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In its heyday, the Toyota Corolla was one of the strongest contenders in the compact segment.
Only the Honda Civic had higher sales and rivalled it for its vaulted reputation for longevity and reliability -- I owned two for these very reasons.
However, the sands are shifting rapidly. Yes, the Toyota Corolla is still a very strong contender, but in today's fast-paced market, it is as long in the tooth as a sabre-toothed tiger. It's not so much that it has aged less than gracefully; rather it is that the competition has moved so quickly that the top-selling nameplate on the planet has been leapfrogged.
I drove two different models -- a Corolla CE ($18,990 as tested) and the smarter S model ($20,605). The Corolla CE looks like the ugly duckling that only a mother could love, but the S has a bolder stance and more street presence, thanks to its body kit, deck-lid spoiler and fog lights. How some tinsel made such a big difference mystified me, but it worked. The interior also underscores the age issue. The CE's plastics looked tired, the radio belonged in a bygone era (it looked as though it should have a cassette player) and the seat fabric was as about as hip as bell-bottom jeans and a tie-dye shirt. Sure, it's all functional, but it leaves an unappealing first impression, especially with the release of several new competitors in recent months -- the Honda Civic and Kia Forte to name two of the smartest lookers on the block.
The Corolla also lags in terms of what today's consumer has come to expect content-wise. It took an extensive package ($2,540) on the CE to add things like air conditioning, power locks and windows, heated seats and Bluetooth, some of the features many have come to expect as standard equipment in a compact car. The S arrived with everything except the heated seats for some reason.
Where the Corolla still works is in its ability to accommodate five realistically. Yes, the three riders in the rear seat do rub shoulders, but it's not uncomfortable, and the floor is almost flat, so it accommodates the middle rider's feet. Similarly, the trunk, at 12.3 cubic feet, is generous and more than capable of holding a family of four's luggage on a week-long vacation.
No complaints with the Corolla's 1.8-litre inline four-cylinder engine, either. It puts 132 horsepower and 128 pound-feet of torque at the driver's disposal. Not class-leading numbers, but enough to whisk the Corolla to 100 kilometres an hour in a tick over 10 seconds, which is athletic enough to handle the morning commute. The engine is also very civilized -- quiet at idle and far from noisy when the gas pedal is buried.
The Corolla CE's biggest hitch had to do with its optional automatic transmission ($1,000). In an era where five- or six-speed automatic transmissions have become the norm, the Corolla CE soldiers on with four speeds and no true manual mode. Yes, it does slip through its gears seamlessly and smoothly, but it needs the extra ratios to lengthen the engine's legs -- more acceleration gears and two overdrives would make the Corolla CE feel much more sophisticated and alive. Again, the S, with its five-speed manual, felt peppier and was much more fun to drive. The clutch bites in the right place and the shift pattern allows the driver to run up through the gears with the alacrity required to keep the engine at a roaring boil.
Both Corollas managed to return enviable fuel economy in spite of the CE being hog-tied by its lack of gears. A test average of 7.4 litres per 100 kilometres surprised me -- it bettered the Ford C-Max hybrid our David Booth tested recently. The S was marginally better posting an average economy of 7.2 L/100 km.
When it came to the ride and handling, the Corolla CE is all about the ride side. It delivered a comfortable ride, but a rather rollie-pollie drive through anything that resembled a corner or an on-ramp. Likewise, the steering proved to be overly assisted, which tended to numb the on-centre feel and blunt the feedback to the driver. The S model is altogether sharper -- the larger P205/55R16 tires reduced understeer noticeably.
So there you have it, a car that, on the surface, is past its best-by date -- or is it? In spite of my criticisms (the Corolla CE in particular) it remained the second best-selling compact car in Canada in 2012. It has also, since its introduction in 1966, beaten every other car and/or truck nameplate in overall sales. At 37.5 million units and counting, the Corolla has amassed the equivalent of 25 years worth of Canadian new car sales. Now, that is an impressive feat by any measure.
-- Postmedia News
Type of vehicle: Front-wheel-drive compact sedan
Engine: 1.8L, DOHC, in-line four
Power: 132 hpFront disc/rear drum with ABS
Base price/as tested: $15,450/$18,990
Destination charge: $1,465
Fuel economy L/100 km: 7.8 city, 5.7 highway.
Standard features: Power, heated door mirrors, cloth seating, tilt/telescopic steering, AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio with auxiliary input jack and four speakers, electric defroster with timer, 12-volt outlet, digital clock, floor mats, engine immobilizer, and more
Options: Enhanced Convenience package ($2,540, including Bluetooth, six speakers, USB input, air conditioning, keyless entry, power door locks, colour-keyed door handles, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, cruise control, heated front seats, power windows), automatic transmission ($1,000)