So you say you want to understand Toyota. You want to look the company in the eye and get a sense of its soul. Without spending hours studying kaizen and poring over 2000GT imagery and learning the significance of the number 86, you want to know why Toyota is different from, say, Porsche.
Allow the 2017 Toyota Corolla to be your tutor. In LE Eco guise, the fuel-sipping Corollaâ€™s 1.8-liter four-cylinder produces 140 horsepower. In â€œsportyâ€� SE and XSE trims, the 1.8-liter produces eight fewer horsepower.
With nothing more substantive than rear disc brakes, bigger wheels, and wider low-profile tires, the 2017 Toyota Corolla XSE and its less luxurious SE sibling hardly bring performance to the Corolla lineup. The loss of eight horsepower â€” and the gain of two pound-feet of torque â€“ compared to the more efficient LE Eco arenâ€™t performance-altering characteristics, either.
Think then of this Corolla XSE as just a Corolla, as merely a Corolla, as only a Corolla, as perhaps the most prudent transportation-oriented purchase a North American car buyer can make this year.
Or as the most joyless way to spend $24,130 on a new car.
New to the Corolla lineup for the 2017 model year, the XSE trim level combines the â€œsportinessâ€� of the SE and the â€œluxuryâ€� of the XLE. To the $21,765 SE, the $24,130 XSE adds a power driverâ€™s seat, heated front seats, full Softex-trimmed seats, sunroof, proximity access, and navigation.
In between, for a $1,220 premium over the SE â€” and accompanied by a sunroof, navigation, proximity that otherwise cost $1,535 as part of the SE CVTâ€™s premium package â€” you can get a Toyota Corolla SE with a manual transmission. Itâ€™s the one and only trim level in which Toyota still permits DIY shifting in the Corolla.
Of the roughly 31,000 new Corollas currently in stock at Toyotaâ€™s U.S. dealers, according to Cars.com, 1 percent are three-pedal cars.
All Corollas, regardless of trim, are now equipped with the same elevated standard of safety equipment, the SE/XSEâ€™s larger rear disc brakes aside. Gone are the days when eight airbags and anti-lock brakes impress. Even the lowliest of Corollas include lane departure alert with steering assist, auto high beams, pre-collision with pedestrian detection, and radar cruise control.
Though undeniably a meaningful aspect of the Corolla ownerâ€™s daily grind, radar cruise control and all its high-tech cohorts play no role in turning the Corolla into a driverâ€™s car.
Granted, thereâ€™s no expectation that the Corolla behave like a Toyota 86 (nÃ©e Scion FR-S.) A rough ride, instant turn-in, and arrow-sharp throttle response doesnâ€™t suit any mainstream carâ€™s character.
But the Corolla runs so extremely far in the opposite direction that thereâ€™s nothing about its on-road repertoire worthy of compliment. Ride quality? Never busy, to be fair, but the Corollaâ€™s structure canâ€™t cope with the harsh impacts a Camry can shake off.
The steering is disconcertingly lacking in feel (and the steering wheelâ€™s finish on the backside, right where the lower spoke meets the rim, is decidedly unfinished). Worsened by winter tires, thereâ€™s scarcely any grip to speak of, even on the XSEâ€™s 215/45R17 rubber. And the 1.8-liter sounds rough when revved.
Combine that roughness with a throttle pedal that fights against further application and you have a car that simply does not want to accelerate.
132 horsepower, down from 140 in the LE Eco? It feels like about 100, and theyâ€™re not happy horses.
The continuously variable transmission doesnâ€™t come across as the worst CVT application by any means, but how much blame does the pokey 1.8 deserve for distracting me from any CVT limitations?
Thankfully, despite freezing temperatures, winter tires, and largely urban driving, we averaged an impressive 32.2 miles per gallon over the course of a week.
Observed fuel economy is one of the 2017 Corolla’sÂ redeeming qualities. The expansive rear seat is another. Blessed by an almost flat floor and loads of legroom, sliding in child seats was a breeze. For young families in search of inexpensive, spacious, safe transportation, a basic $19,425 Corolla L will surely stand out.
At $24,130, however, expectations rise. Space is good. Safety equipment is also good. The trunk, squared off with 13.0 cubic feet, is good, too. Material quality, however, is a disappointment, with hard plastics in the places both untouched and regularly caressed.
Straightforward climate controls are paired with chunky buttons for the seat heaters that were possibly inherited from the dashboard of a 90s Hino.Â Circular vents might be cool if they werenâ€™t so out of place. The seatsâ€™ SofTex ranks amongst the most plasticky of faux leathers. The so-called â€œsport seatsâ€� donâ€™t offer nearly enough thigh bolstering to merit the title.
Apart from the touchscreen and a generally quiet ambiance, thereâ€™s very little about this cabin that looks or feels like a class-leading interior from 2014, let alone 2017.
Much as the safe and reliable Corolla is automatically deemed the safe and reliable compact car choice, there remain numerous options for the Corollaâ€™s intended.
Toyotaâ€™s own Yaris iA, a smaller but less costly option, is actually a fun-to-drive Mazda 2.Â The Corolla iM, which like the iA was formerly known as a Scion, is very much a Corolla, only less stodgy and more flexible and with superior rear suspension. With a CVT, the iM is priced at $20,415, decently equipped but lacking the Corollaâ€™s full Safety Sense-P package.
Outside the Toyota portfolio, the traditional Corolla buyer will still seek a level of long-term security. The new Subaru Impreza builds on a Consumer Reports reputation of reliability with added style and more safety equipment. The latest Mazda 3 provides class-leading dynamics and, says CR, also offers above-average reliability. But the 3 lacks rear seat space and manifests excessive road noise.
In 2016, the United States produced 360,483 Toyota Corolla sedan buyers. Itâ€™s safe to say some of those buyers would have preferred a Corolla with superior handling, actual steering feel, more power, and greater interior quality. But the Corollaâ€™s redeeming attributes â€” peerless reputation for reliability, vast rear quarters, impressive value quotient, abundant safety kit â€” were evidently considered more critical.
Thousands of other Corolla buyers donâ€™t simply turn a blind eye to the carâ€™s aforementioned faults. No, they donâ€™t even see the very transgressions upon which I frown with furrowed brow.
The Corolla buyer and I want different things. Indeed, the Corolla and I want different things.
I want more of an interactive connection with the car, not less.
I want acceleration to be delivered happily, not begrudgingly.
I want to believe I paid $24,130 for a car that ought to cost $30,130 rather than suffer reminders of the pennies Toyota pinched.
I donâ€™t want to be alerted by an incessant ding-ding-ding, even with lights and ignition and audio off, to tell me Iâ€™ve opened the driverâ€™s door. And I donâ€™t want to receive fewer ponies for my performance dollar.
The 2017 Toyota Corolla XSE therefore, cannot earn my love.
Respect, however, is an altogether different matter.
Toyota has yet again one-upped the Corollaâ€™s game by adding Toyota Safety Sense-P across the lineup, by playing up the 50th anniversary of the worldâ€™s most popular nameplate, and by tinkering with the styling just enough to keep the Corolla fresh.
Itâ€™s the opposite of fun. But it works.
History suggests itâ€™ll keep on working.
Timothy Cain is the founder ofÂ GoodCarBadCar.net, which obsesses over the free and frequent publication of U.S. and Canadian auto sales figures. Follow on Twitter @goodcarbadcarÂ and on Facebook.