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2017 Toyota Corolla Test Drive Review
Toyota celebrates the Corolla’s 50th anniversary with new standard equipment and safety features and a limited-edition trim.
After 50 years and nearly 50 million units sold, the Corolla is the best-selling car nameplate in the world. To mark a half-century of sales, Toyota reworked the Corolla’s front end and added standard Safety Sense P for auto high beams, lane-departure warning with intervention, and forward-collision warning with pedestrian detection and auto braking. But even with a newly standard reversing camera, upgraded upholstery, and a special 50th-Anniversary trim, the Corolla still has trouble in this very competitive segment.
Look and Feel
With a reworked front end including new, thinner LED headlights, the Corolla presents a more aggressive face. The Toyota badge now splits the entire fascia with a sharply angled open-mouth grille very reminiscent of Lexus offerings. Redesigned fog surrounds complete in sharp fang-like points at either side of the front end, yet the Corolla still manages to look rather innocuous.
Inside, upgraded upholstery is a welcome if largely invisible improvement to an already attractive cabin, and with a reversing camera and Toyota Safety Sense P becoming standard for 2017, even the base L trim is well equipped with adaptive cruise, a 6.1-inch touchscreen with Entune, and air conditioning. Continuing through seven trim levels, including the 2017-exclusive 50th-Anniversary Trim, the Corolla LE adds 16-inch wheels, keyless entry, auto climate control, heated mirrors, some interior trim and—believe it or not—variable intermittent wipers.
There’s an Eco version of the LE that drops back down to 15-inch wheels with low-rolling-resistance tires plus tuning to the aerodynamics, suspension, and engine for maximum efficiency, but I think most customers will find themselves looking to start with the XLE. That’s where more common features like alloy wheels, keyless ignition and entry, pleather, heated seats, and a sunroof can be found. The XLE also sports the Entune Audio Plus system, which gets you a larger 7-inch display, HD and satellite radio, plus navigation.
Moving up the trim lineup finds you at the SE, which Toyota brands as its sport-themed model, upgraded from the LE’s features. Unfortunately, there’s not much sport to be found here. Nods to the spirit if not the letter include an optional 6-speed manual transmission to replace the standard continuously variable transmission (CVT), 17-inch alloy wheels, a rear spoiler, sport seat and gauge cluster, and a chrome exhaust tip. The SE also dons a black mesh grille, rear spoiler, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and paddle shifters if you go with the CVT. The XSE builds from there and further tacks on a sunroof, keyless entry and ignition, heated seats, and a power driver's seat, though it should be mentioned that the sunroof and keyless ignition and entry come with SE trims configured with the manual transmission.
My week with the Corolla was spent in a 50th-Anniversary Edition, which builds off the SE trim, adding unique 17-inch wheels, upgraded cloth and leather upholstery with black cherry contrast stitching, and anniversary badging and trim inside and out. Starting at $21,900, the manufacturer added a moonroof for $850, protective film on the hood for $395, illuminated door sills for $309, a $99 universal tablet holder, and a $79 rear bumper protector. With $865 for delivery, the walkaway price was $24,497.
With regard to the new Corolla's engine and CVT, there’s little good to be said here. Here we have a 1.8-liter engine delivering a dismal 132 hp and 128 lb-ft of torque, and that adds up to the slowest 0-60 times in the segment. Worse than that, the engine is loud and coarse and always sounds like it’s struggling, even on flat surfaces. Ask it to haul a few adults or climb a hill, and it almost sounds like something's wrong with it. This is only compounded by the excessive droning of the CVT, which never seems to manage to get the engine up in the higher revs quickly enough. This is an issue, as the 1.8 makes very little power below 4000 rpm.
Usually, the tradeoff for such poor performance would be excellent fuel economy, but the Corolla falls short in that regard as well. With an EPA rating of 28 city and 36 highway mpg, a combined rating of 32 would be a strong argument for suffering such sluggish performance. Unfortunately, I was barely able to maintain 26 mpg with a good mix of highway and city driving.
Beyond efficiency, the Corolla’s suspension tuning and steering offer very little feedback. This is a Corolla, not a sports car, so this shouldn’t necessarily count against it, but here the situation is wholly numb and dead. Just because the Corolla doesn’t target the enthusiast crowd doesn’t mean suspension and steering feel should be wholly neglected. This is only compounded by strong, athletic performers in this segment like the Focus, the Civic, and the Mazda3, all of which seem positively Olympian in comparison.
Form and Function
While space in the passenger compartment and trunk certainly aren’t class leading, they’re average or better and offer comfortable, useable space with easy, accessible openings. Thirteen cubic feet in the trunk puts it right about middle of the pack, but with the back seat I had to slide the front seats quite a bit forward in order to get my 6-foot, 4-inch body comfortably inside.
Light steering, criticized in the performance section, does contribute to an easily maneuverable vehicle that can be painlessly parked by the weakest of operators. I’d still argue that it’s too light and leads to a large numb spot in the middle at speed, but for low-speed operation it’s an effortless experience.
The Corolla certainly gets an aesthetic upgrade for 2017, with the new Lexus-inspired grille angling toward a more aggressive facade. The 50th-Anniversary Edition I was offered had a Black Cherry paint job to match the contrast stitching inside, and it's one of the nicer colors I’ve seen on any car this year. As a no-cost option, I’d recommend it. I also loved the leather sport seats with cloth inserts offered on the SE trim. I’m tired of leather as the only luxury option, as it’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter, and the cloth inserts here look smart and keep backs from sweating on the way to appointments.
With the standard inclusion of Toyota Safety Sense P, adaptive cruise, and a reversing camera, the Corolla makes tech very affordable. Truly, some of the competition doesn’t even offer the full suite of safety features seen here, so the Corolla offering it for the L’s base price of $18,550 is disruptive to say the least.
Standard Entune is a nice touch, especially with Siri Hands Free for iPhone users, but the exclusion of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto is sure to drive customers away. For this reason, I believe many will look toward the XLE with the larger, 7-inch touchscreen and Entune Audio Plus for the included app-based navigation, if not to competitor’s offerings.
Safety is perhaps my largest gripe with the Corolla, and it’s specifically with the braking. To stop from 60 mph, the Corolla takes an unimpressive 130 feet despite its relatively low curb weight of 2800 pounds. This is unacceptable, and it’s the longest distance in the segment. For a company that prides itself on safety, I’m astonished Toyota allows this to continue, especially when all trims below the SE come with rear drum brakes. Even with the upgraded discs, the Corolla is still worst in the segment with regard to braking, and that’s something we just shouldn’t tolerate.
There’s a similar disappointment hidden behind the Corolla’s deceptive 5-star government safety rating. In the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s (IIHS) small-overlap front-impact test, the Corolla received the second worst rating of Marginal. That’s not a safety situation I want to gamble with. Otherwise, the shocking list of standard safety features makes the Corolla a standout in the segment.
Given the features it includes as standard and its under-20-thousand-dollars starting price, it’s hard to argue the Corolla is not a judicious way to spend your dollars. However, when you take into account the unrefined and underpowered engine, the loud CVT, the poor real-world efficiency, and some significant safety issues, you start to consider the old adage, “You get what you pay for.” Compounding the issue is a wealth of competitive alternatives like the Civic, the Jetta, the Focus, and the Mazda3, all of which offer better road manners, more refined engines, and fewer safety problems. You will pay more, but when safety is concerned, it’s hard to justify saving a few dollars.
A CarGurus contributor since 2008, Michael started his career writing about cars with the SCCA - winning awards during his time as editor of Top End magazine. Since then, his journalistic travels have taken him from NY to Boston to CA, completing a cross-country tour on a restored vintage Suzuki. While his preference is for fine German automobiles - and the extra leg room they so often afford - his first automobile memories center around impromptu Mustang vs. Corvette races down the local highway, in the backseat of his father's latest acquisition.
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