The car-rental people now call the venerable Toyota Corolla a "midsize" sedan. I suppose they're right. Since its introduction in the United States 40 years ago, the Corolla has undergone myriad changes -- from subcompact to compact to midsize, from sedan only to wagon and sedan and back to wagon, and from the best little car available in America to one now surrounded by multiple rivals, many of them just as good, or demonstrably better, and some of them sold for less money.
Still, when flying into a new city, I'm always happy to stop at the airport's car-rental counter, as I did on arrival here, and ask for a Corolla.
I sometimes get strange looks from car-rental people, followed by comments such as: "You have a corporate discount. You can get a larger car, if you like."
But lately, as it was at the Hertz counter here, the comments sound like: "If you're looking for an economy car, we have something smaller. The Corolla is midsize."
I've learned not to argue, although I remember the days when all car-rental companies who carried the model treated the Corolla as something of a loss leader -- an economy car for the budget-restricted traveler, basic transportation for the person who viewed driving as a necessary evil.
The world has changed much since then, but there are those who look at the 2007 Toyota Corolla Sport I rented here and say that not enough, unfortunately, has changed for that front-wheel-drive car.
I understand their complaint.
The current Corolla, even in its Sport trim, looks dowdy and uninspired, but I find comfort in its homeliness. There is little about it to attract thieves or police. It looks too ordinary to be coveted as a car-theft trophy. It is so humble in profile and performance -- a 1.8-liter, 126-horsepower, in-line four-cylinder engine being standard equipment -- the Corolla driver would have to do something extraordinarily dangerous or stupid to attract law-enforcement attention.
But the car's absence of anything approaching sex appeal is no big deal to me. My reasons are many.
I know when I'm renting a Corolla that I'm getting a car that is not likely to leave me stranded in a strange place. I am reasonably certain that it will accelerate competently on high-speed highways and brake safely near school zones on neighborhood streets. I know that when I return it to the car-rental company, I won't get hit with a gasoline bill that resembles what I paid for airfare and hotel accommodations. I like all of that.
The Corolla Sport's cosmetic spiffs -- it's black-on-white gauges and its silly little air spoiler on the rear deck -- are charming in an admirably goofy sort of way. They remind me of automobile drawings done by pre-school children -- stick-rendered fantasies that would get a condescending "good job" from a parent or a teacher, but nothing that most adults would take seriously.
Again, so what? The car I drove here got me everywhere I wanted to go as fast as I wanted to get there. It was safe. The driver's seat was comfortable. The trunk was large enough to handle my luggage. And I got 26 miles per gallon in the city and 37 mpg on the highway, which means I returned the car with a tank nearly full of regular unleaded gasoline. It's a good little car.
But "good" is not good enough in today's world. Toyota will change the Corolla for 2008. It will be slightly larger, which means that the car-rental companies in their weird logic probably will reclassify it as "full-size." It will have more power -- just what the world needs in an era of dwindling oil supplies and rising fuel costs. It will go faster -- on highways where median speeds already far exceed legal limits, wasting gasoline and increasing crash risks in the process. And it more than likely will cost more, a development that once and for all will eradicate the Corolla's legacy as an economy car. What the heck? That's progress, right?
Nuts & Bolts 2007 Toyota Corolla
Complaints: It's all a matter of perspective. If all you want is a solid, affordable sedan, the Corolla is your car. If you want more pizzazz, more power, the current Corolla is a bona fide loser. Also, there is optional safety equipment, such as antilock brakes, that routinely is sold as standard equipment on rival cars.
Ride, acceleration and handling: Decent in all three categories. That means the current Corolla will please almost anybody looking for a reliable commuter car that will be driven within posted speed limits on streets and highways.
Head-turning quotient:-- Zip, zilch, nada.
Body style/layout: The Corolla is a front-engine, front-wheel-drive, "small midsize" family car with four side doors and a traditional notchback trunk.
Engine/transmission: The Corolla comes with a five-speed manual transmission and is recommended by this column. A four-speed automatic is optional.
Capacities: It has seating for five people. Cargo capacity is 13.6 cubic feet. The fuel tank holds 13.6 gallons of recommended regular unleaded gasoline.
Mileage: I got 26 miles per gallon in the city and 37 mpg on the highway.
Safety: Too much optional equipment. For example, antilock brakes, head and side air bags are all optional. Many rivals now offer those things as standard. Traction and stability control are not available at this writing. Too bad for Toyota, Hyundai offers stability control as standard equipment on 73 percent of its cars, including smaller models.
Price: Base price for the tested 2007 Corolla Sport with four-speed automatic transmission is $16,150. Dealer's invoice price on base model is $14,615. Price as tested is $16,770, including a $620 destination charge. Dealer's price as tested is $15,235. Prices sourced from Toyota and http://www.edmunds.com.
Purse-strings note: A good little car surrounded by competitors, including the Chevrolet Cobalt, Ford Focus, Mazda 3, Honda Civic, Nissan Sentra and Hyundai Elantra.