2016 Toyota Corolla S review

Once upon a time, there lived the Toyota Corolla, a frisky little compact car by an eager little Japanese automaker. It wasn’t the fastest thing on wheels, but it was nimble and reliable and one of the best cars in its class. This isn’t a story about that Corolla, but about its great-great-great-(and so on)-grandchild, the 11th generation, 2016 Toyota Corolla S.

The new Corolla is larger than it’s ever been — model year creep has snuck the Corolla into the EPA’s mid-sized sedan designation alongside the current Camry. At about 182 inches long, the 2016 Corolla is 8 inches longer from nose to tail as the 1994 Toyota 4Runner that I learned to drive in!

The 11th generation is also the most aggressively styled model yet with sharply creased sheetmetal and glossy black trim. This ‘Special Edition’ model that I was able to test features sporty, gloss black alloy wheels and contrasting red interior stitching. This is one angry looking compact sedan, but beneath that wolf’s clothing is a rather dull sheep.

The Corolla isn’t an exciting car; it hasn’t been for the many generations. Yet, it manages to maintain a surprising level of success in the face of stiff competition with a long-standing reputation as solidly basic transportation and an old name that’s almost synonymous with simple reliability.

2016 Toyota Corolla S Special Edition

CVTi-S: Teaching an old engine new tricks

Toyota hasn’t taken many chances with that reputation of simple and reliable transportation, which is why the new Corolla’s specs don’t look much different now than they did two decades ago. At the base level, the formula is a simple one: a proven four-cylinder engine, a bulletproof automatic transmission and milquetoast front-wheel drive performance. The entry-point Corolla L is even available with a decades-old four-speed automatic transmission.

The Corolla’s engine room is occupied by Toyota’s 1.8-liter four-cylinder (2ZR-FE) motor, which makes a stated 132 peak horsepower and 128 pound-feet of torque. The engine uses the automaker’s dual variable valve timing system, but still uses port fuel injection — while the best of its competition have moved on to more efficient direct injection — which saddle the Toyota with middling performance and fuel economy.

Fortunately, not all of the Corolla’s tech is so dated. On LE and S trim levels, the sedan ditches the old 4-speed tranny in favor of a new and shiny Continuously Variable Transmission with intelligence and Shift Mode — CVTi-S. Before you groan, I should state that this transmission is a pretty good match for the 1.8-liter’s power band and my expectations for the Corolla’s performance.

Around town the CVTi-S makes the most of the 2ZR-FE’s 128 pound-feet, resulting in acceptable, but not exciting, levels of acceleration and throttle responsiveness. The setup seems to reward a patient driver with a smooth right foot. Roll onto the throttle and the CVTi-S will crossfade into the right part of the engine’s power band for passing power. However, sharp inputs are met with hesitation and hunting for the right ratio.

There’s a Sport button on the center console that in theory should liven the powertrain’s performance, but in practice just makes the throttle response a bit too sharp — leading to the sort of hesitation I just mentioned, at best. At worst, it makes the transmission exhibit the sort of ‘rubber band’ behavior where the revs are in constant flux, the acceleration is unpredictable and the vehicle feels unsettled.

If you insist on driving the Corolla quickly, instead slap the transmission into its manual-shifting mode and toggle through six static ratios with the paddle shifters. In this mode, the CVTi-S behaves a bit more like a conventional transmission and is able to deliver more predictable acceleration, better throttle response and better access to the 132 peak ponies.

2016 Toyota Corolla S Special Edition

Even at its best, only the most inexperienced drivers will be fooled into believing that the Corolla issporty, but I did like that its front-wheel drive performance was predictable and that its modest handling limits were well defined and felt safe.

The Corolla S is good for 32 combined mpg according to the EPA’s estimates, which breaks out to 29 city and 37 highway. Not bad for an old engine design.

A Corolla ECO LE trim level is also available. Using a new Valvematic head on the same 1.8-liter block, this more efficient variant is able to achieve 30 city, 40 highway and 34 combined mpg while making 140 horsepower and 128 pound-feet of torque.

Advanced driver-assistance systems

This will be an exceptionally short section because advanced driver-assistance systems (or ADAS) are practically nonexistent on the new Corolla. A backup camera is available as part of an Entune technology package — which we’ll get back to shortly — but that’s about the extent of it.

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