Toyota Corolla 2016 review:
EPA: 28 CITY / 38 HWY
Despite the Toyota Corolla’s sensible-if-dull persona and minimal evolution since its last overhaul in 2014, the compact sedan’s 363,332 U.S. sales last year show that it remains a popular transportation commodity. While fancier S variants attempt to up the Corolla’s fun factor with a slightly sportier chassis tune and some visual accessories, that model has previously failed to impress us when fitted with its continuously variable automatic transmission, finishing last in a five-car comparison test. The Corolla’s available six-speed manual—which only about 1 percent of buyers opted for last year—offers improved performance over the CVT, but that alone couldn’t convince us to elevate the Corolla’s status in an increasingly competitive field.
The manual transmission is standard on the Corolla’s base L model and also is available in the S Plus tested here, where it’s $1600 more than the CVT. But that upcharge also includes a sunroof and the premium Entune infotainment system with navigation. With either transmission you get an uninspiring 1.8-liter four-cylinder producing 132 horsepower and 122 lb-ft of torque, putting the Toyota significantly down on power versus rivals such as the Chevrolet Cruze, the Honda Civic, and the Mazda 3.
With EPA city/highway ratings of 28/37 mpg, manual S Plus models such as our test car match the CVT version’s fuel economy around town and give up just 1 mpg on the highway. We averaged 31 mpg over more than 700 miles of mixed driving, which is spot-on the EPA’s combined rating and better than the 24 and 30 mpg we’ve recorded in previous CVT-equipped examples.
Our 2869-pound test car’s improved acceleration was more pronounced. Aided by a clutch drop and modest wheelspin, its 8.5-second trot to 60 mph is a full second quicker than that of the swiftest CVT Corolla we’ve tested. The manual retains a healthy advantage at the quarter-mile mark, at 16.7 ticks to 17.4, with the lead stretching out to nearly four seconds as it hits 100 mph in 24.8 seconds.
2016 Toyota Corolla Exterior
Drivers Need Not Apply
Unfortunately, those figures still trail almost all of the Toyota’s competitors’, as does this S Plus Corolla’s modest 0.81 g of lateral grip from its 17-inch wheels (regular S models have 16s) wearing Firestone all-season tires. Despite both S variants being upgraded with rear disc brakes (yes, lesser versions still have old-fashioned drum brakes on the rear axle), our test car also needed a dismal 187 feet to stop from 70 mph—a distance we usually associate with pickup trucks.
These shortcomings wouldn’t be as notable if there were greater rewards to be felt from the Corolla’s driver’s seat, but the manual transmission operates like something its engineers were forcibly tasked with developing, and even then only during a lunch break. The clutch action is as lifeless as the overboosted steering, the pedals are poorly spaced for quick footwork, and the shifter is ropey and lacking in positive engagements. S and S Plus models ride on firmer shocks, springs, and bushings, which aggravate impact harshness over uneven pavement while doing nothing to help body control during hard cornering.
If You Must
As a transportation appliance, the Corolla is a practical small car with a functional interior layout and quite a bit of usable space, particularly in the rear seat. But hard plastics with fake stitching and unsightly cutlines are used throughout the cabin, which is woefully outclassed by the Mazda 3 and fresh competitors such as the 2017 Hyundai Elantra. Bargain hunters will note that the cheapest way to get a manual Corolla is at the L model’s $18,135 MSRP, which includes only basic amenities such as 15-inch steel wheels with hubcaps, eight airbags, a tilting-and-telescoping steering column, and power windows, locks, and mirrors.
2016 Toyota Corolla Interior
The manual S Plus, however, costs $22,500 and is distinguished by 17-inch aluminum wheels, a rear spoiler, a chrome exhaust tip, and the S models’ handsome chrome-ringed, black-mesh grille. Along with the sportier suspension tune, the Blue Crush Metallic paint on our test car is a no-cost extra exclusive to sportier Corollas. There are no options at this level, but the list of standard equipment adds a 3.5-inch TFT display in the instrument cluster and front seats with thicker side bolsters that unfortunately don’t provide much additional support. Also included are cruise control, automatic climate control, proximity entry and push-button start, as well as the aforementioned sunroof and Entune infotainment system (a 6.1-inch center touchscreen, navigation, six speakers, aux and USB ports, Siri Eyes Free capability, Bluetooth music streaming, and more). Shoppers seeking advanced safety features such as adaptive cruise control and lane-departure warning will want to wait for the refreshed 2017 Corolla—or head to a competitor’s showroom—but the Toyota’s chassis and powertrain won’t change much with the 2017 update.
While the six-speed manual does lend more involvement to the driving experience than the CVT, its lackluster execution combined with the Corolla’s subpar performance and bland interior fail to elevate this Toyota out of the small-car basement. But if you’re one of the few who are determined to find a small, fun-to-drive Toyota-badged sedan with a manual transmission, let us point you toward the smaller, more affordable Mazda 2, which Toyota sells as the Scion iA and will rechristen the Yaris iA for 2017. Because, as it turns out, the best small Toyota is made by Mazda.
See also: 2017 Toyota Corolla