Sense and sensibility.
Historically reliable and relatively affordable, the Toyota Corolla is a prudent but unexciting choice among compact sedans. Celebrating 50 years of global sales, the Corolla enters 2017 with a host of changes that continue to appeal to consumers’ sensibilities, if not their fervor.
Notably, all 2017 Corolla sedans—from the lowliest $19,365 L model to the top-of-the-line XSE model we drove, with its as-tested price of $24,830—come standard with a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, lane-departure alert, lane-keeping assist, adaptive cruise control, and automatic high-beam headlights. Oddly, no Corolla offers blind-spot monitoring.
Complementing the 2017 Corolla sedan’s additional safety systems, its refreshed exterior styling brings redesigned headlights, taillight covers, and an updated front fascia replete with a nose seemingly modeled after the schnoz on Squidward, the SpongeBob SquarePants cartoon character. The SE and XSE are new for 2017, supplanting last year’s S, and wear a more ungainly mug that includes Toyota Mirai–like details such as large faux brake-cooling ducts and vertical LED daytime running lights.
Changes abound inside, too. The updated Corolla sedan incorporates a new touchscreen infotainment interface and an updated gauge cluster as well as a dashboard resembling that found in the hatchback Toyota Corolla iM (a separate model, previously sold as the Scion iM), which brings to the sedan’s interior circular outboard air vents and redesigned automatic climate controls.
Same As It Ever Was
For all the updates, the compact sedan’s mechanicals carry over unchanged. Almost all Corollas use a 1.8-liter inline four-cylinder that produces 132 horsepower and 128 lb-ft of torque. The LE Eco trim brings Valvematic continuously variable intake-valve lift and phasing that grants the 1.8-liter an additional 8 horsepower but 2 lb-ft less torque. A continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) is standard across the board; a six-speed manual transmission is an option only on the SE.
As with previous CVT-equipped Corollas we’ve tested, this XSE’s straight-line performance proved lackluster. Getting it up to 60 mph took a lethargic 9.5 seconds, and the quarter-mile required 17.4 seconds at 82 mph—exactly the same times we managed in a 45-pound-lighter CVT-equipped Corolla S that took part in a 2014 compact-sedan comparison test. Those looking for a more lively performance should consider the SE with a manual transmission, as a stick-shift 2016 Corolla S we tested needed only 8.5 seconds to make its way to 60 mph and 16.7 seconds to reach the quarter-mile mark. Even in that form, though, the Corolla is markedly slower than rivals such as the Honda Civic and the Mazda 3.
The Corolla’s limited power is accompanied by other compromises, too, including subpar fuel economy. We measured just 26 mpg in mixed driving; the EPA city rating is 28 mpg, and the big number on the window sticker, the combined figure, is 31 mpg. On our 200-mile highway fuel-economy test at a steady 75 mph, the Corolla burned 32 mpg, well off the EPA’s 35-mpg highway rating. It takes a heavy right foot to keep the Toyota on the boil, and the CVT exacerbates the issue by holding revs at a droning 3000 to 4000 rpm in most acceleration situations. While the unit mimics a traditional automatic by dropping the revs to provide the sensation of a gearchange, the revs remain fairly high during part-throttle operation to generate the necessary power.
Getting Jiggly with It
In mid-2014, we derided the then new Corolla for lacking the inherent sturdiness found in Toyotas past. It’s no better today, with doors that still slam with a hollow thud and a chassis that continues to jiggle over bumps and roadway undulations, a sensation heightened by this stiff-legged XSE’s 17-inch wheels and tires. Although the Firestone FR740 tires give the car the grip to achieve a competitive 0.82 g in our skidpad test, the Toyota’s choppy ride simply felt harsh, not sporty. Worse, its overboosted and uncommunicative steering fails to cash the check the sporty body add-ons write.
The 2957-pound compact needed 183 feet to stop from 70 mph, some 15 feet longer than the Chevrolet Cruze sedan, and the brake pedal feels mushy in its travel. The XSE test car does have four-wheel disc brakes, a feature shared only with the SE; all other Corolla sedans rely on rear drum brakes.
Along with its better brakes and racier exterior trim, our Corolla XSE test car also included standard amenities such as a power sunroof, faux leather seats, heated and power-adjustable front seats, a proximity key with push-button start, and more in its $23,545 base price. Adding to the bottom line were a handful of accessories such as body-side moldings, mud guards, doorsill plates, and a full interior mat set, costing a total of $760. A premium audio system with navigation tacked on an extra $525. The XSE’s new 7.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system replaces last year’s 6.1-inch unit (a new 6.1-inch touchscreen is used in L, LE, LE Eco, and SE models). While the larger display size is appreciated, the multimedia system continues to lag behind competitors, lacking features such as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
Arguably, the Corolla’s greatest asset is its back seat. With 41.4 inches of rear legroom, the 60/40-split-folding bench provides more stretch-out space than any other sedan in its class, even besting that offered in the mid-size Camry by 2.5 inches. An almost completely flat floor makes even the center seating position relatively habitable.
Its long list of standard safety features, a reputation for dependability, and its roomy back seat make the Toyota Corolla a shrewd option for consumers who routinely schlep family and friends or who moonlight in the ride-hailing industry. Shoppers in search of modern multimedia technology, passable performance, or any semblance of driving enjoyment, though, will be better served elsewhere.