If this humdrum characterization seems ordinary for the category, you haven't examined small cars lately, much less the recent auto show introductions that will come to market in the next year or two. The Corolla boasts the popularity typical of a model sold for more than 30 years — but not the quality. Is this just more reactive Toyota bashing in the wake of the company's many recalls? Another case of piling on? It is not. Dig back in the Cars.com annals and you'll see we called out the Corolla, upon its 2009 redesign, as a missed opportunity for Toyota to maintain leadership in the small-car class.
The Corolla competes in a crowded field with the Honda Civic, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra and Chevrolet Cobalt, to name a few. Its trim levels include base, S, LE, XLE and XRS. We tested a Corolla LE.
Ride & Handling
The Corolla's ride quality drew mixed reviews from our editors. One called it floaty, and I'm not sure that's universally negative. If floaty means it floats over bumps rather than transmitting every detail directly to your spine, chances are some people will appreciate it. I found the ride reasonable for the class, though there's some shudder in the structure that I didn't notice in a Civic and Nissan Sentra I drove back-to-back, and the body jiggles about on a shorter-than-average wheelbase.
The Corolla lacks the sporty feel of the Civic and Mazda3. It's easier to steer when parking than some competitors, but at highway speeds the steering wheel has a dead range of a few degrees from the center position that allows the car to wander too much, requiring frequent corrections, which can be fatiguing over time.
The Corolla has a 132-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine as standard equipment in all trim levels but the XRS, which gets a 158-hp, 2.4-liter four-cylinder and a five-speed automatic transmission. The base and S trims come with five-speed manuals and offer an optional four-speed automatic, which is standard on the LE and XLE.
The base engine's horsepower is in the same ballpark as its competitors, and four-speed automatics remain the norm in this class, though the Civic has a five-speed and the Sentra employs a continuously variable automatic transmission. In normal driving, the power is adequate and you don't think much about the gearbox having "only" four speeds. It doesn't upshift as smoothly as it might with an additional gear because the ratios are pretty far apart from one gear to the next. For the same reason, when you jab the accelerator to pass, kickdown brings a dramatic burst of engine noise as it revs into the high rpm range. At some speeds, though, the transmission doesn't kick down, and you wait for the revs to build. An additional gear would mitigate this all-or-nothing response, as it does in the Civic.
A full load of passengers and/or cargo puts the drivetrain to the test, so if you're someone who throws around the word "underpowered" or frequently tackles hilly terrain, you'll want to go for the XRS or a competing model with more horses under the hood.
In the Cabin
At 6 feet tall, I wanted more legroom when behind the wheel. As in many cars, the driver's seat moves backward a bit as you jack it down, which required me to sit lower than I prefer. I was able to drive the car safely for many days. Still, I never shook the feeling that I was too far forward, though the steering wheel both tilts and telescopes, which isn't a given across this car class. Also, the footwell is cramped — narrow and with a high "dead pedal" foot rest on the left, which further prevented badly needed leg extension. Once again, small cars as a class aren't as cramped as they once were, and I see no reason any driver's seat shouldn't have enough rearward travel to accommodate any driver (except maybe in two-seaters).
You'd think this would make for more backseat legroom, but that's not what I experienced. With the driver's seat fully back, I found my knees pressing into its backrest. On the upside, it's soft and not uncomfortable, but I wouldn't want to sit that way for long. With the driver's seat inched up a bit, of course, there's more clearance. For the record, if you compare the legroom dimensions with those of a few major competitors, the Corolla looks roomier. That simply wasn't how it felt, which illustrates that the specs don't tell the whole story. The backseat is reasonably wide, but there's no center armrest, which is offered in some compact sedans.
The Corolla's interior quality is disappointing. There isn't a lot of the silvery plastic I always find objectionable, but our car had hard surfaces everywhere. A soft-touch dashboard isn't necessary, but it's nice when touch-points like the armrests and window sills are soft; they aren't here. Such things are becoming ordinary in compact cars. The same is true of woven headliners — that's the ceiling fabric — though the Corolla still has the plainer "mouse fur."
Likewise, cloth upholstery is improving across the market, but the Corolla's is a bit of a throwback. Ours proved particularly adept at collecting lint, as if Toyota had wrapped its seats with lint-brush material. I suppose this would be a good thing if you were to drive to a formal affair in a tuxedo or gown, but eventually the opposite could result as lint builds up and starts to slough off on you. Leather is optional starting with the S trim level.
Affordable cars have begun to include things like damped glove box doors. The Corolla's flops open and bounces, giving a cheap impression. The ventilation controls, though simple to understand and use, have a cheap feel as well. Finally, the build construction could be better. I don't usually focus on gaps between parts and panels, but it's hard to ignore when they're inconsistent, as they were on either side of our steering wheel's horn pad. This is the kind of thing Toyota used to do well — arguably better than anyone else in its price range. The competition has improved. The Corolla appears to have slipped.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has named the Corolla a Top Safety Pick because of its top ratings in frontal-, side- and rear-impact crash tests and a new roof-strength test that reflects rollover protection. As of this writing, it's one of eight Top Safety Picks in a class of almost 30 models, seven more of which are poised to become Top Picks if their pending roof-strength tests also result in a Good rating. The compact car class as a whole performs surprisingly well in crash tests.
The Corolla has six standard airbags, including frontal, side-impact (in the front-seat backrests) and curtain airbags. It has front disc and rear drum brakes in all versions except the XRS, which adds rear discs. Rear drums are common in this class, though the industry is moving toward four-wheel discs. Though drum brakes are more prone to lockup, the Corolla has standard antilock brakes and an electronic stability system with traction control. All the standard safety features are listed here.
Corolla in the Market
The Corolla is sure to stay near the top of the sales charts, but that's more about what the car has been historically than what it is now. The 2009 redesign was the time for Toyota to pour it on, to leapfrog competing models with quality and refinement. Two of the 2010's shortcomings — interior space and quality — can't be changed dramatically from year to year; it requires a full redesign, for which the Corolla will wait at least three additional model years. In the meantime, many current competitors are already as good or better, and a new Civic is expected in 2011. The 2011 Chevrolet Cruze and 2012 Ford Focus are clearly playing to win, and Hyundai, which never misses an opportunity these days, is redoing the Elantra for 2012. The era when only Toyota and Honda cared about small-car quality is over. When companies like Kia that used to sell solely on standard features and low prices now add interior quality and improved reliability, there's no reason not to consider the whole field before deciding on a Corolla.
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