convey such different characteristics. I think you’d enjoy the hatch a lot.
The primary targets for it are young couples with no children. I can see why.
The Touring Sports, meanwhile, is aimed at married people with children and the life and hobbies that go with them. I can see why too.
At a special briefing, senior engineers relayed how much they wanted a more engaging drive. That’s why the driving position is further back and there is a 10mm lower centre of gravity.
Body rigidity is increased by 60pc too, and some models have adaptive variable suspension (AVS).
The negative feedback they got from previous-model customers and non-customers focused on poor acceleration, a lack of sportiness and braking.
Toyota claims the cars now feel more like what people expect. I’d go along with that, especially with the hatch.
Final verdicts await drives on Irish roads (with the camouflage off), but there is no disguising the fact these new Corolla hybrids will be a major force to be reckoned with.