The venerable Corolla compact car is Toyota’s No. 1 model as well as the world’s best-selling car of all time, with cumulative sales from 1966 through 2010 surpassing 37 million units. And despite a safety recall for throttle-pedal modifications and replacement floor mats designed to prevent unintended acceleration for all 2010 Corolla’s, it was the top-selling small car, as well as, the fifth best-selling vehicle in the U.S. in 2010. What is it that makes this little sedanlette so popular? The Corolla is a highly refined economy car that offers textbook Toyota reliability, a comfortable and well-conceived cabin, and fuel-efficiency that rivals many hybrids and subcompacts. It’s the consummate commuter car and is ideal for small families willing to ride in an efficient alternative to minivans, crossovers and larger midsize offerings. Corolla underwent a complete makeover in 2009 that increased its size, added sophistication to the engine and brought a fresh look inside and out. For 2011, Toyota modestly restyled the exterior and improved aerodynamics. The 2010 XLE and XRS models have been discontinued, and several high-end options are no longer offered.
Corolla follows the design theme of its bigger brother, the Camry: Offend no one, please nearly everyone. In fact, from a distance with no size reference handy, it’s easy to think it’s a Camry. That’s not to say its an ugly car, it isn’t, but you won’t find a Corolla poster tacked to a teenage boy’s bedroom wall. While not dramatic, the styling tweaks for 2011 give the Corolla a fragrance of modernity. Up front, a new horizontally split grille, sleeker headlamps and broader air dam, combined with A-pillars that have been stretched backwards, approaches the looks of, dare we say... Lexus. In back, a new rear decklid, bumper and a chrome strip that joins the taillights add a distinctive appearance missing from last year’s edition. Those wanting a sportier look should check out the Corolla S. It adds fog lights, ground affects, a rear spoiler and 16-inch chrome wheels. Unlike most competitors with both sedan and hatchback models, the Corolla is only available in a four-door sedan body style. However, the Toyota Matrix is a smartly styled four-door hatchback version of the Corolla. An updated 2011 Matrix arrives in late spring and offers a couple features not found on the Corolla, all-wheel drive and a more powerful engine.
As with the exterior styling, the Corolla’s interior mimics the Camry, which means it is clean and functional. Material quality and fit and finish, while no longer class leading, are in line with it prices. Hard plastic surfaces have a nice pebble grain complemented by a center stack featuring low-gloss black plastic with silver trim across the top and down the sides. Instrument gauges are large and easy to read with distinct numbers and needles. Audio and climate controls are as logical as they come, are easy to reach and operate with a smooth mechanical feel. Column stalks for the windshield wiper and turn signals can be easily activated without moving a hand from the steering wheel. A tilt and telescoping steering column combines with a height-adjustable driver’s seat for set-and-forget positioning. Outward visibility for the driver is quite good, and narrow door pillars are revered during lane-change over-the shoulder glances. Side-by-side, and front-to-rear, passengers sit far apart with generous hip, shoulder and legroom for a car this size. Typical of Toyota, the Corolla’s seats are comfy soft, but a firm rear seat cushion would make long trips more comfortable. Those who tote wee ones around will find front or rear facing child seats easy to install, and the trunk’s 12.3 cubic feet is more than adequate to stash a stroller along with the accompanying necessities. Standard safety features include six airbags: dual front, front side-impact, and side curtain airbags. Anti-lock brakes are standard as is electronic stability control.
Dropping last year’s XRS model powered by a 2.4-liter engine leaves the 2011 model year Corolla with only one powerplant: a 1.8-liter four cylinder with horsepower output of 132 and a decent 128 pounds-feet of torque. Acceleration is adequate with a 0-60 spurt taking a little less than nine seconds, about average for this class of car. Performance is very good around town, but head out on the highway and the engine struggles with full-throttle on ramp runs and hills. Once merged into traffic, it is a capable and fairly quiet cruiser. There are two transmissions available. A five-speed manual is standard on the base and S trims levels, and a four-speed automatic is standard on the LE, optional on the base and S. Both setups yield impressive fuel economy, 28/35 mpg city/highway for the manual and 26/34 for the automatic. And that’s without hybrid batteries, motors and computer systems. To pack the most fun into your daily driver, choose the manual. It has low efforts, is simple to use and as a bonus, will save a bundle on cash on purchase. While several competitive cars now have five, and even six-speed automatic transmissions, the Corolla is saddled with a four speed. (More gear ratios allow more efficient extraction of engine power and better fuel economy.) It inhibits acceleration—add another second to 0-60 scoots—and it continuously hunts for gears during uphill climbs. As in the past, the Corolla offers a soft, compliant ride. Its emphasis is on road comfort, which is why it is a great daily driver or commuter car. It is also ideal for longer highway journeys, but don’t expect the Corolla to handle like a champ or zip you in and out of traffic the way a Mazda 3 or a Mitsubishi Lancer would. The Toyota Corolla might disappoint some younger drivers looking for a more responsive experience on the road. But performance isn’t what Corolla owners care about. They appreciate the hushed engine, wind and road noise, and the soft ride.
The base Corolla starts at $15,600. The step-up LE is priced at $17,300 and the S has a sticker price of $17,470. The base model means just that, it’s a base model, and for the $15,600 price you have to lock the doors, adjust the outside mirrors and crank the windows up or down manually. There are no options so, the additional $1,700 for the LE, which has all of most wanted convenience features standard, is the best buy. The compact car segment has become extremely combative, and the Corolla faces stiff competition like Hyundai’s sleekly styled Elantra that delivers better fuel economy with a starting price of just $14,830. Chevy’s Cruze is attracting buyers with its roominess, refinement and efficiency and is competitively priced starting at $16,275. Ford’s 2012 Ford Focus has just arrived with stunning European styling and a host of high tech gizmos that starts at $16,270. And then there’s Corolla’s archrival, the Honda Civic that trailed the Corolla in sales last year by less than 7,000 units. An all-new Civic arrives later this year, while the next Corolla full redesign isn’t due until model-year 2014. That advantage might be enough for the Honda to take the top spot in small car sales. In the world of conventional motoring, the Toyota Corolla remains among the most practical, logical choices. While it’s true that neither the price, performance, fuel economy or interior are enough on their own to make someone instantly realize that the Corolla is their dream car, you would be hard-pressed to find a commuter car that offers so much upside with so few drawbacks.
Beyond the strategic updates Toyota deemed necessary for its midcycle freshening, this 10th-generation Corolla won’t change much until a replacement arrives during 2013 as a model-year 2014 car. The automaker, of course, could decide this staid little sedan needs a shot of adrenaline and reinstate a sporty XRS model. If it does, expect it to get the 2.5-liter four-cylinder that’s Camry’s base engine. It would pack around 170 horsepower, but a “performance” Corolla still wouldn’t tempt many MazdaSpeed 3 or Honda Civic Si sedan buyers.
Toyota could decide the added mileage benefits of a five-speed automatic might be worth considering for near-future Corollas. It won’t, however, offer a hybrid Corolla during this design generation. Toyota relies on Prius and the Camry Hybrid to fly its green-car flag. If you want a station-wagon version of the Corolla, though, walk across the showroom to the 2011 Toyota Matrix. It’s a Corolla underneath its high-roof, four-door wagon body, and it’s available with all-wheel drive.
If history is a guide, even the 11th-generation Corolla, due as a 2014 model, won’t represent a wholesale revision of this car’s conservative philosophy. That could change if Toyota feels pressured by redesigned versions of key rivals, namely the 2012 Ford Focus, 2012 Honda Civic, and 2011 Hyundai Elantra. Still, Toyota relies on the small cars from its youth-oriented Scion brand to stretch the design envelope. And it seems poised to expand the Prius line to broaden its hybrid coverage. That leaves the Corolla to hold the center with proven powertrains and sober styling – a task at which it is quite adept.
2012 Honda Civic: Corolla’s arch rival for compact-class sales leadership is redesigned for model-year 2012 and went on sale in April 2011. The 2012 Civic is actually slightly smaller on the outside than the 2006-2011 generation it replaces. But the sedan version is roomier inside and, along with the returning two-door coupe, gets better fuel economy. Civic’s new styling is familiar and evolutionary; it’s still contemporary though not nearly as wild as that of the 2012 Ford Focus or the redesigned 2011 Hyundai Elantra. The balance of comfort, spaciousness, and refined road manners are among the very best in class, however. A 1.8-liter four-cylinder with 140 horsepower and 138 pound-feet of torque is again the base engine. It rates 28/36 mpg with the five-speed manual transmission and 28/39 with the five-speed automatic. A high-fuel-economy edition rates 29/41 with the automatic. The sporty Si model returns in sedan and coupe form and has a four-cylinder of 201 horsepower and 170 pound-feet. A gas-electric Hybrid sedan also is back and rates an impressive 44/44 mpg. Base price range for mainstream sedans is $16,555-$24,205. Si models start at $22,995. The Hybrid is priced from $24,800. 2011 Hyundai Elantra: All new and ready to take on the world, the 2011 Elantra sedan burst onto the compact scene with gorgeous new sheet metal and fuel-economy ratings of 29/40 mpg. Those ratings hold for every model in the lineup, and with both the six-speed manual transmission and six-speed automatic. Longer but lower and lighter than the yawn-inducing 2006-2010 sedan, the redesigned Elantra has a new 148-horsepower four-cylinder and a long list of standard features, including a match for Toyota’s Start Safety System. A navigation system, leather upholstery, USB iPod interface, and Bluetooth also are on tap. This sedan is built at the South Korean automaker’s plant in Alabama and is nicely outfitted with high-grade cabin materials. Hyundai’s generous warranty coverage adds to the value proposition. Base price is $15,550 with manual transmission and range from $17,800-$22,700 with the automatic transmission. 2011 Chevrolet Cruze: The 2012 Ford Focus should be high on any compact-car shopping list, but frankly, its aggressive Euro-flavored styling and Gen-Y interior design are likely to alienate the typical Corolla shopper. Enter the handsome but conservatively designed Chevy Cruze, introduced for model-year 2011 to replace the unlamented Cobalt. Cruze is a four-door sedan that’s a sliver larger inside than the Corolla and every bit as solid and just as quiet. It also rides and handles with a degree of tautness the Toyota lacks. Powertrain refinement isn’t a high point, and neither is output, with a choice of a base four-cylinder of 138 horsepower and 125 pound-feet of torque or a turbo four with 138 and 148, respectively. Transmissions are up to date, however, with manual and automatics of six speeds. Base-engine fuel economy is 26/36 mpg with manual, 22/35 with automatic. The turbo rates 24/36 mpg with automatic and, in special high-mileage Eco trim, 28/42 with manual and 26/37 with automatic. Base prices start at $16,995 with the base engine and range from $18,895-$22,695 with the turbo.