The 2016 Toyota Corolla is this year's version of car that has epitomized basic, trouble-free, and relatively comfortable transportation for 40 years now. And a new effort to keep its technology up to date and add at least a bit of flair to the design has made it more appealing. While the current version isn't what you might call charming, it's more interesting and engaging that its anodyne predecessors in earlier generations.
For 2016, there are essentially no changes to the Corolla, save for a new Special Edition based on the sporty Corolla S with CVT. Only 8,000 will be sold, in three colors used only on this model. They feature special gloss-black 17-inch alloy wheels, a black interior with red contrast stitching and red dash and door accents, keyless ignition with the Smartkey system, and special floor mats and badges. The sole options are the power moonroof and the Entune Premium Audio system with navigation and the app suite.
The company stepped up its game when it launched the current Corolla as a 2014 model. The compact four-door sedan that has been at or near the top of U.S. sales charts for decades got crisper, sportier looks, a quieter cabin, and a healthy dollop of the in-car technology today's small-car shoppers expect. It's still priced low for the high value it delivers, but now you might pick the Corolla for reasons beyond the bottom line and watching your dollars.
Toyota says the new Corolla's shape is "more athletic," and indeed its lines are crisper compared to its bland predecessors. We see bits and pieces of various other current models in its overarching design as well as some of the styling details, so we're not sure that the core design concept—"Iconic Dynamism"—is entirely justified. Less iconic, more iterative, perhaps.
A longer wheelbase stretches the center section—this Corolla is 3 inches longer than its predecessor—and puts the wheels toward the corners of the body. The windshield and roof pillars are slightly more angled, and the car is a little more wedge-shaped, with angled frontal shapes and a turned-up beltline at the back of each rear door. The sportier stance benefits from LED headlamps and running lamps on all models; the sporty Corolla S model gets a blacked-out grille with fog lamps flanking a more aggressive airdam, plus an integrated rear spoiler that visually raises the tail.
Two different 4-cylinder engines, both of 1.8 liters, can be paired with different transmissions. The one in L, LE, and S models is rated at 132 horsepower and 128 pound-feet of torque; the variant used in the more fuel-efficient LE Eco trim comes in at 140 hp—but you won't see much difference between the two on the road.
Most buyers will opt for the continuously variable transmission (CVT), which is tuned to provide a reassuring, almost linear feel during light and moderate acceleration, while minimizing the "drone" that plagues CVTs used in other small cars. Base and S models can be ordered with a 6-speed manual gearbox, while the base model forgoes the CVT for an ancient and slow 4-speed automatic. The CVT in the S is tuned to mimic a 7-speed automatic, complete with paddles to click through them.
Overall, the CVT cars get better gas-mileage ratings, with the LE Eco the highest of all in its base form—though adding options drops its ratings down slightly. If you enjoy driving, the Corolla S should be your only choice: Its suspension is tuned more like that of a sport sedan—with a special Sport button that firms up the steering, and a ride that feels firm yet absorbent and nicely damped. Other models in the lineup remain a bit springy and pillowy.
Inside, the Corolla is surprisingly roomy. The front seats are comfortable and Toyota has lengthened their cushions; despite that, the Corolla will seat four 6-footers without front-seat occupants having to slide their seats far forward. Head room in the rear seat isn't as generous as the leg room, though. Trunk space is about average for the segment, with a long, flat floor, plus flip-forward rear seatbacks in all models.
Inside, the look and feel of the Corolla's cabin is more conservative than the crisp and contemporary exterior might suggest. The upscale materials and a two-tier dash design maximize the sense of space in front, but the car gives the impression it's aiming less for a sporty compact-car feel and more for a rival to mass-market mid-size sedans. Soft-touch material covers the dash, with pinstriped accents strewn about the cabin on the dashboard and door panels. Corolla S models get leather-like SofTex bolsters and coarse, contrast-toned seat upholstery.
The 2016 Corolla gets decent safety ratings, though not perfect, and it received only a "Marginal" rating—one step above the lowest "poor"—from the IIHS on its new small-overlap front crash test. The NHTSA gives the Corolla an overall five-star rating, though, its highest, and its only other drawback is that missing several of the advanced active-safety systems that are fast becoming the norm across most segments. The Corolla has eight standard airbags along with Toyota's Star Safety system, which includes vehicle stability control, traction control, anti-lock braking system, electronic brake-force distribution, and brake assist.
The Corolla range is comprised of four trim levels: L, LE, S, and a new LE Eco model. All Corollas come with standard with air conditioning, Bluetooth pairing, LED low-beam headlights with LED daytime running lights, in-glass AM/FM antenna, color-keyed outside mirrors and door handles, a 60/40-split fold-down rear seat, and power locks, doors, and mirrors.
Across the lineup, Toyota now offers infotainment systems that aren't just competitive, but among the better systems in this class of affordable car when you consider their interfaces, ease of use, connectivity, and sound. Toyota's latest Entune system, featuring navigation and apps in some models, lift the automaker's inexpensive-car cabins out of the dark ages, and they're widely available in the lineup.A Driver Convenience Package, with a moonroof, Smart Key entry, Navigation, Entune Premium Audio, and the App Suite, is available on the LE, S, and LE Eco Premium models.
The most efficient Corolla, the LE Eco, manages up 42 mpg on the highway. The rest of the lineup isn't far behind: between 27/36/31 mpg and 29/37/32 mpg, depending on configuration.