On the Road Review: Toyota Corolla SE

The best-selling car in the world is — drum roll, please — Toyota’s compact Corolla.

Surprised? You shouldn’t be. This small car has been sold in hundreds of countries for well over 40 years, accumulating loyal customers in every market. Now the size of previous generation Camry sedans, the current Corolla is the perfect everyman car for commuters, new drivers and families on a budget.

Yet, unlike last week’s extroverted Lexus sports sedan, the Corolla’s market is confined to a spectrum for price-value over performance-power. An attempt to escape that paradigm with this modest SE “sporty” model runs slightly afoul of the attributes that have been accrued during the Corolla’s legendary run.

Don’t run down the hall screaming that Toyota has lost its way and nothing will ever be good anymore. Quite the contrary; we can embrace the solid goodness of L, LE and S model Corollas, while accepting that some buyers might want to spice up their Corolla experience.

Mind you, nice alloy wheels, a front splitter and rear spoiler, plus a moaning TRD-sport exhaust and a six-speed shifter do not make a GTI-fighter or a Focus ST rival. But hey, at least someone at Toyota is thinking those thoughts.

Featuring a spacious cockpit — with appropriate ergonomics — plus one of the roomiest rear seats in the segment (remember the Camry comment?), the Corolla also packs a deep trunk that accommodates lots more gear than expected. The ride is more Camry-esque too. Packaging, finishing, ease of use — high marks. Standard automatic braking assist and forward collision warning — a safety boon for all drivers, even those owners who opt for the base $17,300 sedan. Add in dynamic cruise and other safety gear available on upper trim levels, and the Corolla becomes a better value package too.

Under the hood is a familiar 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine making 140 hp with the optional TRD air filter system, 136 hp in other models. LE and S sedans come with a CVT automatic, while a four-speed auto is in base products. Our SE arrived with a silky-shifting six-speed manual that may lack the tactile feel of driver-shifting gearboxes in sportier rivals, but made up for this faux pas with ease of operation.

No matter how you slice your driving emphasis, the SE delivered impressive fuel economy. On EPA ratings of 27/35/30 mpg, our Super White SE returned 35 mpg after a lengthy highway blast at prevailing speeds, while rural two-lane running for another full tank returned almost 37 mpg — both numbers ahead of the government estimates.

Despite this expansion of models, Corolla sales are down 10 percent year-to-date, as all types of new car sales have been affected by the crossover explosion. Toyota’s new C-HR crossover — loosely based on a former Scion platform — is attracting some of these customers as five-door practicality wins out over four-door, three-box conformity. And, RAV-4 sales continue to dominate Toyota showroom traffic.

With power moonroof, Softex-upholstered power seats, Entune audio upgrade, Smart-key access and push-button ignition, plus new LED lighting, the SE trim starts at $21,665 plus $865 destination. Skip the TRD exhaust ($649), unless you dislike a quiet ride. The constant droning was an irritant to both driver and passengers as it lacks the mechanical fury that really implies (and supplies) added power. Heated seats would be more welcome.

Often asked what the best car is, each response has to be qualified. What is best for me, probably isn’t best for you. With two SUVs, a pickup, and a convertible in our “fleet,” all but one over 10 years old, what suits my needs, comfort levels and performance expectations for work and pleasure will be different from most drivers.

Yet, small cars like the Corolla really do fit a style and driving need that matches up well with a large percentage of drivers. While crossovers and/or hatchback car-based vehicles are dominating sales, the Corolla still stands above its rivals for practical, reliable, continuous service. It lacks AWD, and there is no longer a hatchback version, but everything else is there for gleeful ownership.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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