New & Used Toyota Corolla: In Depth
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The Toyota Corolla is a compact four-door sedan. Over its 11 generations on sale, in markets around the world, it's become one of the most widely known and most successful car names ever. It has been the best-selling compact car in the U.S. for much of the last 20 years, and was most recently redesigned for 2014.
Now in its 11th generation, today's Corolla is a rival for compact cars such as the Chevy Cruze, Honda Civic, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra, and a host of second-tier entries as well, including the Mazda 3, Nissan Sentra, Subaru Impreza, and Volkswagen Jetta.
For most of its life the Corolla has been aimed at those seeking reliability over styling flair, sporty handling, or luxury features. In its latest generation, the Corolla has at least been given a bolder design, although it is still one of the more traditional vehicles in its niche.
MORE: Read our 2017 Toyota Corolla review
The new Toyota Corolla
In its current form, the Corolla continues its role as highly dependable, not-very-exciting, carefully packaged transportation for sensible buyers.
While Toyota hoped to field a more exciting compact with the launch of the 2014 Corolla—previewed by the sporty Furia Concept—the new car is evolutionary in most of its strong points. That said, the styling is more distinctive and the connectivity options and interior appointments are greatly improved. The look is the most aggressive of any Corolla, with large trapezoidal lower grille openings in different arrangements depending on model and a very tight upper grille.
The current Corolla keeps an updated version of the classic 1.8-liter four-cylinder as its only engine, but now the Corolla has largely switched from a traditional automatic to a continuously variable transmission (CVT) for improved fuel economy. It works relatively well—although it is not quite up to the standard of Subaru's excellent CVTs—and brings the Corolla's EPA ratings up to 29 mpg city, 38 mpg highway and 32 mpg combined. A base model is still offered with an ancient four-speed automatic, and a six-speed manual is also available; those two powertrains carry 31-mpg combined ratings. Finally, there's a new and specially tuned Corolla Eco model, which boosts the combined rating up to 35 mpg combined (30 mpg city, 42 mpg highway). Eco models receive low-rolling-resistance tires, underbody aero pieces, and a separate Eco button that changes throttle sensitivity and can also reduce climate system output.
Safety ratings are good for the Corolla—but not stellar for the new model. While the outgoing 2013 Corolla was an IIHS Top Safety Pick, the latest model didn't win that title, due in part to its "Marginal' rating—one step above the lowest grade—on the new and tougher small-overlap front crash safety test added by the IIHS. The NHTSA awarded the latest model five stars overall, however, a better result than its predecessors.
In 2012, following the earthquake and tsunami that devastated parts of Japan, Toyota announced plans to phase out Japanese production for the U.S. Corolla. By the time the 2014 model arrived, the automaker had moved most of its Corolla production to the Tupelo, Mississippi area.
Toyota made few changes to the Corolla for 2015, although it added a new top-level Platinum trim, which makes standard many of the lower trims' optional equipment. Package content within the other trim levels was also boosted with additional features for this year.
Toyota will offer a Corolla Special Edition for 2016. The package is based on the SE model and adds a unique red exterior color, special interior trim and badging, black upholstery with red contrast stitching, and gloss-black wheels. It builds on the newly aggressive look to create something that at least looks sporty, even if it's basically a normal Corolla underneath.
Corollas of the past
The start of Toyota's long history of Corolla sales in the U.S. can really be credited with changing the American perception of small cars, picking up the pieces where Volkswagen left off in making smaller vehicles a practical and popular choice. Including the 2014 model, there have now been 11 generations of Corollas over 40 years. Each has reinforced Toyota's reputation as the purveyor of reliable, sensible cars that can last hundreds of thousands of miles. They may not have always been stylish or exciting, but they almost never let down their owners—and the market has rewarded that characteristic handsomely.
Over its lifetime, the Corolla has gone from rear-wheel drive to front-wheel drive, and the lineup has encompassed sedans, coupes, hatchbacks, wagons, even fastbacks—but throughout its life, it's kept its reputation intact. Five years after Toyota's unintended acceleration fiasco of 2010, the company's reputation has largely recovered and consumers are continuing to buy the Corolla despite what are now clear deficiencies against a new and much tougher set of competitors.
Toyota continued to offer rear-drive Corolla sport coupes until 1987, but by then the sedans had all gone to the familiar front-drive layout in use today. The car's 1.6-liter four-cylinder has grown to 1.8 liters, and its optional three-speed automatic gained an extra gear, although the car itself hasn't become much larger in the interim.
The previous Corolla generation, which ran from 2009 through 2013, had gotten tired and long in the tooth by the time it was retired—and it was only a modest upgrade on the generation before that anyhow. It provided trouble-free transportation for a low price, but its powertrain was behind the curve, and its fuel efficiency especially was nothing to call home about. Yet it continued to sell in huge numbers to buyers who wanted trouble-free, if unadventurous, transportation.
That version of the Corolla made no leaps in design or refinement, putting it behind the generation of compact-sedan competitors launched from 2010 through 2012. In 2010, its safety was stepped up with ABS, stability control, front- and side-curtain airbags, and active head restraints all made standard—finally. Buyers could even get a navigation system, among modern conveniences, as an option on the highest Corolla trim levels. Base versions remained without power windows and power locks through 2011.
For 2009 and 2010, the Corolla was sold in luxurious XLE trim, which included better interior appointments—albeit at a higher price. Also for those years, an XRS version of the Corolla offered the Camry's engine, a 2.4-liter, under the hood for much quicker performance. In more recent years the "S" trim has offered some of that model's appearance, but at a more affordable price. For 2013, the outgoing Corolla saw only the most minor of feature changes. Toyota introduced a slightly different grille with added chrome, and all models but the base L received a new 6.1-inch touch-screen audio system with Bluetooth hands-free calling, Bluetooth audio streaming, and USB connectivity.
Either formally or informally, there have been several other members of the Corolla family sold over the years, including Toyota's own Tercel and Matrix. General Motors sold versions of the Corolla through its own dealerships for a time, including the Chevrolet Nova, Chevrolet Prizm, and Geo Prizm. More recently, GM and Toyota built the Corolla-based Toyota Matrix and Pontiac Vibe hatchbacks together.