It’s only been about six months since I last test drove a Toyota Corolla, but now I got my hands on a 2017 model, in this case an XSE. Did the Corolla get the updates it needed to stay competitive in the compact sedan segment?
In a word, no.
I want to be clear on something first – I like the Corolla. I really do. I’m probably one of the few automotive journalists who have kind things to say about it. I like the way it looks, despite Toyota designers’ attempts at the contrary (more on that later), I like its size, I like the way I fit in it, and I like its spunky nature. It’s honest, it’s well made, and it gives the sensation that, 10 years from now, it’ll still be on the road, running just fine.
But the one thing it needs, it still didn’t get – more power.
Let’s start this review by seeing what the Corolla did get for 2017
As I said before – and in my last review – I like the way the Corolla looks. It’s a well-proportioned small sedan with tasteful, elegant lines. It never needed any kind of extra adornment to look good. I contrast that with the new Honda Civic, which people seem to love but I can’t get my head around. It’s like poorly folded origami – it wants to look like something, but it looks like nothing.
But then Toyota designers had to put on That Nose.
To be fair, it’s only half bad. The actual “nose” of the car – and it does have one now – and the headlights are fine, but it’s that protruding, cow-catcher grille and bumper that is just way overstyled and doesn’t fit at all with the rest of the car. It would’ve been better if they just took the Corolla iM’s front fascia and put it on the sedan and been done with it.
Fortunately, it doesn’t completely spoil the rest of the car. It still strikes a good profile, and the rear three-quarter view is still its best angle.
Inside, there’s not much different about the new Corolla than the old Corolla, but the subtle differences make a difference. It does actually look like they started with the iM’s interior – the round vents are a dead giveaway – and then improved on it.
The gauge cluster has been simplified, the center infotainment stack has been smoothed out and the steering wheel controls have been updated to match the rest of the Toyota line. Otherwise, though, it’s the same interior, which is not bad at all.
I’ve read complaints about the tall, flat dash design as belonging in an SUV, but I like it. It’s clean and tasteful. Sure, it’s not as elegant as a Mazda3 or as modern as a Chevy Cruze, but its refreshingly simple.
This is where Toyota really let the Corolla down. In a time where most competitors are at or near 150 horsepower in their base engines – in some cases, much more – the Corolla has the same 1.8-liter four cylinder that makes only 132 horsepower and 128 lb-ft of torque. Of its main competitors, only the weak-sauce Nissan Sentra has less, with 130 horsepower out of its 1.8-liter mill.
Especially when combined with a CVT transmission – and granted, it’s probably the best CVT I’ve experienced – the Corolla gives new meaning to the word lethargic. No matter how good the CVT is, it can’t make up for the engine’s lack of oomph.
Making matters worse is the optional, $649 TRD exhaust system that amplifies the suckage. As the engine and CVT drone at high RPM, the exhaust – which is really loud for a factory-installed system – lets everyone know just how bad of a time you’re having. This Corolla also has an $80 TRD air filter, but I didn’t notice any power difference over the last Corolla.
I have to give some credit to Toyota for the CVT. Sure it drones sometimes – they all do – but under hard acceleration, the transmission won’t just stay at 6,000 RPM like the one in the Honda HR-V, it will actually mimic downshifts to lessen the cacophony. In sport mode, it will even blip downshifts when braking. With all the effort to make the CVT better, though, that begs the question – why didn’t they just put in a regular, geared transmission to begin with?
Ride and Handling
This is one area where the Corolla redeems itself. The ride is comfortable and smooth, especially for a car in this segment. Highway rides are a breeze, and rough roads are soaked up with competence. This being the XSE model, it’s tuned a little more for sport than comfort, but ride quality isn’t sacrificed at the alter of apex carving.
It can hold its own in the corners, too. Body roll is negligible and body motions are well controlled. Steering is numb, as are most electric systems, but this particular Corolla had a noticeable dead spot on center. The last one didn’t, so I’ll reserve judgment until I can drive another one, but it’s something to keep in mind.
The Corolla has one of the most spacious back seats in the class, and better than some midsize sedans. It makes a case for being all the car a couple or a small family would ever need. At 5′-10″, I can sit behind myself with ease, and taller back seat occupants didn’t complain about a lack of space.
Front seat space is good, too. A 6′-4″ friend sat in the front, and his only complaint was a slight lack of headroom from the sunroof. Shoulder and hip room is good, too, and the 13 cubic foot trunk is wide and flat, although the old-school hinges take some of that room away.
Comfort and Convenience
The power adjustable front seats in the XSE are comfortable, yet firm. They hold you in place around the corners, but are also long-distance comfortable. The non-adjustable lumbar support was perfect for me, but some may find it a bit intrusive.
The SofTex on the seats is just as good, if not better, than the leather on seats in other lower-end cars, and it’s easier to take care of as well.
The driving position is equally comfortable, with a good reach for the telescoping steering wheel, enough so my arms weren’t stretched out when I moved the seat back to accommodate my legs, something not all cars can boast.
The back seat is flat, but comfortable enough for two adults. Three adults will be a tight fit and it should only be attempted for short trips.
The infotainment system looks like it was ripped right out of the latest Prius. It’s a typical Toyota product, with an outdated interface – although not nearly as bad as Honda’s – that is relatively easy to use but is curiously devoid of Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. The physical buttons were replaced with touch buttons, but the operation is largely the same as it was last time, and really how it is in all Toyota products, even those with an “L” on their badges.
One benefit of the small, underpowered engine is fuel economy. The Corolla is rated at 28 mpg city, 35 mpg highway and 31 mpg combined with 17-inch wheels, but during its week with me, it got just under 30 mpg. I did drive mostly in the city, and I felt like I was wringing the engine out every time I accelerated, so it’s not a bad number.
When the CVT is in Sport mode, it definitely affects the average mileage, so for optimal economy, it’s best to leave it in normal mode.
Value and Competition
The base Corolla XSE starts at an MSRP of $22,680 with a destination charge of $865. The test car had some worthwhile options – the $525 upgraded radio with navigation, the $224 floor mat set – and some useless ones – the “performance” options listed above, $309 illuminated door sills – that brought the price up to $26,101. That’s a hefty sum, and it really puts this Corolla at a disadvantage when compared to its competition.
Granted, a lot of those options can be left off for a final price around the $24,000 mark, but that could get you a Mazda3 Grand Touring with the big 2.5-liter engine – and a manual transmission! Or it could get you a Honda Civic EX-T with a 174-horsepower turbo, and also a manual. Or any number of more powerful competitors from Chevy, Ford, Hyundai, Kia, VW, etc.
I know that I’ve read comments on other TFLcar stories saying that “we want all cars to handle like sports cars” or that “most people don’t care about power.” But I think even Joe and Jane Commuter would appreciate a little more steam under the hood for things like merging, passing, or even accident avoidance.
On the TFLcar scale of:
or Forget It,
The 2017 Toyota Corolla XSE gets a Rent It!
It pains me to give the Corolla such a low rating, because, as I said before, I actually like the car. But Toyota needs to step up and give the Corolla more power to be competitive. Then again, they sold over 300,000 of them last year, so maybe they feel they don’t need to.
I still stand behind my last review when I said that they should put the 2.5-liter, 178-horsepower engine and six-speed automatic from the RAV4 and Camry into the Corolla. It should fit – the RAV4 is on the same platform. And it’s not unprecedented – the Mazda3 has the same 2.5-liter engine in its top trim as the Mazda6’s base engine. I think it would be a great, stopgap upgrade until the new Corolla comes out.
Speaking of that, Toyota engineers better be hard at work designing the best Corolla ever. It deserves nothing less. They did it for the 2018 Camry, so maybe there’s hope after all.
2017 Toyota Corolla XSE Specifications
Price As Tested:
132 hp @ 6,000 rpm
128 lb-ft @ 4,400 rpm
Front engine/front drive
EPA fuel mileage:
28 mpg city/35 mpg highway/31 mpg combined
Check out this TFLcar throwback video of the 2014 Corolla taking on the Ike Gauntlet:
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