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Toyota CorollaToyota Corolla: 50 years of a great small car

By Jim Bray
December 1, 2016

It's been Toyota's bread and butter car since before there was a Camry, and after a 50 year evolution in the automotive marketplace it continues to be a great little car for the 2017 model year.

Toyota must be doing something right because the Corolla has wriggled its way into a lot of people's hearts over that half century, so much so that has become the top selling vehicle in the world, knocking the classic VW Beetle off that perch a while back. So while it may be a tad bland for some people, it's obviously the perfect choice for many others.

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And here's something you might not expect: you can configure it with a six speed manual transmission!

Much to my delight, that's the version Toyota Canada sent me to play with for a week. That dovetailed nicely with my personal history as an owner of manual-trannied Corollas: my wife and I have had two over the decades, a 1985 and a 1992 (both purchased used). We loved our Corollas, which were unpretentious people carriers that served us well for years. They may not have been as fun as the Civics of their days, but they were surprisingly pleasant and very reliable.

For 2017, Toyota has tweaked the exterior, upgraded the interior and crammed in the kind of advanced safety features that are cramming their way into most vehicles these days. They've also added more standard features, including Toyota's Safety Sense P (TSS-P) package, which appears now on all Corolla models. This includes a Pre-Collision System with Pedestrian Detection, Lane Departure Alert with Steering Assist, Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, and Automatic High Beams. Pretty heady, if annoying, stuff for a "lowly" Corolla!

The front end has been given new bumpers and a headlamp treatment that makes it look kind of like a low Rav4. There are also new taillights and new wheel designs while, inside, the instrument panel is new, and there've been some tweaks made to the trim. 

Base Corollas (the CE trim level) come with the six speed stick and start at a reasonable $16,290. Add the CVT, which is the only automatic transmission choice, and the price rises to $19,390. It's worth learning a stick if you can't drive one yet, though: not only will it save you three grand, you won't have to live with the way a CVT saps a lot of the driving joy from the car.  

Corolla CE models now feature as standard equipment a 3.5 inch Multi-information Display, a 6.1 inch Display Audio system and automatic bi-LED headlamps.

Next up is the LE trim level (MSRP starting at $20,490, with the CVT), which now gets automatic climate control and a windshield wiper de-icer system as standard equipment. You can upgrade that by adding a power slide/tilt moon roof, 16 inch alloy wheels and a leather-wrapped, heated, tilt/telescoping steering wheel. That Corolla will set you back $21,990.

The SE level, which is what Toyota Canada's sample was, starts at $20,305 with the six speed stick and if you add the damn CVT it rises to $21,290. The SE comes standard with automatic climate control, a 4.2 inch Multi-information Display, multi-LED headlamps, a unique bumper with LED daytime running lights, LED back up lights, and the windshield wiper de-icer system.

The sample didn't have it, but you can also get an upgrade package (bringing the price to $21,805 for the manual and $22,790 with the CVTi-S) that adds 17 inch alloy wheels, rear disc brakes, heated steering wheel and the moon roof.

The top line model is the new XSE trim level, which unfortunately is available only with the CVT. It starts at $25,210 and features 17 inch alloy wheels, rear disc brakes, moon roof, seven inch navigation display, integrated Satellite Radio, an eight-way power adjustable driver's seat, Softex leather seat surfaces, a smart key system with push button start, auto-dimming rear view mirror with HomeLink garage door opener and compass, tire pressure monitoring system and unique XSE badging.

You can also get an LE ECO version with the CVT (starting MSRP of $20,990), which adds for 2017 the 3.5 inch Multi-information Display and windshield wiper de-icer system. This Gaia-loving version also features a special 1.8 litre four-cylinder engine (rated at 140 hp) with VALVEMATIC technology, boosting performance and fuel efficiency.

The rest of the 2017 Corollas also get a 1.8 litre four cylinder engine, one that definitely won't set the world on fire but which is more than adequate for this market niche. Acceleration is fine; I never had issues keeping up with or passing other vehicles - the stick undoubtedly helps here - and while no one will accuse this car of being sporty, it's a better driving experience that you might think.

Power, which is rated at 132 horses @ 6,000 rpm with 128 lb.-ft. of torque @ 4,000 rpm, gets to the front wheels only - at least you don't have to worry about a lot of torque steer! The six speed stick is a tad rubbery, but it's easy to shift and works just fine. Since it's a six speed, you may find yourself shifting through the gears nearly all the time, but I look upon that as a feature and not a bug.

As with virtually every car these days, you also get steering wheel-mounted audio controls and the car comes with Bluetooth and voice recognition.

Corollas are also full of the typical safety equipment Toyota puts on all its vehicles. Therefore, it comes with eight airbags, whiplash injury-lessening front seats and lots more.

Other than offering the "fun to drive" factor you can find in, for example, the Mazda3, which in the Corolla can be made up for partly by ordering the six speed manual transmission, the 2017 Corolla is all the car a person really needs. As it has been for half a century, it's a great vehicle, a car I could drive happily for years.

It's been interesting to witness the Corolla's evolution since I first came into contact with them during the 1978-79 model years, when I spent several months as a Toyota salesman (though I wasn't very good at it!). Corollas were still rear wheel drive back then (they didn't go fwd till 1984), and some of them were even pretty hot little sets of wheels in the manner of today's lovely little Toyota 86.

Today's Corolla is by no means hot, but it's great in its own way - and it's gratifying to see that, unlike some of its competitors (i.e. the disappointing and over styled current Honda Civic) it's still true to its history and its mandate.

Copyright 2016 Jim Bray

Jim Bray is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada. His columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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