The Toyota Corolla compact sedan is stuck in the slow lane as its competition zooms by. The updates it received for the 2009 model year and again for 2011 haven't been enough to keep pace in this quickly evolving segment.
From its dull driving experience and aging interior to its subpar gas mileage, the 2011 Corolla can't match what its competition offers.
We tested a top-level 2011 Corolla S with an as-tested price of $20,855. Other cars in its price range include new models like the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze and redesigned cars like the 2011 Hyundai Elantra and 2012 Ford Focus (click here to see specs for all of them).
Ride & Handling
Historically, one of the Corolla's better qualities has been its relatively comfortable ride that's well-suited to daily commuting. That wasn't the case with the S model I tested, whose ride quality is closer to the Kia Forte's taut tuning. The suspension transmits even minor pavement blemishes to the cabin, while bigger bumps produce a noisy jolt. The rough ride and considerable road noise recall an earlier era, when compact cars sacrificed refinement in the name of low-cost motoring.
The Corolla's body motions are relatively well-controlled when cornering, but unlike the redesigned Focus and the Mazda3, the car has no appetite for fun. Its numb steering is one of the biggest culprits; there's no feel for what's happening down at the front tires. I like to drive, but the Corolla did more to dampen my enthusiasm for it than any car I've been in lately.
Going & Stopping
None of the current crop of compact cars is especially quick, but most of them can keep pace with fast-moving urban traffic. The Corolla can, too, but there were times when the four-speed automatic's gearing made the car feel sluggish. The bigger issue, though, is a lack of drivetrain refinement — an area where competitors like the Elantra and Cruze have raised the bar significantly.
The 1.8-liter four-cylinder is a coarse little engine that you always hear, but which never sounds good. The automatic performs one-gear kickdowns with appropriate speed, but if you need a two-gear downshift be prepared to wait a moment for the transmission to make the selection — and for the extra engine noise that accompanies it.
Perhaps the oddest element of the Corolla driving experience is the car's tendency to surge a little while trying to maintain a steady speed (without using cruise control). It wasn't a one-time thing, either, as I could always count on it happening during my commute when traveling around 50 mph. Whether it's caused by an overly sensitive gas pedal or something else, it's the kind of thing that could drive you crazy on a road trip. The only other car I've driven that exhibited similar behavior was a Mercury Milan Hybrid I reviewed a few years ago.
The Corolla has long been a fuel-sipping choice in the compact segment, but its EPA-estimated gas mileage has been relatively consistent for the past few years, while the competition has seen big improvements. The 2011 Elantra is rated 29/40 mpg city/highway, and regular versions of the automatic-equipped 2012 Civic are rated 28/39 mpg. The automatic Corolla, meanwhile, gets what now seems like a lackluster 26/34 mpg.
Like the steering tuning, the Corolla's mushy brake pedal is partially responsible for the car's dull feel.
Cabin Roominess & Style
The driver's seat includes a height adjustment, but I never found an ideal driving position because the steering wheel didn't tilt low enough for me. Plus, the resting place for your left foot is incredibly small — my foot was constantly sliding off it — and uncomfortable. One of our editors thought the driver's seat didn't move back far enough, either.
A snug backseat is pretty typical for the compact segment, and the Corolla is no exception. My knees were pressed into the driver's seat, which thankfully didn't have any plastic backing. The backseat doesn't offer much thigh support, either. I'm 6-foot-1, which is a tough test for a compact, but the Corolla's rear seat seems tighter than most.
Compared with the 2011 Elantra or 2012 Focus, the Corolla's conservatively styled interior looks bland. Still, all the critical controls are thoughtfully arranged and within easy reach when driving. That said, the cabin has quite a few quality shortcomings — and only a few exceptional characteristics.
Perhaps the biggest offender is the air-conditioning controls, which consist primarily of three large dials that rotate with a sloppiness not typically seen in a modern car. Every time you adjust the temperature, fan speed or airflow direction, you'll be reminded how crude these controls are.
The cabin also has quite a bit of hard plastic on the upper door trim and armrests, so no matter where you rest your left arm, it probably won't find a cushioned surface. There are also rough finishes on the minimally padded center armrest that further diminish the sense of quality, and the urethane steering wheel on our top-level S trim felt out of place on a $20,000-plus car.
On the flip side, the optional stereo in our test car showed lots of song information on its screen, it had nicely damped buttons and it included a Bluetooth streaming audio function.
The 2011 Corolla is an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Top Safety Pick. It received the top overall score — Good — in the IIHS' front, side, rear and roof-strength tests, and it has a standard electronic stability system. However, in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's side-impact crash test, the Corolla received just two out of five stars.
Corolla in the Market
In the '90s, GM's and Ford's car businesses languished while the automakers chased profits from SUVs, a strategy that alienated car shoppers. It seems Toyota didn't learn by their example, because in the past few years the Corolla has been disregarded.
It's still a top-seller, but I suspect much of that success is driven by the car's reputation, as opposed to where it really ranks in the compact segment today. Consumers willing to take a look at the Hyundai Elantra, for instance, will find a car that's more fun to drive, has better interior quality and gets better gas mileage.
GM is building competitive cars these days, but it's still fighting to shed negative consumer perceptions. The Corolla seems to be riding on the goodwill it's built up over the years, but reality will catch up with it eventually. If that happens before Toyota undertakes a serious effort to redesign the car, the automaker is going to have a problem on its hands.
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