2016 Toyota Corolla S review: It looks angry, but this economy compact is a sheep in wolf's clothing

Roadshow Editors' Rating

6.5 Overall
  • Performance 6
  • Features 7
  • Design 6
  • Media 7

The Good When matched with the continuously variable transmission, the 2016 Toyota Corolla exhibits smooth and confident acceleration and good fuel efficiency. Optional Entune infotainment features responsive and smart navigation, a solid list of digital media sources and connected apps that actually work.

The Bad When in its Sport setting, the Corolla's CVT actually seems to perform worse than its normal or manual modes. The Entune system clumsily lumps most of the infotainment functions under the Apps heading.

The Bottom Line Despite its aggressive exterior, the 2016 Toyota Corolla is just basic, boring transportation. It's a good car that gets the job done, but lacks flair or personality.

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
Antuan Goodwin/CNET

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
Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Even at its best, only the most inexperienced drivers will be fooled into believing that the Corolla is sporty, 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.

The Honda Civic, one of the Corolla's fiercest rivals, offers the camera as a standard feature on its 2015 and newer model years and innovates with the automaker's LaneWatch camera. The Mazda3 features optional blind-spot monitoring, forward-collision prevention, and lane-departure alerts. The Ford Focus will do all of that and even semi-automatically parallel park itself!

The Corolla is clearly losing the ADAS arms race.

Entune tech and navigation

The Corolla does have some interesting tech features. For example, the sedan comes standard with LED low-beam headlamps -- not just daytime running lights, but the actually forward illumination -- at all trim levels, even that Corolla L with its four-speed automatic! That's a pleasant, but odd innovation.

In the dashboard, CNET's example featured Toyota's Entune infotainment system with navigation and Entune Apps. Like the Corolla that surrounds it, Entune is fairly basic infotainment that probably won't wow you, but gets the job done.

2016 Toyota Corolla S Special Edition
Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Maps for navigation are a bit small on the 6.1-inch screen, but their resolution is crisp and are responsive to touch inputs. Voice commands are easy to use and fairly accurate and the chosen routes seemed to line up nicely with my local knowledge of the best ways to get around.

The entire interface seems intelligently laid out with only one small hitch: Toyota insists on lumping most of Entune's functionalities under the Apps category -- even things like navigation, which aren't necessarily apps, but core functions. I find it annoying that I have to tap twice to get from the audio screen to the navigation (Apps > Navigation) rather than having immediate access with a Nav button on the dash. Fortunately, the reasonably quick response time keeps this complaint a small one.

There are, however, actual apps under that Apps menu. The Entune Apps work in concert with a paired smartphone running the Entune app for Android or iOS. When connected, the Corolla can take advantage of the smartphone's data connection to grant access to Internet radio streaming, destination search services and reservations.

What's interesting is that the apps reside in the car's dashboard, so you don't actually have to install the separate iHeart Radio, Pandora or Slacker apps on your phone to access streaming radio on the go. Simply input your credentials into the Entune app and the car figures it out. This works the same way with the Yelp and Facebook Places destination search services, and the MovieTickets.com and OpenTable reservation apps.

Basic, boring transportation

In my mind, the Corolla has existed simply as sort of middle-of-the-road car for the last few generations. And there's nothing about this new one that really excites me to the point of praise, but there's also nothing really wrong with it to keep me from recommending it.

The Corolla is, rather, the embodiment of basic transportation. The sedan gets the job done -- moving people from point A to B done in a manner that's safe and fairly efficient -- but, despite a too aggressive exterior design, doesn't bring any real flair or personality to the job. The Corolla's success hinges on the fact for many drivers, the sedan's history of reliability and longstanding name are more important than flair and personality. Most people just want to hop in a mildly interesting car and get to their mildly interesting jobs on time and that's okay.

2016 Toyota Corolla S Special Edition
Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The 2016 Toyota Corolla starts at reasonable $17,230 for the base L model, but you don't want that four-speed transmission so do yourself a favor and consider the true baseline at $18,665 for the LE model. Our 2016 Corolla S Special Edition model with its red and black color scheme (inside and out) and gloss black wheels, Entune premium tech and navigation and a power sunroof totaled up to $23,520 as tested (including an $835 destination charge).

The Corolla isn't the wrong choice but, for the money, either the Ford Focus or Mazda3 would be a better alternative, a Hyundai Elantra would be a better value (besides being a much better looking car) and an all-new 2016 Honda Civic would likely be the best buy for this class.

The Corolla isn't available in the UK. In its place is the Auris small hatchback -- which we know as the new Scion iM on this side of the pond. In Australia, the Auris is sold as the Corolla Hatch alongside a Corolla Sedan, but the latter is based on the Japanese market Corolla, a different car from the one we get here in the US.

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