- What’s Good: Roomy cabin doesn’t disappoint, smooth gas saver, low ownership costs
- What’s Bad: Sleepy acceleration an understatement, buggy Entune, CVT hiccups
What comes in white or silver, has up to four doors and runs dependably for years?
It’s the refrigerator that kept your food fresh and cold forever, the one that eventually got relegated to the basement or the cottage to soldier on as a beer fridge.
Some critics draw comparisons between appliances and automobiles like it’s a bad thing. But for millions of consumers that crave a car that avoids service centres like the Plague, it doesn’t get better than owning the automotive equivalent of an old Maytag, Kelvinator, GE or whatever fridge gained legendary status in your home.
The Toyota Corolla is such an appliance. It may very well embody rolling mediocrity, as one detractor remarked online, but it didn’t become the world’s bestselling car in the history of civilization – 45 million of them since 1966 – by disappointing buyers.
The 11th-generation Corolla arrived in the fall of 2013 as a 2014 model, and for the first time anyone can remember, the compact sedan actually turned some heads thanks to crisp styling telegraphed by Toyota’s Furia design concept.
Its edgier profile was helped by the new Corolla’s standard LED low-beam headlights, an unexpected feature that lent the car a sleek, futuristic face that made its direct competitors like the Honda Civic and Hyundai Elantra look almost dowdy by comparison. The Corolla was attempting to break out of its econobox persona.
A 10-cm wheelbase stretch paid dividends in terms of an improved ride and significantly more rear-seat legroom, while better seals, insulation and glass provided more quiet refinement. The new instrument panel imparted a more contemporary look and feel inside, along with higher-quality cabin materials and a few new features, including keyless ignition.
At the same time, some proven components remained unaltered under the Corolla’s ambitious sheetmetal. The familiar 1.8-L four-cylinder engine carried on, rated at the same 132 hp, although there was a revised version available in the special, and more expensive, Eco model. Its tweaked 1.8 makes more horsepower (140 hp), but less torque (126 lb-ft instead of 128), thanks to a change to the variable-valve system that minimizes intake-valve lift at small throttle openings to improve efficiency.
“The engine is a typical Toyota engine, which means it hasn’t changed much over the years,” observed one buyer online. “While it might lack some of the power compared to its competitors, I’d be pretty confident with it lasting a long time,” he wrote, voicing the rationale for Toyota to stick with its tried-and-true hardware. Why mess with success?
That sentiment extended to the four-speed automatic transmission available in base models, which has been fixture in Corollas since the Pleistocene Era. Product planners added a second automatic choice in upscale models; the continuously variable transmission (CVT) is Toyota’s own design and features a “stepped” function in S models to simulate a conventional seven-speed automatic. Manual transmission users were rewarded with a new six-speed gearbox that’s smoother and more efficient.
The 2014 Corolla earned a five-star rating overall in U.S. government crash tests, with five stars in frontal and side crash tests, and four stars in rollover testing. While all models provide the usual standard safety features such as anti-lock brakes, most Corollas make do with rear drum brakes instead of discs – another surprising throwback.
The Corolla got a big refresh for the 2017 model year, ushering some styling tweaks and equipment upgrades. Subtle trim changes inside included a new gauge cluster with a small information screen (rendered in LCD colour in higher models) and better bolstered seats in the sportier trims.
Most significantly, all 2017 Corollas came standard with the Toyota Safety Sense-P driver-assistance package, which included automated emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane-departure alert with steering assist, radar cruise control and automatic high-beam headlamps. A better-shifting manual six-speed was the only mechanical upgrade, while the ancient four-speed automatic was finally, mercifully retired.
And that’s how the now long-in-the-tooth Corolla rolls into 2019. New-car buyers can expect redesigned 12th-generation models later this year – which are prefaced by the all-new 168-hp Corolla Hatchback already in stores.
DRIVING THE COROLLA
Spirited performance has never been the Corolla’s forte – the rear-drive AE86 being the notable exception – and it’s especially true in the current crop of Corolla sedans that no longer offer the Camry’s bigger 2.4-L four cylinder powering some older models.
Sadly the 1.8-L engine and the droning CVT automatic can do little better than taking 10.5 seconds to attain highway velocity – a lethargic figure that’s at least 2 seconds off the pace set by accomplished rivals such as the Mazda 3. Those who can row a manual gearbox can do markedly better, taking 8.5 seconds to reach 97 km/h.
The front-drive Corolla’s aging platform reveals itself when its front tires howl in protest at any sign of enthusiastic driving. SE models stay considerably better planted thanks to lower-profile tires and 17-inch alloy wheels, though the stiff rubber yields a little rougher ride. Slow steering response off-centre, coupled with virtually no feel from the electrically assisted system, effectively stifle any racer aspirations.
At least the Corolla is thrifty – another reason for its enduring popularity, especially with long-distance commuters. CVT-equipped models can exceed 40 mpg (7.0 litres/100 km) in mixed driving, according to delighted owners.
OWNERS TALK RELIABILITY
As dull as it is to drive, the Corolla is a perennial hit with buyers who cite the most recent generation’s cavernous back seat, quiet and refined ride, low operating costs and good bang for the dollar. But make no mistake: the biggest appeal is the nameplate’s stainless reputation for reliability earned over the half-century it’s been offered for sale.
“We had a 2006 Corolla for nine years and it had over 270,000 kilometres on it with no problems at all, except for a water pump. We sold it to our son and it is still running great,” reads a not-uncommon testimony from a serial Corolla buyer. There’s a 1991 model on display at a Georgia Toyota dealership with more than 1.5 million kilometres racked up by a U.S. postal worker.
Still, every generation of any model can introduce mechanical glitches along with the new features and hardware, and the Ontario-built Corolla is no exception.
The most common complaint involves the optional Entune infotainment touchscreen, which can freeze and become unresponsive. Dealers have a number of software updates, but some units (supplied by Fujitsu Ten) have required replacement at high cost post-warranty. You may want to avoid Entune in 2014-15 models as the system was upgraded in 2016.
Belt-driven CVTs haven’t always won favour with motorists – we’ve written about Nissan’s Jatco-supplied transmissions – and Toyota has taken pains to address durability in its own design by reducing hydraulic pressure and specifying lower viscosity CVT fluid and a fluid warmer, among other measures. Still, Corolla owners have reported a few outright transmission failures, as well as some performance issues.
“Car slows down while driving on the highway. I pull over to the side median and tow the car to the Toyota dealer. They explained the transmission locked; it will need a new one for $6,000 or rebuilt for $3000,” reported one hapless owner.
Toyota has announced special service campaign JSD involving 1.3 million cars with the CVT transmission. Improper programming of the ECU could lead to unnecessary cycling and abnormal wear. The Malfunction Indicator Lamp may illuminate and the vehicle speed will be reduced due to activation of a pre-determined gear ratio. Dealers will inspect the CVT solenoid valve and valve body assembly, and repair if required.
Motorists have also expressed concern over the adaptive cruise control on 2017 and newer Corollas that can reportedly cause the car to downshift unnecessarily on a downhill grade and sometimes increase the speed arbitrarily. Other maladies include non-functioning or poor-performing air conditioners, power-assisted steering that may momentarily cut out, and some interior rattles.
Despite the list of reported mechanical weaknesses, the vast majority of Corollas motor on without a hiccup year after year, making it just about the surest automotive buy a used-vehicle shopper can make.