My dad buys Toyotas, and he’s had quite a few over the years. I can understand why he buys them – they don’t break, they last well, and everything always works. Two of his old cars became taxis after he owned them for three years and were still going strong years later.  But the Toyotas I’ve driven have all been rather uninspiring to drive, and pretty bland in the looks department too. After reviewing the Prius C and finding the same disconnected driving experience I expected this trend to continue when I picked up the Corolla Levin ZR.

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First Impressions

From the outside the Levin ZR is similar to a standard Corolla hatch but with some styling tweaks to differentiate it from the lower spec models. The main changes are a bodykit on the bumpers and sills, 17” wheels, honeycomb grille, removal of some of the exterior chrome and some gloss black highlights on the front and rear. All little things but they make it stand out from the Corolla. I think the current Corolla hatch is a good looking car and is a big improvement on previous shapes. The first thing that struck me about the test car was that it had a full length glass roof. A feature I’ve seen in larger cars but not in a medium sized hatch.

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I slid into the driver’s seat, looked at the interior and was impressed by what I saw. Maybe the base models have a more utilitarian interior but the ZR is a really nice place to be. The seats are leather with side bolsters trimmed in synthetic leather, but it’s a much nicer synthetic than the stuff they used in the Prius. The steering wheel is leather clad and nicely shaped with bulges on the inside where the driver’s thumbs rest. The dash is leather trimmed with the stitching showing as a detail feature and there’s a leather pad on the driver’s side to rest your left leg against – something you normally only get in a Lexus or high-end European car..

In front of the driver are two gauges for RPM and speed, illuminated in a soft blue, and between them is a colour digital screen which looks the same as the one Lexus use. This can cycle through various information such as an eco gauge, odometer, trip computer and settings menu. Also borrowed from Lexus is the 7” touchscreen infotainment system which incorporates the radio, satnav (with live traffic updates) and reversing camera display.

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I hit the start button – the Levin has keyless entry and start – and moved out into traffic. The Levin was easy to drive in stop-start traffic with its CVT transmission and it’s also very quiet. The engine can can barely be heard at low speeds. Toyota has done a great job with their current generation cars, making them quieter and more refined. I presume this is partly due to the development that has gone into the hybrid cars to make the various motors and component quieter.

The suspension is firm but pliant. There’s minimal body roll in corners and it’s well damped, giving a great ride. Some might find it a bit too firm but I thought it was just right. enough to smooth out the bumps but still let you feel what’s going on. Steering is very light at low speeds but firms up at higher speeds and provides good feedback. Brakes are discs all round, ventilated at the front and work well, again with decent feedback. After a short drive I was beginning to realise that I really liked the Levin, and that Toyota have made significant progress from their earlier cars in driver feel and involvement.

The stereo is good – the large touch screen display is great, sound is nice and clear but I’m not a big fan of the touch screen volume and tuning controls. They work well but I like something a bit more tactile. The controls underneath the big screen for the dual zone climate control, fans and heated rear screen are great. Nice chunky buttons and switches that feel like they’re good quality.

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Between them and the shifter lever is a lift-up flap which contains a power socket, USB and AUX sockets for the stereo above a little cubby that a phone will fit into quite nicely. This is a great idea enabling you to hide your phone from view but keep it powered on and connected. The stereo also has Bluetooth streaming and phone integration built in. Also under the flap, rather inexplicably, are the seat heater controls. This seems a strange place for them but it does allow you to play the heated seat game with your passenger where you turn the heaters on without their knowledge and wait for them to notice!

As well as being heated, the front seats adjust in the usual directions, plus the driver’s seat adjusts for height and has an electrically adjusted lumbar support. The wheel adjusts for reach and height so it’s easy to get comfortable.

What’s it like to live with?

Being the top of the Corolla range, the Levin ZR has some nice toys as standard. All electric windows, all one-touch up and down and the window lock function locks all apart from the driver’s windows, which is great for stopping the kids (and wife) from playing with the switches. Auto-folding electric mirrors are a nice feature. Soft-touch indicators that flash three times when you press them gently. The automatic self-levelling LED headlights are great and provide a nice bright white light. There are cup holders in the front, and in the rear central armrest, tie loops and ISOfix mounts for child seats, bottle holders in the doors, a front armrest with phone compartment at the top, bag hooks and cargo net loops in the boot. And then there’s that glass roof. From the front seats it’s barely noticeable but for rear seat passengers it gives an amazing panoramic view of the sky and lets in lots of light. There is an electric cover which can be extended if needed. I noticed when sitting in the back that there was only a couple of centimetres of head room above me. I’m an average 175cm tall so taller people wouldn’t fit well in the rear seats.

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When it came to the weekend my daughter and I set out for a drive and to take photos of the Levin. I asked her where we should go and the not-unexpected answer was “Staglands!” My daughter and I go there a lot and it’s a great drive to test out a car – a motorway cruise followed by a narrow, winding country road. The only concern I had was that the Toyota’s relatively firm suspension might affect my daughter who sometimes gets car sick. I didn’t really want to give Toyota their car back with the new car smell replaced by second-hand breakfast smell!

I’m happy to report that we managed to get to our destination without any incidents. What continued to surprise me was how well the Levin handled, and the fact that it was fun to pilot down the winding road.

After a fun few hours feeding animals in the winter mud, we made our way home. The drive back was quiet and relaxing, the Levin proving to be a great motorway cruiser.

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Early the next morning I took the child seat out of the Levin and snuck out for a bit of a drive. I headed up the motorway to Paekakariki Hill Road, put the Levin into Sport mode, flipped the shifter to manual and used the steering wheel mounted flappy paddles to shift gears. The shifter can be pushed forward or backward to shift gears as well but it felt the wrong way around to me and I kept shifting the wrong way. Sport mode sharpens up the throttle response, makes the gear shifts more noticeable and allows the car to rev up to the red line. With a 1.8 litre 104kW engine it’s no sports car, but it’s certainly fast enough to have a bit of fun. At higher revs the four cylinder makes a bit more noise, which adds to the feeling that you’re going faster. After a little practice the shifter paddles feel natural to use, and by the top of the hill I had a smile on my face. Not something that I expected from a Corolla! It has all of the usual safety features – ABS, ESP, EBD etc and if they did kick in at all I didn’t notice. Heading back down the other side I ended up following groups of cyclists the whole way, so I just put it back into auto and quietly cruised along.

Despite my initial reservations, it looks like my dad is onto something with his loyalty to the Toyota brand. The Levin ZR is a great family car. Rear legroom is good, the level of equipment included is excellent, it has decent boot space with hidden storage under the floor, and a spare wheel included. The engine makes good power without needing a turbo, and the CVT transmission is the best I’ve used, and I usually dislike them intensely!

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What it’s up against

 

Brand / ModelEnginePowerFuel L/100km0-100km/hPrice Highest to Lowest
VW Golf Highline Wagon1.4 4 cylinder turbo103kW5.08.9 s$42.490
Skoda Octavia Elegance2.0 4 cylinder turbo110kW4.58.6 s$41,500
Peugeot 308 Allure1.6 4 cylinder turbo110kW6.58.8 s$40,990
Mini Cooper 5 Door1.5 3 cylinder turbo100kW5.08.1 s$40,200
Nissan Pulsar SSS1.6 4 cylinder turbo140kW7.87.0 s$39,990
Honda Euro Civic1.8 4 cylinder104kW6.69.5 s$39,900
Kia Cerato SX1.8 4 cylinder110kW7.112 s$37,490
Toyota Levin ZR1.8l 4 cylinder104kW6.110 s$37,390
Ford Focus Trend2.0l 4 cylinder125kW6.4Not listed$36,340
Mazda 3 GSX2.0 l 4 cylinder114kW5.78.1 s$35,595
Citroen C4 Exclusive1.6 4 cylinder88kW7.012.5 s$31,490

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The good and the bad.

ProsCons
  • Quiet and refined
  • Good quality interior
  • Lots of toys included
  • Looks good
  • A manual option would be nice
  • I’m not keen on the cruise control stalk position
  • Suspension might be a bit on the firm side for some (but I like it)

What do we think?

I really enjoyed my week with the Corolla Levin ZR. Toyota have made a huge amount of progress in interior quality, refinement and driving involvement. With three years’ warranty, servicing and roadside assistance included it is priced well against its rivals and I think represents great value.

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Rating – Chevron rating 4 out of 5

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Vehicle TypeMedium Hatchback
Starting Price$37,390 + on-road costs
Tested Price$39,296 NZD
EnginePetrol, 1.8L, 4 cylinder, in-line, 16 valve Double Over-head Cam  with Dual Variable Valve Timing-intelligent (VVT-i) and Electronic Fuel Injection
Transmission7 speed CVT
0 – 100 kph10 seconds
Kerb Weight1270 kg
Length x Width x Height4330 x 1760 x 1475mm
Cargo Capacity360 Litres
Fuel Tank40 litres
ANCAP Safety Ratings5 stars

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