Surely I’m not the only one who can’t shake a certain image from my mind’s eye when the Toyota Corolla comes up in conversation.
You know the one: invariably green or gold, a tan interior, and altogether about as exciting as unsalted butter on a water cracker. But it wasn’t built to be thrilling – unless, of course, you get your kicks out of rock-like reliability.
Like the cockroach of cars, the Corolla of the ’90s will undoubtedly outlive us all, parked proudly in a post-apocalyptic wasteland next to a pile of Twinkies. (Seriously, though, there’s one near my place that’s been sitting so long there’s a thin layer of moss growing on its metal surfaces. Yet I’m sure it would start with little more than a new battery and maybe some fresh gas.)
Fast forward to today, and the newest Corolla sedan has little in common with its oh-so-boring forebear besides the badges they share. Well, those and that reputation for reliability that’s synonymous with the popular Toyota. If you’re looking for an affordable car to drive into the ground, the Corolla is probably a safe bet – only now it’ll look good doing it.
It wasn’t overnight that Toyota emerged from its Den of Dull Designs, though the Corolla is among the latest in the automaker’s lineup to head in a vastly different direction after years of mediocre aesthetics. Like the Camry before it, the Corolla has been reinvented in its latest installment to count as one of its segment’s most stylish entries.
While the hatchback’s cheese wedge proportions are a little awkward, the sedan boasts a sleek shape from tip to tail. The two are indistinguishable from the front bumper to the B-pillars, their pavement-gobbling grilles and fang-like headlights looking downright aggressive, but the sedan’s rear end is far less bulbous.
It only gets better with the Nightshade package, which adds black bumper treatments front and rear, as well as black wheels, badges, and a few other exterior accents. Unfortunately, the package adds nothing to the interior in terms of styling, saddling buyers with the same understated cabin as the Corolla SE it’s based on.
The cabin’s focal point happens to be one of its key features: an eight-inch touchscreen that’s used to run the infotainment system. The interface itself is fairly limited in terms of functionality and flair, and it’s missing the popular Android Auto smartphone mirroring app. However, it should be added next year, while Apple CarPlay is along for the ride (both are featured in the 2020 Corolla hatchback, for those interested).
Other features are fair for the price – this particular version starts at $23,290 – and make the Corolla a little more livable than the average economy car. The front seats are heated, the climate control system is fully automatic, and there’s that upgraded eight-inch head unit, as well as an outstanding safety suite that comes standard in every Corolla.
On top of the styling kit, the Nightshade package adds a heated steering wheel, power sunroof, and wireless phone charger. It can only be optioned on cars fitted with an automatic transmission, hence the higher starting price (the manual-equipped Corolla SE rings in at $1,000 less). But the biggest upgrade in the Corolla SE is the 2.0L engine under the hood that provides some extra pep without going overboard.
It doesn’t quite make the Corolla a sport compact car, but the bigger motor is a worthy upgrade for those after a bit more performance and passing power. The four-cylinder generates 169 hp and 151 lb-ft of torque, enough of a jump over the base 1.8L’s 139 hp and 126 lb-ft of torque to be noticeable. No, it’s not going to keep up with the likes of the turbocharged Kia Forte GT or Volkswagen Jetta GLI, but there’s enough output to work with.
Anyone who can operate a manual transmission – or wants to learn how – would do well to opt for the silky six-speed, but even the automatic does a reasonable job of routing power to the front wheels. While there’s a slight delay in delivery under normal acceleration, the continuously variable transmission (CVT) closely mimics the behaviour of a conventional automatic, with none of the stretching sensation common in this type of transmission.
Driving Feel: 8/10
With the button-activated sport mode engaged and paddle shifters at the ready, the Corolla SE’s naturally aspirated engine is refreshingly responsive. Keep the revs in the 4,500–4,900 rpm range, where it reaches peak torque, and the 2.0L is perky to the point of providing the occasional thrill on a winding backroad.
Ditto the sport-tuned suspension and taut chassis that’s just begging for a more performance-oriented engine. Just firm enough to cut out body roll without ruining what’s an outstanding ride, the Corolla is a pleasantly playful little car. Again, it’s not too sporty, and it doesn’t have to be driven hard to be enjoyed. But it can – and probably should – be exercised on occasion, if only to give thanks to the tidy little package Toyota has provided for the price.
The steering, too, is rewarding enough to provide feedback despite feeling a bit artificial, while turn-in response is sharper than one might expect. Overcompensation for any expected understeer is wholly unnecessary, as I found out during some, um, spirited country driving, the car carving an especially tight line through a series of turns. Yet it’s just as well suited to the grind of a daily commute, with no need to work too hard to make an evasive manoeuvre or keep the Corolla moving in a straight line.
The well-damped suspension is ideal for a daily drive, too. To be blunt, no car this cheap has any business feeling so opposite of exactly that in terms of ride quality. Smooth and quiet, the ride is far more Camry than Corolla as it soaks up endless stretches of even the roughest roads without much fuss. Compact cars have come a long way over the years, but the Corolla sets a new bar for ride quality and comfort in the segment.
The Corolla remains firmly rooted in its class inside, however, with seats that aren’t especially comfortable despite being well-bolstered. The lack of sound-deadening behind the door panels also leads to a bit too much road noise on porous pavement. On the other hand, the cabin itself, while a bit boring, mixes materials that look and feel up there with the best the segment has to offer.
User Friendliness: 6/10
The outward view from behind the wheel is good thanks to the Corolla’s small dimensions, narrow pillars, and tall glass, while the height-adjustable seat comes in handy for users of varying stature. Cabin controls are fairly straightforward, matching the simplicity of the space itself. Looks can be deceiving, though, and aside from what’s presented on the steering wheel, there are some issues to overcome.
Start with the buttons used to operate the HVAC system or the ones that flank the infotainment screen – they’re microscopic, as are the labels that identify their functions. While they’re easy enough to sort through when parked, using any of them while driving is more distracting than it should be. Then there are the buttons for the heated front seats that are generously sized but stashed awkwardly ahead of the gear selector and hidden by the massive overhanging dashboard.
On top of that, the location of the USB port used to connect with Apple CarPlay – as well as the auxiliary audio input – is hidden on the underside of the dash and difficult to find the first time in the car. That CarPlay connection is a saving grace, though, as Toyota’s infotainment interface is clunkier than competitor systems and slower to respond to inputs. It is, however, vastly improved compared to earlier attempts from the automaker and should feel familiar to anyone who has used its systems before.
What it lacks in infotainment excellence the Corolla more than makes up for with advanced safety features, boasting one of the best standard systems in the business. There’s lane-keep assist, automatic emergency braking with pedestrian and cyclist detection, and adaptive cruise control that works in stop-and-go traffic in all but base models (the L trim still gets adaptive cruise, but it won’t bring the car to a stop and resume again on its own). Automatic high-beams also come standard, and blind-spot monitoring is in every trim but the cheapest one.
The adaptive cruise control keeps a wider gap from the vehicle ahead than some people like, including autoTRADER.ca’s own Editor-in-Chief, Jodi Lai, but for me it’s the overly involved lane-keep assist that’s more problematic. There’s something unnerving about a steering system that fights to do its own thing, and the Corolla’s is guilty of exactly that. I turned the system off midway through my first day of testing and kept it that way the rest of the week.
Despite its compact dimensions, the Corolla sedan has a generously sized trunk that’s deep enough for a couple of large suitcases. While the sedan lacks the outright utility of the hatchback, which benefits from folding rear seats that reveal a large cargo hold, the sedan’s 371 L feel a little more useful than the narrow and upright space behind the five-door’s back seats.
Passenger space is average for the segment, with enough room for four people to fit fairly comfortably. Unsurprisingly, headroom is better up front than it is in the back, and the Corolla probably wouldn’t make the best choice for an aspiring ride-share driver based on its cramped rear confines.
Fuel Economy: 7/10
As far as compact cars go, the Corolla’s city fuel consumption is pretty average – though the 2.0L and its CVT make for the most efficient combo this side of the hybrid version. According to Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), the pairing is good for 7.6 L/100 km in the city and 5.8 on the highway for a combined 6.7. That’s better than almost anything in the segment aside from a similarly specced Hyundai Elantra, making this Corolla one of the most efficient cars like it.
My real-world results differed slightly from what the federal agency says the Corolla’s good for, with a weeklong test ending at 7.3 L/100 km over a total of 480 km. I had managed to bring the combined consumption down to 6.8 L/100 km, but that was before I discovered some winding backroads that I tackled with a little more gusto than the average Corolla owner is likely to match with any frequency.
As I’ve touched on in the past, reliability isn’t something that’s usually covered in new car reviews for at least a couple of reasons. There are, of course, exceptions, and the Corolla is certainly one of them. That baked-in dependability alone is worth the price of admission, with history on the Corolla’s side in terms of a trouble-free ownership experience. Of course, projections are just that – trend-based forecasts – but the Corolla’s reputation for reliability carries some serious weight.
Considering the starting price of the version I tested – $27,815 before tax, including the Nightshade package – there’s good value to go with that predicted longevity. If you’re looking to save even more, go ahead and skip the Nightshade pack and the $2,780 it adds to the price, and the $1,000 automatic transmission. Either way, the asking price is competitive with something like the similarly equipped Honda Civic Sport or the slightly more powerful Hyundai Elantra Sport, which is good company for the Corolla to keep.
There’s a good reason the Toyota Corolla is one of the standard-bearers of the compact segment, and it transcends any of its umpteen generations. There’s long been a simplicity to the popular compact – that what you see is what you get, and what you get is a damn good car that’s easy to drive, good on gas, and won’t break the bank. You might not recognize the latest Corolla compared to the boring cars that came before it, but it’s nice to see those same intangible qualities still shine through all these years later.
|Peak Horsepower||169 hp @ 6,600 rpm|
|Peak Torque||151 lb-ft @ 4,500–4,900 rpm|
|Fuel Economy||7.6 / 5.8 / 6.7 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb|
|Cargo Space||381 L|
|Model Tested||2020 Toyota Corolla SE CVT|
|Price as Tested||$27,815|
$2,780 – Nightshade Edition Package, $2,780