The Toyota Corolla is frequently derided by pundits, dismissed as “just an appliance,” putting Mazda’s sporty ride ahead of Toyota’s well-proven reliability. Is that being fair? Toyota supplied us with an XLE so we could find out the current state of the ’Rolla — and the first impression of a sportier design is a good sign of what’s to come.
The 2018 Corolla’s specifications are a bit out of tune with the times; its rated power is the same power as that of a 1995 Neon (132 hp, 128 lb-ft of torque), so 0-60 times takes around 9.5 seconds (with the automatic). Gas mileage is better, with ratings of 28 city, 36 highway (ironically, also similar to that old Neon). Many compact cars boast over 40 mpg on the highway, but most are either smaller than the Corolla, or have tiny engines with big turbos that hurt responsiveness.
That 9.5 second sprint time might make you think the Corolla feels weak, but it doesn’t; the car starts out a little soft from launch, but power builds quickly. If you’re already moving, the CVT (continuously variable transmission) quickly moves to the right ratio, making it responsive and practical. Passing power comes quickly and easily. Its only real shortfall is the sudden sprint.
There is some droning under extended acceleration, since the CVT puts the engine at its peak torque and keeps it there as the car’s velocity changes, changing the ratio instead of the engine speed. Under normal driving, Toyota made it feel like a normal automatic, even “dropping a gear” if you hold the gas down at a moderate level for a while, to level off the speed.
The oddly named “B” mode keeps you in lower gears for going down steep hills; the sport mode targets an engine speed around 1,000 rpm higher than normal, not ideal for all your driving. Some extra economy comes from the CVT’s light resistance to coasting, which almost completely removes powertrain drag.
Wind noise is loud for the class on the highway. Interior space is generous, though; you can easily fit four six-footers into this car and not worry about banging heads or knees. The large trunk has a subfloor for jumper cables, first aid kits, and such, as well as a spare tire and a jack that’s easy to put back exactly as you found it. Seats were a bit firm.
The stiff suspension helped the car maintain a sportier attitude, but it also made the ride busy and didn’t cushion as well as it could. It felt good enough around town, but not so much on the highway, bouncing on smooth pavement; in both cases, it handled larger potholes and such well. Ground clearance was generous enough for all the ramps we encountered.
The up-side of that stiff suspension is taking corners much faster than one would expect, certainly far better than the 1990s and early-2000s cars, and the slalom time is quite competitive for the class. The car usually sticks well to the road, whether it’s concrete or tarmac. The car doesn’t really get credit for this with the pundits, possibly because it goes against what people expect from Corollas.
The other reason the Corolla is often downrated is the electric power steering, which feels jittery on the highway and just odd around town — if you’re paying too much attention to it, as I’m supposed to, as a writer. In fairness, when I was running errands, it didn’t really intrude, and owners probably get used to it after a few weeks.
There were two big telematic screens in our test car — the optional seven-inch center screen, and an optional color gauge-cluster display. It was nice to see Toyota’s usual fuel economy charts in the center screen, and to have two programs side-by-side — such as navigation and economy, or stereo and traffic. The navigation system gave good directions, though entry wasn't as easy as on many competitors; though the map was sometimes not as clear as it could be, and the voice got annoying very quickly, which is true for many cars. There aren’t many settings you can make, compared to some automakers.
The virtual buttons on either side look quite good, and the screen is well integrated, but virtual buttons can’t be used with gloves, and you can’t feel for them without looking. The phone app is promising, but like those of other automakers, doesn’t do much. Also, I had one album repeat over and over, while another, when it ended, went to the right song... and every time I started the car, if I had left the radio on, it would forget about the USB drive, and I'd have to manually re-select it.
The between-the-gauges trip computer doesn’t show a wide range of information, and stays too bright at night, compared with the darker-blue gauges.
Most of the driving controls are sensible. Rather than using temperature up/down buttons, they have a single up/down switch, which is far easier to use (see a rant on this).
The Corolla is easily the #2 best seller in America, and simply clobbers almost every competitor... especially the critically acclaimed Mazda3. Corolla sells as well as Ford Focus and Chevy Cruze combined.
There’s the Corolla’s reputation for quality, which is well-deserved — and has been for decades. Our test car, with 12,000 miles, had some noticeable clunks and rattles, but every generation of Corolla rated by TrueDelta ends up ranking as “best” in quality. It’s still a good bet for people who don’t want to have problems. Consistently high reliability means that the cars keep their value, always important if you are leasing or if you may need to sell within, say, ten years.
I don’t want to give the impression here that Corolla owners are taking a lousy car and putting up with it because it’s cheap and reliable. In everyday driving, the Corolla is just fine. As I drove, it faded into the background. I appreciated its ability to corner well, which is fun going around turns too fast (though not so fast I can’t see and stop if needed), and the gas mileage was acceptable. It’s not my favorite car on the highway, and it’s not as fun to drive as, say, the Mazda3 or Jetta, but on the other hand, it doesn’t require much attention and it’s more reliable than either one, too (again, according to TrueDelta).
The car takes regular gas, and it’s a regular car. You can easily fit four people in it, comfortably; you can fit luggage for six people into the trunk; and it takes regular gas. Pretty much everything is, if not sensibly designed, at least not too far from the pale, and the vents don’t blow cold or hot air directly onto the driver (unless that’s desired).
The price is a bargain, too. The XLE starts at $21,825 — around $3,000 more than the entry-level car. That includes radar and cameras to sense collisions and warn or slam on the brakes; smart cruise control; and eight airbags. The car doesn’t have blind spot detection and rear cross path detection, but neither do most of its competitors.
(Our test car also had some options. The $525 Entune Premium Auto system brought the seven-inch center display, a USB port, voice recognition, phone integration, the pointless Entune app, weather, satellite radio, and such. A “Preferred Owner’s Portfolio,” at $199, was unexplained. The floor mats cost $224, which is unusual these days. With the destination charge, the car cost a total of $23,717. The XLE also has better LED headlamps than the $18,550 L — but they both have LEDs.)
You can clearly see where you’re going at night, with standard LED headlamps — and where you’ve been, with heated power mirrors. The standard features also include heated power seats, keyless ignition and locks, filtered automatic climate control, and a power moonroof. Just having LED headlights makes the stick-shift version of the Corolla almost unique, and really makes any version cheaper than similarly-equipped competitors.
The Corolla sells so well because it’s one of the best bets for reliability, and provides enough acceleration and economy for most people, with more than enough cornering ability. The ride and noise level could be better, ; the engine is a bit slow to launch, but it quickly picks up and is responsive once moving.
The not-so-little Toyota strikes just the right balance to remain a sensible default purchase, and while other cars have their charms, it’s hard to beat an inexpensive, dependable daily driver for most customers.
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