The 2016 Toyota Corolla offers a choice of two different 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engines, but performance has never been a major selling point for Toyota's compact sedan. Its buyers want low running costs and value for their money, and Toyota has prioritized those qualities. Still, the current model is a little more rewarding to drive than its predecessors.
One engine powers the Corolla L, LE, and S models. It's a base 1.8-liter inline-4 rated at 132 horsepower and 128 pound-feet of torque. The LE Eco version adds Valvematic to its 1.8-liter inline-4, which provides a broader range of continuously variable valve timing—giving better fuel economy as well as a boost to 140 horsepower.
The system allows the valves to "float" during coasting, to reduce drag when light on the throttle at higher speeds. It also broadens the torque curve—although peak torque is a bit lower at 126 lb-ft. So while it may have more horsepower on paper, don't expect the Eco model to feel noticeably quicker.
The gearbox for almost all Corollas sold in the States will be a continuously variable transmission (CVT), and Toyota has done a good job of tuning in a reassuring, almost linear feel during light and moderate acceleration. There's less of the "drone'" that plagues CVTs used in some small cars, and the sportier S model gets a special tune on its CVT that makes it behave just like a 7-speed automatic, with simulated gear ratios and paddle shifters behind the leather-trimmed steering wheel to let drivers click through them at will.
The CVT cars feel lackluster from a standing start—especially when pointed slightly uphill or loaded with passengers—due to their tall starting ratio. But highway passing response is much improved, and they feel perkier once underway compared to the automatic they replace. Toyota says it’s knocked nearly a second off the 0-to-60-mph time provided by the previous Corolla's 4-speed automatic transmission.
The base Corolla L, however, is still saddled with that ancient 4-speed automatic. It’s slow when you need a quick burst of passing power, because of the wide steps between its ratios, and its fuel economy ratings are lower than those for CVT-equipped Corollas.
Finally, if you want to shift for yourself, the base L and the sporty S model can be ordered with a 6-speed manual gearbox. The linkage isn’t sport-sedan precise and the throws are fairly long, but the clutch takes up lightly and predictably. That makes the rare manual Corolla easy to drive in stop-and-go traffic.
All Corolla models have a torsion-beam rear suspension that mounts bushings at a slanted position, minimizing noise, vibration, and harshness and tightening rear-end behavior near the handling limit—and S models make the most of that.
The S, in fact, is the one you should pick if you want to maximize your Corolla driving enjoyment. Its suspension tune is more buttoned-down, rather as you might expect in a sport sedan—and its special Sport button firms up the steering too. The ride is firm yet absorbent and nicely damped. Other models in the lineup remain a bit springy and pillowy, with a ride that’s not only a little softer but also a bit busier (counter-intuitively) on jittery backroads.