2017 Toyota Corolla
The Toyota Corolla keeps us humble. Not only when we’re driving one—that would keep anyone’s ego in check—but when we think about the lowly Corolla being not just the best-selling compact car in America, but the best-selling automotive nameplate of all time. Toyota sold almost 1000 of the things every day in 2015 in the United States alone—weekends and holidays included. This, despite the fact that the Corolla has never once appeared on a single Car and Driver 10Best Cars list. In our eyes, the Corolla has always been a safe choice but never a terribly interesting one. Millions of Americans chose it anyway. Like we said, humbling.
To Toyota’s credit, the company tried to make some interesting changes when the 11th-generation Corolla landed as a 2014 model. The result, however, was stylistically erratic, and the 132-hp four-cylinder engine was still woefully underpowered compared to the competition. Our hopes that a mid-cycle update would see Toyota harmonize its design and bring a power boost were dashed earlier this year, when the 2017 model was introduced at the New York auto show. While the trim choices increased from four (L, LE, LE Eco, and S) to six (L, LE, LE Eco, XLE, plus the sportier SE and XSE) to better align the suffixes with other Toyota models, the product warm-over was a cool one. An anniversary edition to commemorate the Corolla’s 50th year in production was about as exciting as it got.
Higher-spec Corolla models have new headlamps, all models use new taillamp innards and restyled front fascias, and all but the base L and LE Eco models roll on redesigned 16- and 17-inch wheels. Inside, subtle trim changes add a more three-dimensional look to the dashboard and a soft-touch panel on the passenger side. Lower-grade models also see a new gauge cluster that incorporates a 3.5-inch information screen, while in dressier trims the screen is a 4.2-inch color LCD. The automatic climate controls look classier now, too. The two new sport-flavored trim levels, SE and XSE, pick up where the Corolla S left off, with sporty-ish looks inside and out, more aggressively bolstered sport seats, revised suspensions, and—on the new XSE—fancy leather upholstery.
Perhaps most significant, all Corollas come standard with the Toyota Safety Sense-P driver-assistance package, which includes automated emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane-departure alert with steering assist, automatic high-beams, and radar cruise control. Toyota even tosses in a backup camera with projected path lines on all models. Given how few cars in this segment offer all of those modern features, let alone as standard, we think the customers will be pleased.
Modern Content in a 20th-Century Box
Sadly, nothing has changed under the hood, so while the Corolla may dress a little better and be more able to save you from yourself, it’s none too enthusiastic about getting up to speed. We sampled three 2017 Corollas—an LE Eco, a manual-transmission SE, and an XSE with a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) programmed to emulate an actual gearbox—and “sluggish” is the most generous way we can describe any of them. With just 132 horsepower and 128 lb-ft of torque, the 1.8-liter four-banger/CVT combination on most models felt just as slow as we remembered from our 2014 Corolla S test, during which 10.5 seconds elapsed while it moseyed its way from rest to 60 mph. That’s a couple of seconds off the pace of essentially the entire compact-car field, including the Honda Civic, the Chevrolet Cruze, the Mazda 3, and the Volkswagen Golf. That said, we were surprised and rather delighted with the XSE’s CVT, which operates with six fixed ratios in Sport mode and served up predictive downshifts when we slowed for corners.
Happily, Toyota not only continues to offer a six-speed manual transmission on one Corolla model, the SE 6MT (which costs $1220 more than the CVT-equipped SE), but it has improved the shifter to make the action of rowing through the gears feel more positive. And with so little power available, row you will. That said, the 2016 Corolla S manual we tested earlier this year produced a considerably better acceleration time of 8.5 seconds to 60 mph (still nothing to brag about), and we expect the same for the 2017 model.
Interestingly, the LE Eco model’s 1.8-liter, tuned specifically to maximize fuel economy, loses 2 lb-ft of torque but gains 8 horsepower for a total of 140, and it feels no less satisfying to drive than the sportier XSE. Underbody panels and a rear spoiler to improve aerodynamics also contribute to the LE Eco’s considerable fuel-economy advantage. It’s EPA rated at 30 mpg city and 40 mpg highway versus 27–28/35–36 mpg for the other CVT-equipped models.
Predictably, the Corolla LE Eco felt just as meek in corners as any Corolla we’ve ever driven. Its front tires howled to forecast their imminent surrender to enthusiastic driving. The SE and XSE models stayed considerably better planted as we approached their limits, although keeping up with a Mazda 3 or a Volkswagen Golf on a twisty two-laner remains beyond the scope of their abilities. Slow steering response off-center, coupled with virtually no feel, do their part to discourage such shenanigans, anyway.
The Stuff That Counts
Most Corolla buyers, we suspect, don’t give a hoot about its at-the-limit behavior, steering feel, or how much more engaging its competitors may be to drive. Is it quiet? Does it ride smoothly? Will I fit inside? Is it reliable? Yeah, that’s the good stuff. To them, we can aver that the new Corolla does indeed seem as quiet and smooth-riding as ever. For its class, it has a big back seat and a good-size trunk. And if past is prologue, most Corollas will keep running indefinitely, as long as the oil gets changed every now and then and there’s gas in the tank.
With prices starting at $19,365 for the Corolla L to $23,545 for the XSE (an average increase of $281, or about 1.5 percent, from the 2016 model range, according to Toyota), the Corolla is aggressively priced to retain its massive following. Sure, we could suggest a dozen other compact cars that would be more enjoyable to drive, starting with the Mazda 3 and the VW Golf and including the Honda Civic, Chevrolet Cruze, Hyundai Elantra, Ford Focus, Kia Forte, and Mini Cooper (most of which offer manual transmissions across multiple trim levels). But the Corolla has always sold best among people who regard cars as mere transportation appliances and not as objects of pride and personal expression. This new one fits that bill as well as a Corolla has ever done. That would be any of the more than 43 million Corollas sold. Humbling, we tell you.
Bram Vreeker is the internationally bestselling author of eleven novels. A pioneer in internet marketing, Vreeker started the first marketing firm for authors and is one of the founding board members of Silly Kitty. Vreeker also teaches an online marketing class to help authors get buzz for their books.
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