The 2012 Toyota Corolla is a benchmark among compact cars for value, quality and dependability. A four-door, compact sedan with front-wheel drive, the Corolla is inexpensive to buy and operate, yet it feels like a small version of the Toyota Camry.
The current generation Corolla dates from 2009. Styling was freshened for 2011. Changes for 2012 are minimal: The 2012 Corolla comes standard with power windows, locks, and remote keyless entry. Outside mirrors are color-keyed on all 2012 Corolla models. The 2012 Corolla LE and 2012 Corolla S get upgraded audio systems. The Corolla continues to come with a comprehensive list of standard safety equipment.
All 2012 Corolla models use the same engine, a 1.8-liter four-cylinder with electronic dual variable valve timing and direct fuel injection. Output is rated at 132 and horsepower and 128 pound-feet of torque.
Fuel economy is EPA-rated at 27/34 miles per gallon the with the standard 5-speed manual transmission, 26/34 mpg with the optional 4-speed automatic.
We found the Corolla comfortable and easy to drive. The Corolla looks like a little Camry. Walking around the Corolla, we found the fit and finish high quality. Inside is a pleasing cabin with straightforward controls and minimal distractions. The seats are comfortable and getting in and out is easy. Performance and handling are average for the class. The suspension feels soft though the ride can get choppy on rough surfaces. It's quiet inside when underway.
Toyota Corolla ($16,130); LE ($17,910); S ($17,990)
The 2012 Corolla is immediately recognizable as a Toyota, although at first you might confuse it with a Camry because size is the main distinguishing feature between the two. The Corolla is slightly longer than the Honda Civic, while the Nissan Sentra is noticeably taller and bigger. With its solid roofline, four doors, and short overhangs, it looks like a bigger car.
The Corolla got a restyled nose for 2011, and it's a clean design. Three bars in the grille, but only the center one is defined because they are body colored. Iconic Toyota emblem in the middle of the grille. Smooth front fascia that surrounds optional foglights, and a tidy functional air intake with black mesh under the bumper. It all sweeps nicely back and upward.
The bumper underlines odd headlamps, with a sweeping outline but they're bulbous, and stick out at the corners. They're bulbous in a three-dimensional sense, but sleek in their shape.
The rear end is not so clean, starting with a thick piece of chrome that stretches between the taillamps. The wing is low and thick, with winglets at its edges; it definitely adds a sporty touch and it's not overkill. The taillamps are simple horizontal slats that wrap around from the trunk to the sides of the car, and poof out from the body like the headlamps. With less chrome, less wing, less white in the taillamps, the tail would look as clean as the nose.
Exterior fit and finish are at a high level for such an inexpensive car. Body-colored door handles and mirrors, as well as the spoiler and side sills on the S, add a touch of class. The wheels look ordinary, though, even the 16-inch alloys on the Corolla S.
The 2012 Corolla has a pleasing interior. Design is simple, while materials and patterns are traditional and understated. The trim materials look inexpensive, but not cheap; clearly your basic stuff. You can't say the Corolla interior feels any finer than some other cars of the same price.
The front seats are comfortable, with nice elbow rests on both sides, and getting in and out of the seats is easy. The rear seat offers 36.3 inches of legroom, which isn't much, but it's about average for the class. The rear floor is flat except for a small incline at the back of the console between the front seats. The 60/40 split folding rear seats has its smaller side behind the driver, so you can carry long objects and still put two riders behind the passenger. A high-capacity heater with ducts for the rear (standard since 2011) keeps rear-side riders as cozy as their front-seat companions.
The instruments are simple and handsome, basic white on black; we appreciate the lack of pretension or flash. The sport steering wheel in the Corolla S is perforated leather and, like the LE, features redundant cruise and audio controls. The sport seats in the Corolla S are comfortable black cloth, though not especially sporty.
Outward visibility from the driver's seat is quite good, even over the shoulder. A low dashboard and windshield base enhances forward visibility.
The 2012 Corolla LE and Corolla S both benefit from a new standard audio system, combining an AM/FM receiver with a CD player capable of MP3/WMA playback. A USB port enables iPod connectivity, while an auxiliary input jack accommodates other music players. The system also features Bluetooth hands-free phone capability and audio streaming. Auto-sound leveling adjusts volume in response to ambient noise.
Corolla LE and Corolla S buyers can further upgrade to Navigation and Entune, which employs a 6.1-inch touch screen to operate an AM/FM CD player with MP3/WMA playback capability, 6 speakers, SiriusXM Satellite Radio (includes 90-day trial subscription), and HD Radio with iTunes Tagging; plus an auxiliary audio jack, USB port with iPod connectivity and control, vehicle information, hands-free phone capability, phone book access, advanced voice recognition, and music streaming via Bluetooth.
Storage spaces are well thought-out, down to details like a cord slot so your personal electronics connection doesn't get pinched. A remote release opens the trunk lid, which offers a wide loading space. Trunk room of 12.3 cubic feet is about average and isn't hindered by black boxes and big speakers hanging down under the back window. A temporary-use spare is under the floor.
The 1.8-liter four-cylinder DOHC engine that comes standard on the Corolla generates 132 horsepower and 128 pound-feet of torque. It's EPA-rated at 27/34 mpg city/highway with the manual transmission and 26/34 mpg with the automatic. That closely matches the mileage we got. The engine uses direct fuel injection, and Dual Variable Valve Timing with Intelligence (VVT-i) to optimize valve timing for the best blend of power, economy and emissions. It uses a timing chain rather than a belt, which usually saves on service costs.
Horsepower is about average for the class. Acceleration performance is adequate but not overly peppy with the 4-speed automatic transmission. The new Ford Focus comes with a 6-speed automatic and we've found it to be smoother and better able to keep the engine in the heart of the power band than the 4-speed automatic in the Toyota can.
The Corolla can't come close to the Chevy Cruze for tracking true around fast bends, and doesn't match the Mazda3 for crisp response. Our Corolla S had a floaty feel, with handling that was less precise than one might expect from Corolla S heritage. And when the wind gusted, the car wanted to dance, even with its low 0.29 Cd.
The Corolla has electric power steering, which matches effort to speed. In low-speed driving, where you expect the wheel to return to straight ahead on its own as it unwinds out of the turn, you will be doing more of the work.
The ride was not harsh or uncomfortable, but our Corolla didn't really like sharp bumps. On a patchy freeway around Oakland, California, the ride was choppy at times.
The cabin is very quiet, except for tire noise on harsh pavement. It is a solid structure that exhibits no squeaks or complaints, not even over a nasty railroad crossing. This might be attributed to its stiff body shell, which also offers good crash resistance.
The Toyota Corolla is a practical sedan with a solid reputation, and gets excellent fuel mileage. Toyota has added more standard equipment in recent years. But the Corolla's ride, handling and automatic transmission are not without weaknesses. In the third year of this generation, competition has zoomed past, notably the new Chevy Cruze, Ford Focus and Volkswagen Jetta.
G.R. Whale filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com from Los Angeles; Sam Moses contributed to this report after his test drive of a Corolla S in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge. John F. Katz contributed to this report.