The best of the lineup, in our opinion, is the top-of-the-line Corolla LE, a luxurious compact when equipped with the optional leather interior and JBL audio system. However, the base Corolla CE offers an excellent value and comes standard with air conditioning, while the mid-level Corolla S is well-equipped with popular features.
The sporty Corolla XRS features a specially tuned suspension and a more powerful, 164-horsepower 1.8-liter engine that propels the car from 0 to 60 mph in less than 8 seconds. These upgrades add sports appeal, though we wouldn't classify the XRS as the kind of sport compact that fuels enthusiast magazines.
The seats are comfortable and supportive, whether ordered with cloth or leather. Big heating and air conditioning controls are simple, radio controls are straightforward, the cup holders work well, and cubbies are available for stashing stuff out of the way, making for a tidy, convenient cabin. Getting in and out is easy and the back seat in this four-door sedan is surprisingly roomy and comfortable.
The standard four-cylinder engine revs smoothly and delivers good acceleration performance. Corolla earns an EPA-estimated 32/40 mpg City/Highway when equipped with a manual transmission. Both the manual and the automatic transmissions offer smooth shifting, and the manual is very easy to operate. All models have a smooth, comfortable ride and responsive handling.
Safety is enhanced by ordering optional curtain-style airbags and side-impact airbags designed to provide additional head and torso protection in a side-impact. Optional anti-lock brakes help the driver maintain steering control after slamming on the brakes. Crash testing indicates the Corolla is one of the safest cars in its class.
Corolla CE ($14,005); S ($15,050); LE ($15,215); XRS ($17,780)
Corolla comes standard with 15-inch steel wheels, but looks like it could do with larger wheels and tires that would fill out the wheel wells more effectively. Aluminum 15-inch wheels ($390) are an option for LE models.
At the rear, the Corolla has a high trunk line in keeping with the car's high belt line. The taillights match the shape of the headlights nicely. Part of the taillight module is actually mounted in the trunk lid. This is fine except that the design causes the trunk lid to be narrower than it might be.
The doors have reasonably wide openings, which makes getting in and out easy. That's a benefit of the long wheelbase (102.4 inches), which also means that the rear wheel wells do not protrude into the rear door as much as they do on some compact cars. The Corolla's looks and handling are enhanced by its relatively long wheelbase and relatively short overhangs front and rear. (The overhang is the distance from the wheels to the ends of the car).
The Corolla S is distinguished by its sporty front spoiler, body-colored side rocker panels and rear skirt, along with its fog lamps and smoked headlamp masking.
The XRS gets 16-inch wheels that visually fill the wheel wells better. Distinguishing the XRS are a rear color-keyed spoiler, a color-keyed bezel surrounding the grille, and unique badges.
There's plenty of front legroom and headroom. The Corolla seems particularly well suited to shorter people who often find it fits them perfectly. Big and tall people may find the accommodations cramped, however.
The back seats offer a decent amount of room for two average-size adults. Seat belts are provided for a third rear-seat passenger, but there's little space for such a person.
Materials used in the seats appear classy with nice fit and finish. The driver's seat has a much more substantial feel than in many cars in this price range, which makes it more comfortable for long journeys. Even the doors shut with a pleasant thud thanks to sound deadening felt mounted inside the door panels.
Take a look inside a Corolla LE with optional leather seating and you could easily imagine you're looking inside a luxury car instead of a $17,000 compact. The leather seats have a luxurious soft pleated finish, while the center console and door panels have wood-like veneer trim. Okay, it's fake, but it's so well made that it looks more realistic than the real wood found in some luxury cars. Both the LE and S models get a sporty leather-wrapped steering wheel that adds to the enjoyment of driving.
The XRS gets sport seats, a silver-colored instrument cluster and switch plates, Lexus-like Optitron gauges, and a leather-like shift boot and leather shift knob.
The dashboard is nicely laid out with exemplary ergonomics and a finish comparable to that of more expensive cars. Its top surface sweeps across the width of the car in a slight S-curve and wraps into the door trim. Each side of the center console seamlessly blends up to the lower portion of the dash. Four small vents are nicely inlaid into the upper part of the dash.
The radio is located high on the center stack so it's easy to reach. Three large round knobs for the heating and air conditioning system are located below the radio. The handle for the parking brake is located on the left of the center console so there's room for a small storage cubbyhole on the right.
Storage space is generous. The glove box is big and there are small pockets in each door. Map lights for upper models are mounted on the rearview mirror, not the ideal location as it's easy to mess up the mirror adjustment when trying to switch on a light.
The instrument panel is dominated by three overlapping round gauges, a large speedometer, a smaller tachometer to the left and a water temperature gauge and fuel gauge mounted in a matching circle to the right. They incorporate red lettering on a plain white background and are easy to read at night. There's also an outside temperature readout on all models.
The trunk is one of the biggest in this class. The gooseneck hinges intrude into the cargo space and can crush fragile items if they are in the way, but this design results in a larger trunk opening than using the scissor-type hinges that require a larger flange around the trunk opening. The rear seats are split 60/40 to allow access from the trunk. The opening is relatively small, limiting pass-through for large cargo, but it's handy for skis, fly rods, brooms and other long items.
All in all, the interior has a high level of refinement beyond what one expects in a low cost sub-compact.
The standard 126-horsepower four-cylinder engine is quiet, smooth and refined. It delivers brisk acceleration performance with a broad power band for nice, linear acceleration. There is no difference in engine, transmission or suspension between the CE, S, and LE trim levels.
The electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission is nicely matched with the engine. It includes a shift logic system that helps hold a gear longer than it might otherwise if it senses the car is going up an incline or the driver wants plenty of power while passing.
For those who enjoy doing their own shifting, the five-speed manual allows for more performance as the engine's power can be better utilized. It shifts easily via a relatively tall shifter. Both the gearbox and clutch are smooth and easy to operate. The manual transmission earns an EPA-estimated 32/40 mpg City/Highway, while the automatic gets 30/38 mpg. One thing we hated: A beeper goes off in the cabin every time we shifted into reverse. We feel we could live without this feature.
The power steering is just right, providing a nice feel without being too stiff or sloppy. The suspension has been tuned to give a smooth ride, which is helped by a relatively long wheelbase. Body roll, or lean, is minimal and the car feels secure and stable at all speeds. The suspension is soft and does a good job of soaking up bumps and road vibration, giving the Corolla a nice, smooth ride that we really liked. The Corolla handles well, though those who enjoy the crisp handling of a sports sedan may want to opt for the XRS, which has a slightly stiffer suspension.
The new XRS is powered by a newly tuned version of the 2ZZ dual overhead cam engine and six-speed manual transmission found in both the Celica GT-S and Matrix XRS. The 1.8-liter four-cylinder produces 164 horsepower at 7600 rpm and 127 pound-feet of torque at 4400 rpm. It's tuned for more mid-range torque and features Toyota's VVTL-i variable valve timing and lift system for a burst of power from 6000 to 7600 rpm. EPA fuel economy is rated 25/32 City/Highway. The XRS features a sport-tuned suspension with higher-rate coil springs and shocks and a lower ride height (a half-inch lower). A sport strut tower brace is mounted between the shock towers. Larger 16-inch aluminum alloy wheels come with Michelin performance tires. The revised steering system features a more rigid steering column, designed to improve response. A power steering rack specially developed for the XRS allows for better steering feedback.
The XRS is not a high-performance sport compact car, however. It doesn't offer the response of hot compacts such as a Chevy Cobalt SS we'd driven immediately before, though the XRS is decidedly less expensive. And the suspension is by no means stiff. In fact, it's quite compliant. Overall, the Corolla XRS is a terrific compact four-door sedan that's just a little sportier than the rest of the line.
The Toyota Corolla is a sophisticated and utterly reliable compact sedan. It features a high-quality, ergonomically excellent interior with comfortable, supportive seats. The interior is particularly well suited for shorter drivers. The rear seats are roomy and relatively comfortable and the trunk is big for this class.
New Car Test Drive correspondent John Rettie is based in Santa Barbara, California.