I like to believe that the general population’s insensitivity to the joys of automotive design, engineering and performance is a simple matter of missed opportunity. If the average driver had suckled on Hot Wheels' sweet metallic tang from toddler-hood, if a mechanically-minded mentor had gently and gradually revealed the wondrous secrets of the automotive arts during their teenage years, if they’d been shown how to harness horsepower with skill and respect as adult drivers, they’d share my passion for cars with genuine soul. Meanwhile, Toyota sells millions of Corollas and no one complains. Why would they?
Aesthetically speaking, there’s nothing particularly kvetch-worthy about your basic Corolla. The lines are clean and understated (i.e. unrelentingly generic and utterly forgettable). There’s no wrong answer when describing a three-box design with the requisite front clip folly of swept back headlights and a flashy plastic grille. And the infusion of sculpted amorphic taillights to a snub-nosed posterior isn’t in poor taste.
The ground-effects equipped Corolla “S” is a different– and important– matter. Fully 14 out of 16 photos on ToMoCo’s official website showcase the S: an adhesive-backed insult to the Import Tunerz sporting a dainty decklid spoiler and a tragically short tailpipe extension. Aside from the dressy 16” wheels that show off the rear’s dour drum brakes, the Corolla S’ sport factor isn’t fooling anyone– except (perhaps) for easily impressed, fictional documentarians from the Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. “Nice. Very nice.”
The cabin answers to that description without irony. The Corolla S offers a pseudo-upscale interior with delightfully comfortable cloth seating for four. The leather clad three-spoke rim improves the Corolla’s awkward tiller-to-driver seating position. The S-grade gauges have class-appropriate pseudo-sportiness, although their red and white motif turns to Siamese baseballs by night. And the base stereo hits the requisite highs and lows with moderate enthusiasm.
But wait, there’s less! Rotary knobs and switches are clumsy and clunky, and the chrome trimmed-shifter looks out of place in the cabin’s sea of flat black. More importantly, at every touch point, the Corolla is cursed with Toyota’s latest form of competitive advantage: borderline beancounting. The plastics are harder than cubic zirconium, and the engineering shows a lack of attention to detail. For example, the sun visor sucker-punches the (optional) lighted rearview mirror through its downward motion. Whoops.
Still, price points, polymer pickiness and all that. the Corolla’s cabin is acceptably sporty for people who consider sportiness a series of marketing-related cues, rather than a genuine dedication to harmonious performance prowess. And if you grok that, you’ll understand the rationale behind its dynamic “prowess.”
The Corolla S is motivated by a 1.8-liter four-banger. To compensate for the mini mill’s lack of power (126hp @ 6000rpm), Toyota’s cursed the S with jumpy throttle mapping. Part throttle inputs are an exercise in accelerative overkill; call it slow and furious. Summon some highway passing power and the wide ratio four-speed slushbox gives a whole lot of nothing. Still, a scamper to sixty takes all of eight seconds; not a shameful figure considering the 26/35 EPA window sticker.
If you don’t ask for much, you get plenty in return. At reasonable speeds, the Corolla S’ cheapo twist-beam axle keeps the rear tires composed on all but the sharpest corners. The steering is tight. The S’ compliant suspension and absence of body flex and/or roll delivers a smooth and composed ride. Behold! The Corolla’s stock in trade.
With 122lb-ft of twist on tap, torque steer is a non-issue. Push hard and the hyper-throttle sends the stiff tires howling in disapproval. More understeer and nods of disapproval from pedestrians soon follow. On the positive side, whatever speed you [eventually] achieve is easily retarded with the S’ responsive and linear stoppers, drum brakes and all. Taken as a whole, the Corolla S only feels sporty at 7/10ths. Beyond that, options like ABS, side air bags, and the active handling nanny become mandatory.
Cavil if you must, but there’s no peer for the Corolla’s reputation for quality and durability. Intangibles like that are fine for most, but enthusiastic drivers prefer items like a fully independent suspension and rear disc brakes. If you want more, spend less. The Mazda3 offers more power, poise and interior quality for hundreds less. Even the rightfully-panned Ford Focus serves a fully independent suspension and more gadgets for the same coin. If you look closely, Toyota’s reputation premium threatens to destroy their value proposition.
Anyway, reliability be damned. There’s no excuse for the Corolla S’ haphazard approach to spirited driving. At least not for people who genuinely give a damn about such things, or even understand what driving pleasure is all about. In fact, I suspect the S is nothing more than the anti-Corolla Corolla: the model customers choose to say “I drive a Corolla but I like cars.” Like, not love.