Manual makes this Corolla a fun ride

BY Haney Louka. Jul 07 04:00 am

It’s not often we see a press vehicle with three pedals and a six-speed stick. Now that automatic transmissions generally have eclipsed manuals in terms of the performance and efficiency of the vehicles they’re bolted to, reasons for choosing one are limited to nostalgia and cost savings.

Okay, that’s a bit harsh. I, for one, drive a car with a manual gearbox because of the control and involvement that results from rowing your own gears. To me, it’s just better. I’m driving the car, not the other way around.

So when I peeked through the window of this Corolla and saw the gearshift, I must admit that the appeal of this SE trim went from zero to... well, not zero.

The Corolla’s credentials speak for itself: it’s constantly doing battle against Civic and Elantra as one of the top three small cars for sale in Canada. But staying in this company means that Toyota can’t just set the cruise and relax: it’s all about having a competitive edge. And Toyota is pushing safety big-time in 2017: standard equipment on all Corollas, right from the $16,390 CE trim, includes automatic high beams, dynamic radar cruise control, pre-collision system with pedestrian detection and lane departure alert with steering assist.

The pre-collision system works like this. A combination camera and radar system mounted near the top of the windshield keeps an eye out for vehicles or pedestrians in the Corolla’s path. If such an obstacle exists, visual and audible warnings alert the driver when the probability of collision is high. If that’s not enough to get the driver’s right foot planted on the brake pedal, additional braking force is automatically applied to avoid, or at least minimize, the collision. Even if the driver freezes and doesn’t apply the brakes at all, the system is capable of applying full braking pressure on its own.

Now, I’m not the biggest supporter of autonomous driving technology, but when it’s used to get people out of a pinch like this, I’m all for it.

Other Corolla changes for 2017 are limited to minor cosmetic tweaks and feature upgrades. Our mid-level SE model, which replaces the S from last year, starts at $20,505. It includes partial LED lighting, automatic climate control, a 6.1-inch display screen, sport seats with two-tone upholstery and contrasting stitching, piano black trim, 16-inch steel wheels and a rear lip spoiler.

The optional upgrade package includes rear disc brakes, a power moonroof, heated steering wheel, and 17-inch alloys for an extra $1,500, representing good value for these extras.

The row-it-yourself gearbox is connected to the same 1.8-litre four-banger that propels all Corolla models. Generating 132 horsepower and 128 lb-ft of torque, it’s a quiet, refined piece that generates impressive fuel consumption numbers. Rated at 8.4 L/100 km in the city and 6.5 on the highway, I had no trouble duplicating these figures during my week of mixed driving.

Getting the six-speed stick means avoiding the continuously variable automatic; I highly recommend it. In this application, there’s no fuel consumption penalty when going with the stick. And controlling which gear you’re in is vastly preferable to the monotony of the CVT in action.

Unfortunately, the manual gearbox couldn’t hide the lack of urgency that results when low fuel consumption is the target. Getting any sort of push from the peaky engine requires a bit of patience as the revs climb toward its 6,000-rpm power peak. The Hyundai Elantra has 147 hp while the Honda Civic gets 158 horses. Plus, the Civic can be fitted with a 1.5-litre turbo that bumps that number to 174. So my seat-of-the-pants impression that the Corolla lacks gusto is confirmed by a glance at the specs, and at those of its competitors.

My other drivability issue with the Corolla is high-speed stability on the open road. There’s not a real great sense of straight ahead, requiring many course corrections along the way. And cross winds blow the car around more than they should, exacerbating the issue.

The bottom line is that the six-speed manual adds an element of fun and driver involvement to the Corolla that you can’t get with the CVT. But if you’re looking for a car that’s intrinsically driver-oriented, this isn’t it. Instead, buyers can expect efficient, fuss-free motoring with an attractive wrapper at a competitive price.

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