For years, there have been better compact sedans than the Toyota Corolla, and that's truer now than ever before in the car's long history.
Fortunately, the 2013 Toyota Corolla's replacement will soon come and put this sub-mediocre car to rest.
I last reviewed the Corolla in 2010 (see the review) and deemed it minimally sophisticated and unstylish, to coin a word. The model was particularly galling because it had been redesigned in 2009. I don't typically evoke my earlier predictions (possibly because my record is spotty), but I also said in 2010 that "the Corolla is sure to stay near the top of the sales charts, but that's more about what the car has been historically than what it is now." Nailed it this time. The Corolla has remained one of the best-selling compacts in the U.S. and beyond, despite being below average in several ways.
Has anything changed in the past few years? Along with its market standing, the Corolla itself hasn't changed much. For 2013, there's a restyled grille, a standard touch-screen audio system on LE and S trim levels, and chrome accents on the LE's belt line and grille. (See the model years compared side by side.)
Meanwhile, the rest of the class has bounded ahead. Redesigned since then are the Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte and Nissan Sentra. The Corolla's archrival, the Honda Civic, has been redesigned twice (see the 2013 review). Dodge has returned to the market in this segment for the first time since 2005 with the Dart. (See key competitors compared.) Fortunately for shoppers, Toyota has redesigned the Corolla for 2014 (see the early details) and will put it on sale by the end of 2013.
Sometimes a car is redesigned when it's still quite good; that was the case for the previous-generation Civic and Mazda3. The 2013 Corolla is the opposite.
Today's below-average cars aren't as uncompetitive as they used to be: They tend to do the job without being exceptionally chintzy — or unreliable. Quite the contrary, the Corolla's enduring achievement remains its top-rated reliability. Among compact sedans, only the Subaru Impreza matches it.
But there are differences, both quantified and aesthetic, between standout and straggler models in this car class. If you haven't shopped compact cars in five to 10 years, you could run out directly and buy a 2013 Corolla and be reasonably content with it. But doing so would be even more foolish than it was three years ago. The 2013 Corolla's theme is "good enough."
With 92 cubic feet of cabin volume, the Corolla is more snug than the Civic and Chevrolet Cruze — both with 95 cubic feet — and the Elantra, which has 96 cubic feet. The Corolla's front-seat legroom and headroom are slightly below average, too, but it's roomy enough for a 6-foot-tall adult. The bottom cushion could be longer for better thigh support.
The backseat is a strange story: With a rated 36.3 inches of legroom, it's a tenth of an inch ahead of the Civic, about an inch more generous than the Cruze and more than 3 inches ahead of the Elantra. But these specifications often don't tell the whole story, and I found the Corolla's backseat legroom more snug than the Civic's. My knees pressed far into the Corolla driver's seat's backrest. But I must say, it wasn't as uncomfortable as it looked. The seatback is super soft. The floor is nearly flat, similar to the Civic's, which gives passengers more places to put their feet and, thus, orient their legs.
The Corolla interior's greater faults are aesthetic ones. The gauges are simple and legible, but they're also low-tech; classier, illuminated instrument panels have moved into this car class. It's a similar story with the ceiling liner, which is a plain, feltlike material. Some competitors have adopted more upscale woven cloth. The vinyl visors have a cheap feel, as do the climate controls. The controls are very clear and easy to use, but when you turn the leftmost knob, you can feel and hear mechanical louvers operating within the dashboard. Electronic knobs and buttons have become the norm for this function.
Perhaps the greatest problem is the cabin materials, which are harder and seem cheaper than many in this car class. There should be more cushioning where you rest your arms — on the armrests and door panels.
The Corolla's trunk is relatively small, with 12.3 cubic feet of volume. The Civic is only two-tenths better, but the Elantra has 14.8 and the Cruze 15.4 cubic feet. While all the cars in this class have folding backseats, the Civic has a standard one-piece bench unless you upgrade to a high trim level. The Corolla and others have 60/40-split folding backseats.
Behind the Wheel
The Corolla's driving experience follows the theme. The steering is vague and the handling is competent in curves, but not very sporty or agile. If that's what you want, check out the Ford Focus, Dodge Dart or Civic.
While the Corolla's ride quality isn't refined, I found it softer than the 2013 Civic's, even with our test Corolla's optional wheels from Toyota Racing Development, which at 18 inches provide less bump absorption than the standard 15- or 16-inch wheels (depending on trim level) or the optional 17-inch alloy wheels. I'll add that, in our collective opinion, they look ridiculous on this car — as out of place as a wing spoiler or hood scoop would be.
The drivetrain is similarly adequate but outdated. The 1.8-liter four-cylinder compares to competitors' base engines, but the Corolla's automatic transmission is a four-speed when five- and six-speeds are now the norm. I urge shoppers not to fixate on the technology too much: The Corolla's four-speed is a reasonably well-behaved transmission, and I prefer it in some ways over the continuously variable transmission in the Sentra and the balky dual-clutch automatic in the Focus. (The 2014 Corolla will replace the four-speed with a CVT.)
However, you can't deny that there's a lot of space between the gears, and that makes for more drama and noise when you hit the gas to pass, for example. It helps neither acceleration nor fuel economy, which is an EPA-rated 26/34/29 mpg city/highway/combined. The combined figure is 3 mpg behind the Civic and Elantra. It's 2 mpg ahead of the base Cruze but 1 mpg behind the Cruze's upgrade engine, which is the volume seller. The Corolla offers only one engine.
The Corolla performed well in crash tests, earning the top score of Good in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's moderate-overlap frontal, side, rear and roof-strength tests. It also earned four stars overall, out of five, from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Though the Corolla offers an optional navigation system, it doesn't provide a backup camera — a feature that's available elsewhere in this car class and is standard in the Civic.
Given the Corolla's size, child-safety seats fit in the backseat reasonably well. Get the details in our Car Seat Check. See all the safety features listed here.
Corolla in the Market
The 2013 Corolla is a case study in the power of reputation and perception. The Corolla has earned a stellar reputation over the course of decades, and the perception appears to be that the current model is just as good as ever, even though it doesn't compare to its classmates. Since its previous redesign in 2009, it has become less competitive with each passing year, and Toyota has risked harming the Corolla's reputation. The 2014 can't hit dealerships soon enough.
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