Corolla: it’s not what you’d think

toyota corolla led headlights

Enthusiasts love to hate the Toyota Corolla, a compact car whose reliability has kept it popular through thick and thin. They complain that it’s “just an appliance,” a car without zip or fun, even as Toyota has tried various tricks to make the car at least look sporty.

Are they being fair to the Corolla? We asked Toyota, and they supplied an XLE so we could find out for ourselves.

toyota corolla led headlights

We generally don’t look at the specs until after driving, so it doesn’t color our impressions. That’s good, in this case: the 2018 Corolla has the same power as our 1995 Neon (132 hp, 128 lb-ft of torque), even as cars have gotten heavier. That means 0-60 times come in at a disappointing 9.5 seconds (with the automatic), while gas mileage comes in at 28 city, 36 highway. The mileage isn’t bad, though many compact cars boast over 40 mpg; most of those are either smaller than the Corolla, or have tiny engines with big turbos that hurt responsiveness.

Sprint times, too, can be misleading. Some “small engine, big turbo” cars have good sprint times, but when you call for power, it’s not there until you downshift and wait. The Corolla starts out a little soft, but then power builds quickly; if you’re already moving, the CVT (continuously variable transmission) quickly moves to the right ratio, never having to cut power shifts.  That makes it both responsive and very practical on pretty much any road other than a drag strip. Passing power comes quickly and easily.

2018 corolla engine

There is some sewing-machine drone under hard acceleration, since the CVT puts the engine at its peak torque and keeps it there even as speed changes, altering the ratio instead of altering the revs; but under normal driving, Toyota seems to have programmed it to sound and feel like a normal automatic — right down to “dropping a gear” if you hold the gas down at a moderate level for a while, to level off the speed, just like a “real” automatic would.

There’s a low-gear mode, oddly dubbed “B” for going down steep hills, and a sport mode, “S,” which you’ll want to use as little as possible since it changes the target revs to be about 1,000 rpm higher. Owners do have to get used to unusually light resistance to coasting — let your foot off the gas, and you seemingly stay at the same speed for quite some time, like going into neutral on a stick-shift.

Wind noise is surprisingly loud on the highway, seemingly louder than the Mazda3; it’s a throwback in that regard. Generally cars in this class have gotten much quieter.

Interior space is generous, and the car is just this side of midsize; the trunk is massive, given the class, and is both wide and long, with space under the trunk floor for jumper cables, first aid kits, and such. There’s also a spare tire and a jack that you can actually take out and put back again correctly, without SAE certification. Seats were a bit firm for my taste, your mileage may vary; either way, you can easily fit four six-footers into this car and not worry about banging heads or knees.

2018 corolla trunk

The stiff suspension made the ride busy, with bad pavement, concrete cracks, and such all coming through. It was not so bad around town, but became a nuisance on the highway, where we bounced around on smooth pavement. The car had good ground clearance and handled speed bumps and other major pavement problems with aplomb.

As with most cars, what you lose in ride quality, you gain in cornering. The Corolla takes corners much faster than one would expect, especially if one has had older ’rollas; the slalom time is quite competitive. The car usually sticks well to the road, and on broken pavement you do get a little disruption but overall it handles well.

Why doesn’t the car get credit for this? Largely, because the electric power steering is so badly implemented, feeling worse than the Saturn on which I first encountered it. Electric steering can be done very well, and these days, it usually is; but not on the Corolla, where it feels a little jittery on the highway and often odd everywhere else. But then, I’m paying attention to it because that’s my job. When I was running errands, it didn’t really intrude on my consciousness much. My guess is that owners get used to it after a few weeks, and it’s not a big deal then. It’s still surprising that Toyota, which has perfected so much high tech, hasn’t managed to tune this system, though.

That brings up the telematics — the two screens in the cabin. On the one hand, you can get fuel economy charts in the optional seven-inch center screen, set a very small number of preferences (nowhere near as many as in, say, a Dodge), and 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 (handheld $90 Garmins let you change the voice, why not cars?).

One problem with the system is the use of virtual buttons on either side. They look great, and the screen is well integrated — no “look at me, I’m a big screen” bulges and trim — but the virtual buttons can’t be used with gloves (oddly the rest of the screen seems to be glove-friendly), and of course you can’t feel for them without looking, which some drivers do so we don’t have to look away from the road. 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. They really need to test these things more.

2018 corolla backup camera

The between-the-gauges trip computer is fairly bare-bones and doesn’t show a wide range of information. It’s also far too bright at night, compared with the darker-blue gauges. As long as I’m asking for things (like the ability to set the trip computer brightness separately), how about a speedometer that goes to 120 instead of an insane 140, and has 30 and 50 mph marked out for easier “speed at a glance”? As with all new cars, the tachometer is marked well above the redline, too.  One other miscellaneous complaint: the horn sounds like it’s from a Yugo, not a Toyota.

Most of the driving controls makes sense, though the steering wheel controls seem reversed — the ones on the left control the radio (which is on your right), while the ones on the right control the trip computer (in the center). Perhaps that’s because, in Japan, the steering wheel is on the right, and it makes sense there? On the lighter side, though, rather than having temperature up/down buttons, they have a single up/down switch, which is far easier to use (see our rant on this topic).

rocker switches

So far, you might be wondering why the Corolla is so darned popular — and it is very popular.  329,000 sold in the United States in 2017. 378,000 sold in the US in 2016. Shall we compare?

  • Civic – 377,286
  • Corolla – 329,196
  • Sentra – 218,451
  • Elantra – 198,210
  • Cruze – 184,751
  • Focus – 158,385
  • Jetta – 115,807
  • Mazda3 – 75,018

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.

Why?

People usually point to the Corolla’s reputation for quality, and it’s true that the car has been consistently strong in every survey. True, 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 definitely a good bet for people who don’t want to have problems.

Consistently high reliability means that you get high resale value, so the cars keep their value, always important if you are leasing or if you may need to sell within, say, ten years.

Strong popularity also means that Toyota can amortize investments over a huge number of cars, so they can charge less or stuff more features in. We’ll talk about that in a minute, but let’s just say that while the Corolla’s not the cheapest car you can get, it’s probably the cheapest when you include all the features that are usually options.

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. When I wear my reviewer’s hat, I can complain about any number of issues — but that’s missing the point. When I put on my everyday driving hat, the Corolla does just fine; the stereo sounds good, the switchgear is all good, the controls are all sensible enough, visibility is good, and the headlights are excellent.

The Corolla is a good car for everyday activities — not for racing, not for long road trips, but for going here and there, to school, the grocery, a job, dropping off kids. 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).

And then we get to the deal you get from Toyota’s economies of scale and low warranty costs. The XLE starts at $21,825 — around $3,000 more than the entry level car. Yet, it has radar and cameras to sense collisions and warn or slam on the brakes; smart cruise control; lane departure alerts, if that’s your thing; automatic high beams; and eight airbags (including front and rear side curtains and seat-mounted side 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.)

More to the point, you can see where you’re going, thanks to standard LED headlamps — and you can see where you’ve been with heated power mirrors. The standard features list also has 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.

If you add it all up, you can see why the Corolla sells so well. It’s one of the best bets for reliability, provides enough acceleration and economy for most people, with more than enough cornering ability. The ride and noise level could be better, but neither is too bad; the engine is a bit slow to launch, but 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.

About David Zatz 109 Articles
The founder of famed Mopar site allpar.com (and its publisher for 20 years), David Zatz has been writing about cars and trucks since the early 1990s; he also writes on organizational development and business at toolpack.info and covers Mac statistics software at macstats.org David has been quoted by the New York Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Detroit News, and USA Today. You can reach him by using our contact form (preferred) or by calling (313) 766-2304

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