Shades of Scion
THE GOOD
  • looks like fun
  • easy to get comfortable with
  • never a problem for parking
THE BAD
  • dopamine-depressing engine
  • whiny transmission
  • underwhelming quality of materials

These dark days, we all need some good news. Here are two pieces: 1) it’s harder than ever to find a bad car, so we consumers are well provided for; 2) the Toyota Corolla iM is not a bad car; it just competes in a field of exceptionally well built hatchbacks.

From the outside at least, the Corolla iM looks like it’s built both for a budget and for fun.

In case you think that’s alternative good news, here’s some proof. This publication recently compared seven 2017 hatchbacks, back-to-back, among which the Corolla placed seventh overall. You’ll see that comparison revisited throughout here, because the hatchback category is a ridiculously competitive one. There’s abundant good value for passengers and cheap thrills for drivers.

So remember both Good News #1 and #2, and think of the Corolla iM as Ringo: A member of the finest combo in history but not the driving genius of the bunch.*

That iM suffix is a legacy (or you could say scion) of Toyota’s recently retired value brand, Scion. So, from the outside at least, the Corolla iM looks like it’s built both for a budget and for fun.

Like Ringo, it has a look that invites strong opinion. Some hate it, though I liked it. An elongated suppository shape – a big nose – behind a pugnacious grill and fascia creates a picture of speedy motion with big ambitions. Like a 14-year-old in a retainer and karate whites.

The first impression of the Corolla iM’s inside (and several impressions thereafter) was harder for me to like. The plain plastic dash shouts budget, not fun. Keys for your ignition are almost a novelty these days – Hey, look! Remember these? – but do little to attenuate the cheap label.

In the aforesaid comparison, the Corolla iM also placed last for availability of amenities. Despite being the second-least expensive of the seven hatchbacks, an objective fact, it still managed last place for perceived value.

Like its competitors, the Corolla iM comes with features that were once luxuries which have since become fairly common, plus a few important safety features, for the money.

Safety features are often underrated in articles like this. But spend some time watching other drivers in modern traffic (from a safe vantage point) and their importance comes into focus.

A back-up camera is there to keep your parking and parking lot moments from ending in tears. Meanwhile, lane-departure alert and automatic high beams keep others’ commutes from the same. The Corolla provides more airbags than a journalism awards show. And there’s “whiplash injury lessening” engineering built into the front seats. That one may sound like an arbitrary feature to draw attention to but when we get to this car’s engine, below, it’ll make sense.

But first let’s finish with the included amenities. The 7.0-inch touch display is instantly understandable and easy to control. There’s a six-speaker sound system placed strategically throughout and the sound is pretty good. Included are a USB port and several connectivity classics from hands-free wireless audio streaming to steering-wheel Bluetooth controls.

Yes, there are heated front sport seats. But those slider dials for just three levels of seat-heating intensity seem unintuitive compared to, say, a plain button. The mere presence of dials suggests nuance beyond hot, hotter, hottest, but maybe that’s nitpicking. The seats were heated and it was cold outside.

The logic of the 7.0-inch screen is easy to suss and master, maybe because the design looks like it escaped from the Asteroids game in an ’80s pool hall. The soft backlit blue type on the dials is not easy to read quickly, but some studies suggest that the blue light from screens actually keeps you awake – not great for email at 2am but probably a good thing at 110 km/h in rush-hour traffic. Especially with that drivetrain, which we’ll get to soon.

The Corolla iM’s “quality of finish” deserved its last-place designation (with the caveat that it still squeaked an average 7 out of 10 rating when we drivers were encouraged to be strongly opinionated). Wind noise was not only apparent on the blustery days I drove, outer condensation wouldn’t wipe off when the (at least thankfully power) windows were sent down and up.

What about comfort and space? Access to the back isn’t easy and there’s not a lot of comfort there either. Some people love heated seats. They’ll need to sit up front. With the rear seats up, the Corolla iM offers a total 588 litres of cargo capacity. Put them down and that increases to 1,234. Not bad but, again, not as much as the competition.

Shall we take her out on the road?

Much would be forgiven if the tester I drove had a standard transmission – this is after all a hatchback, a budget-conscious fun-lover’s category (though we probably don’t have to tell you it’s front-wheel drive). If you’re in the market, consider ordering stick. You’ll save $835 and avoid boredom – but that still wouldn’t make it the least-expensive buy in the comparison.

The tuning is fairly tight and the soundproofing minimal, so the Corolla iM does bang around noisily on poorer roads of which my town boasts embarrassing abundance. If you have the cojones to untether the nanny controls with that engine – which we’ll talk about soon – and allow some sway, you’re in for more intensive exhilaration than you may have expected.

In our comparison, it placed last for its handling, steering and brake feel. But I found the steering genuine-feeling and responsive with more than enough feedback from the road. It lives up to the promise of the funky, chunky three-spoke steering wheel you can tilt and telescope (that is, move back and forth, not see far away through) to your comfort at the flick of a switch.

Okay, enter the engine!

The Corolla’s 1.8L four-banger, controlled by a whiny continuously variable transmission (CVT), may surprise you when you hope to pass or merge. But not in a good way. Fortunately the placement of the sightlines is pretty good. Furthermore, you can control the audio and divine trip information without moving your thumbs from the 9-and-3 o’clock home position.

Why tell you all this? You’ll need to keep your attention in the moment if you live in the GTA with its notoriously rude drivers (or any of the country’s other traffic-clogged cities with their only slightly less rude drivers).

In a category of turbocharged competitors, the Corolla iM’s little engine achieves a dopamine-depressing 137 hp @ 6,100 cycles and flaccid 126 lb-ft of torque @ 4,000.

Which, you could argue, is all relative. Think of your engine power as push and your car weight as pull. Less weight means more push. The Corolla iM weighs 1,335 kilos. Sure, that’s light but all six competitors we compared had more push, while the Honda Civic and Chevrolet Cruze had both more push and less pull.

Translation? Plot your entrance into traffic early and execute deftly. The sport mode button seems to do little more than turn off the Eco leaf light on the instrument panel. Accelerate hard and the CVT shouts with a voice like Bruce Springsteen and Emo Philips’s secret lovechild.

The fuel efficiency of that engine, provided you don’t tax it, is rated 8.8 L/100 km on city streets, 6.8 on highways and 7.9 combined. The Corolla iM placed last here too. But Ringo kept time well and millions the world over loved him for it.

*I never heard the actual interview but John Lennon, while in a playfully altered state, was allegedly once asked by an English reporter whether he considered Ringo the best drummer in the world. To which he was said to blurt, “Pfftzlt! He’s not even the best drummer in the Beatles.”

Competitors

Specifications

Engine Displacement 1.8L   Model Tested 2017 Toyota Corolla iM CVT
Engine Cylinders 4   Base Price $23,375
Peak Horsepower 137 hp @ 6,100 rpm   A/C Tax $100
Peak Torque 126 lb-ft @4,000 rpm   Destination Fee $1,590
Fuel Economy 8.8/6.8/7.9 L/100km cty/hwy/cmb   Price as Tested $25,065
Cargo Space 588/1,234 L rear seats down  
Optional Equipment
None