It’s a well accepted fact that the Honda HR-V catalysed the B-segment crossover boom in Malaysia. But the first car to buck that trend was arguably the Mitsubishi ASX, having been around since 2010.

Toyota, oddly enough, felt comfortable to leave the segment uncontested, save for the brief showing with the C-HR. Despite its exorbitant asking price and unimpressive specs, the C-HR sold like hotcakes, and continues to command a noticeable premium in the used market.

But aside from the C-HR, Toyota didn’t really have a comparable model to go directly against the practical HR-V and Subaru XV. The ladder frame Avanza and the Rush were clearly very different cars, and the next viable SUV would be the RAV4 and Harrier. There really wasn’t a true middle ground offering for the longest time, then came the Corolla Cross, which arrived at a time when competition is at the stiffest.

In terms of pricing, the entry-level 1.8G variant goes for RM124k, while the top 1.8V costs RM129k. At the time of writing, both Corolla Cross variants are fully imported from Thailand, though local assembly plans are underway. There are rumours of the hybrid joining the line-up, but that’s a story for another day.

What is it, really?

The Corolla Cross is by all intents and purposes a C-segment compact crossover, dabbling in a segment occupied by similarly-sized rivals such as the Subaru XV, Mazda CX-30 and next-generation Honda HR-V. Factor its size and price range and you’ll find the Corolla Cross to be of decent value (CKD will make them even cheaper), unless you start pitting it against true-blue B-segment models like the outgoing HR-V and Proton X50. Heck, even the top Proton X70 is cheaper.

As you can see, it’s a tough space, perhaps the very reason why Toyota steered clear of the scene for as long as it did. How foolish then, for it to springboard into such hotly contested waters? Surely the jury of armchair critics would condemn its unattractive design and… torsion beam rear suspension? Yeah, if you cut through the noise, there’s an actual car that’s every bit worthy of consideration.

Its overly bold fascia with the huge flipped grille (likely inspired by a bulldog) is especially not flattering when compared to its ravishing sedan and hatch counterparts, so it’s understandable that people find it ugly, to put it bluntly. Thankfully, the 18-inch dual-tone wheels, bi-LED projector headlights and LED combination tail lights make the 1.8V look much less offensive than the basic 1.8G variant, but still not enough to bag any sort of people’s choice awards. You either like it, or you don’t.

Interior – Simple, practical, nothing extraordinary

There’s absolutely no hint of similarities with the Corolla sedan on the outside, but the same can’t be said for the interior. The dashboard layout is nearly identical, but the crossover gets its own instrument panel design. The speedometer takes centre stage, flanked by an analogue tachometer on the left and a 4.2-inch colour multi-info display on the right. Nothing too fancy, just purely functional.

Unsurprisingly, hard plastics is used quite liberally throughout the cockpit, centre tunnel and other top surfaces, but crucial touch points such as the centre armrest and door rests do get supple leather wrapping. Leather seat upholstery (black only, with perforation) is standard, and cow hide is also used to wrap the multifunction steering wheel. It’s contoured at the 9 and 3 o’clock positions, and feels nice to grip as well.

The most impressive piece of kit here is the nine-inch touchscreen infotainment display, which is the very same unit that cost sedan owners an upgrade fee of RM3,000. It’s responsive, adequately sized, and supports Apple CarPlay, Android Auto (both wired), Miracast and WiFi functionalities. Comparatively, the cockpit of the six-year-old HR-V still stacks up well here (especially with the two-tone brown interior), but the Corolla Cross does appear to be leagues behind the X50 in overall perceived quality.

Otherwise, it’s quite low on frills, with focus geared towards simplicity and practicality. It has a single-zone automatic climate control system, eight-way power adjustable driver seat (no memory function; manual for front passenger), twin cubbies front and back, foot parking brake, rear air vents and twin USB Type-A charging ports (2.1 A).

Rear space is about what you would expect from a crossover of this size – spacious enough for two adults, but a snug fit for three. Still, the two outer seats offer a commendable degree of spatial leeway, with more than enough legroom to stretch on long jaunts.

The rear seatbacks incline by six degrees, which is functionally useless and gimmicky because it’s only comfortable when fully reclined as opposed to being upright. They do feature a 60:40 split and can be folded flat to increase boot space (440 litres, marginally larger than the HR-V with 437 litres), though the HR-V is still far more practical thanks to its flexible magic seating system. On the bright side, powered tailgate (with kick sensor) is standard.

Basic features, sophisticated underpinnings

You know, the Corolla Cross may not have a lot going for it in the looks department, but it’s built on the bones of the exemplary TNGA (GA-C) architecture. It’s a modular platform that focuses on three things – streamlining production through commonalising parts, enhancing vehicle dynamics and performance, and freeing up greater design possibilities. Not quite the trifecta with the Corolla Cross, but I digress.

It basically shares the same GA-C platform and powertrain as the Corolla sedan, with power coming from a 1.8 litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder petrol engine with dual VVT-i. The 2ZR-FE mill, which develops 139 PS at 6,400 rpm and 172 Nm of torque at 4,000 rpm, feels sufficiently grunty for urban use. It’s smooth and operates rather silently for the most part.

The CVT is also one of its strong suits. It has seven virtual ratios to simulate the gear shifts in a torque converter automatic (Toyota call is Sequential Shiftmatic), providing a wide, usable power curve that feels quick to be transmitted to the front wheels. Throttle response is good, making for a respectably brisk off-the-line performance. This amount of shove is well sustained into the mids, so it’s great for intracity driving.

Sequential shiftmatic may sound like some fancy automotive jargon, but functionally, it mimics mechanical gearshifts tangibly well. You can exploit this further in manual mode, which locks the transmission in the desired “gear” and will remain in the power curve right up till the next “upshift.” It’s handy for climbing steep gradients and overtaking, but the latter becomes ostensibly more laborious past 110 km/h.

This is not unusual for CVTs. They’re efficient and typically excellent (if done well) for driving in urban settings, but the keener bunch won’t be impressed. The Corolla Cross’ CVT is by many accounts a great transmission without much drawbacks, save for the unpleasant drone at higher rpms. Hyundai’s in-house developed IVT – like in the Elantra – is objectively the better unit, we think. There’s no Sport Mode or shift paddles on either variant, but that’s a fair omission for a car like this.

Ride quality, as you would expect, leans on the side of comfort. It’s well sprung, takes road undulations in its stride, and surprisingly chuckable as well. These are ubiquitous TNGA traits, but instead of retaining the double wishbone rear suspension, the Corolla Cross settles for a less sophisticated torsion beam setup.

The upshot to this is cheaper running costs, but at the expense of a characterless damping system. Rear axle rebounds can be glaringly crashy when going over bigger potholes or speed humps, creating an inexplicable thud that somehow reverberates through the cabin in worst case scenarios.

Of course, this can easily be mitigated by slowing down. In case you forgot, the outgoing HR-V is also fitted with a torsion beam, but that hasn’t stopped it from being the best-selling B-segment crossover for several years in a row. The reality is, most people don’t care.

Things like NVH levels carry significantly more weight in their purchasing decision, and we’re happy to report that the Corolla Cross is among the best in class, certainly quieter than the HR-V. Our 1.8G test unit, which rode on 17-inch wheels with Bridgestone Alenza wheels, introduced some fairly audible tyre roar at higher speeds, but little else besides that.

Final thoughts

Once again, if you cut through the noise and scratch a little deeper, there’s much to like about the Corolla Cross. It’s a Toyota, it will surely sell. But more than that, it signifies Toyota’s serious intent to compete in what is arguably the most cutthroat segment in this part of the world.

Cars in and around its price range have pushed the boundaries and redefined the meaning of value for money. The HR-V is pretty much a glorified minivan at this point with how big of a space it offers. The X50, on the other hand, offers unbeatable dollar-to-performance and safety features, while customers wanting premium C-segment SUV levels of comfort have four variants of the X70 to choose from, two of which have Nappa leather upholstery as standard.

If you’re set on the Corolla Cross, the 1.8V should be the one to spring for. On top of bi-LED lights and all the rest of the good stuff, it’s the only variant to get Toyota Safety Sense, which comes with autonomous emergency braking, lane departure alert with steering assist, lane tracing assist, adaptive cruise control (upwards of 30 km/h only), and automatic high beam.

It’s a shame the 1.8G is so poorly specced, but hopefully that will change when local assembly kicks off. And if the 1.8 Hybrid is being considered, let’s pray UMW Toyota won’t botch the kit list. After all, the bar is set much higher now, and no self-respecting person would spend this chunk of dough for a kosong-spec car.

GALLERY: 2021 Toyota Corolla Cross 1.8V

GALLERY: 2021 Toyota Corolla Cross 1.8G