Corolling In The Deep

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth
corolling in the deep

This is the third thousand-ish-mile rental review I’ve done in the past few months (I drove an Elantra to Nashville in December and a Jetta to Kalamazoo, Michigan in March) and I’m starting to have a real fondness for the format. There’s a squeaky-clean pleasure in evaluating a vehicle away from the reality-distortion field of a press event or the micro-drive format of a dealership test. The only problem is finding places to go on these trips: there are only so many guitar shops, vintage clothing dealers, or long-limbed Tennessee brunettes in this world.

Luckily for me, TTAC feels a certain responsibility to cover the New York Auto Show, so I had a 551-mile commute to make and a nonexistent expense account with which to handle it. Time to call Hertz again… but I had a Rebecca Blackian dilemma concerning which seat to take. Impala? Crown Vic? Equinox? Nope, let’s keep the compact ball rolling. I asked for it, I got it: Toyota! More specifically, I got a Corolla.

Little did I know that, fewer than twenty-four hours after arriving in the city where I was born, I would be fleeing Gotham in disarray.

I’m not sure exactly what kind of Corolla I received from the yellow-sign folks. It looked like an “S” from a distance but didn’t have a USB port or “S” badges. Call it nearly an “S”, then, and let’s guesstimate the price at $17,990. It’s that rarest of things: a genuinely outdated mainstream Japanese-branded automobile. This generation has been available globally for over six years, and upon its debut it had the definite look of a thorough but timid update to the previous car. Were this an Impala or Town Car, we’d have self-appointed experts telling us that it’s basically a thirteen-year-old vehicle, but the Law Of English-speaking Foreign-Platform Ignorance applies here and therefore the Corolla gets a pass from the average forum rat.

The infamous Vodka McBigbra doesn’t read Web forums, and therefore she didn’t have the decency to keep her mouth shut as we pulled onto the Interstate. “Oh. My. God. This. Car. Is. So. Loud.” She was right, too. It’s mostly road noise and mechanical stuff, not wind, but the Corolla requires a solid twist of the Typical Toyota Playskool Volume Knob to drown out the din. The recording with which I’d hoped to pass the first few hours, an amateur recording of the Pat Metheny Trio in San Severino, was unusable in this context. The dynamics of the performance made half of it inaudible and the other half punishing. The same was true for my next choice, Corinne Bailey Rae’s “The Sea”. We ended up settling on Gary Moore’s “Bad For You Baby”. The recently-deceased Moore engineered his records to almost a Black Eyed Peas’ worth of consistent compression, all the better to make that Les Paul BFG scream.

“I’m going to be deaf when this trip is over,” Vodka complained. “And I’m also wondering if — STOP JERKING THE CAR BACK AND FORTH!”

“I’m not doing anything,” I whined. “It’s the car.” And it really was the car, dear readers. The Corolla was rapidly shaping up to be the worst freeway whip I’d driven in years. The torque converter in the prehistoric four-speed automatic locks up early and stays locked when the throttle is released. The Corolla, therefore, bucks just like a stick-shift car when you come off the right pedal. However, since your humble author drives a lot of manual-transmission automobiles, I am in the habit of reducing throttle semi-smoothly even if the car doesn’t require that I do so. Toyota’s cruise control, on the other hand, has no such compunction. Heading downhill on a freeway, the computer will repeatedly cut and reinstate throttle, setting up an alarming rocking motion that is guaranteed to rustle one’s jimmies. As a former VW owner, I interpreted every throttle cut as this bitch just died on me, causing me to spend the first two hundred or so miles of this trip in perpetual panic.

Toyota’s next questionable decision: putting the cruise-control stalk at about 4:30 on the steering wheel. Every time I set the cruise, I would take my foot off the throttle, which caused me to reposition my right leg, which caused my knee to bump the cruise stalk forward, which canceled the cruise, which caused the throttle to cut, which caused the Corolla to pitch forward, which caused me to think this bitch just died on me, which caused me to stop reading Literotica’s “NonConsent/Reluctance” section on my Droid3 long enough to look for any available shoulder on which to pull the dying Toyopet before the Kenworth behind me hit my reluctant ass with a nonconsensual pulling up to the proverbial bumper in the proverbial long black limousine. Exciting stuff.

I never completely came to a peaceful accommodation with the Corolla’s tug-job ways, but after three or four hundred miles I was able to let my anger go and focus on the little sedan’s other salient features. Let me take a minute here to discuss the first time I drove a Lotus Elise, many years ago. I was just sooooo impressed by the twin-hooded Stack instrument panel and hard-core flat-bottomed steering wheel. “This,” I remember thinking, “separates the sporting vehicles from the pretenders.”

No longer. If the Elise was Bob Dylan, this Corolla is that new Miley Cyrus take on “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”. To make things just slightly more depressing, the metallic inserts on the Corolla’s wheel weren’t securely fastened. I worried them with my thumbs like one pokes a sore tooth with one’s tongue, rocking them back and forth, making the situation worse. V. McB, meanwhile, was poking at a sore tooth with her tongue. Something wasn’t quite right with a crown she’d had performed the day before.

This is normally the time in a TTAC piece where someone discusses understeer. I didn’t find any, even running 85mph down some fairly cramped sections of Route 80 in Pennsylvania where the trucks were down to 60 or so and Jake-braking with a vengeance. Sorry about that. Nor was there any “snap oversteer at the limit”. Nor was the Corolla unable to climb a hill, although the fucking noise it made when it finally unclipped the torque converter and grabbed third sounded like someone had a “bumpy drill” against my molars. Dynamically, the car was okay. The only demerit I’d assign was a certain unwillingness to stay straight in even the lightest crosswind. What do you expect? It’s a small car that has gotten amazingly tall and tippy-looking since retreating from the sublime near-perfection of its 1991-vintage seventh generation.

The Corolla is easy to park, so park it we did before riding the bus to the Javits Center for the first day of the New York Auto Show. As the phrase goes, however, uneasy lies the head that has a recent crown, so when Vodka’s porcelain faux-tooth finally made its bloody bid for freedom we’d completed just half of the event. Time to split, and no time to mess around with it.

I stopped just once in the 551-mile trip back, covering the distance in a less than Cannonball-worthy seven hours and twenty-four minutes. All the Corolla annoyances continued to annoy: the noise, the cruise control, the mild wandering, the transmission, the steering wheel, and some other things I haven’t yet mentioned, like the center armrest which somehow managed to be sharp-edged, unpleasantly hard, and yet oddly wobbly. You get the idea, right? I didn’t like this car. It isn’t that I would take a Jetta or Elantra over the Corolla. It’s more like a situation where I would take the bus over the Corolla. The Jetta, in particular, just has it beat six ways to Sunday.

Cometh the final fillup, however, I achieved some perspective.

1107.7 miles / 30.737 gallons = 36.04mpg

Only now, at the end, did I understand. The dumb-assed transmission was actually not dumb-assed at all. It simply had different priorities than I did, with the biggest priority being saving me money. Think of it. A platform that is probably something like eighty-four in dog years, with an engine/transmission combo for which the term “antiquated” is a polite obfuscation, turns in monster mileage. Surely, also, it would continue to do so well past the Singularity and/or the end of oil. Only a sucker would bet against a Corolla’s reliability.

Something’s going on here. Either Toyota really understands the compact market, or I really don’t. Perhaps it’s both. No, I wouldn’t buy a Corolla. I wouldn’t even rent another one: I’ll pay the extra gas money and drive something that isn’t a complete travail to operate. If you buy one, however, I will understand.

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2 of 162 comments
  • Outback_ute Outback_ute on Apr 09, 2012

    I drive a Corolla for work & I agree with you on a lot of things, can't say I've been bothered by the wandering though. At least it is better than the previous model, the extra track width has raised the the onset of 'slow down' mushy body roll in corners a worthwhile amount. Push a bit harder and there is understeer to be had, but that is true for any car. The 4sp auto - yes it works but the ratios are just too widely-spaced, and it suffers on hills or when you want power after it changes gear. I've seen ~25mpg in heavy-footed city use to 33mpg on the highway, so I'd guess the terrain Jack saw was mostly flat to get that figure. I'd think of a lot of other cars to buy before the Corolla, but as a basic transport appliance it hits the spot.

  • Ponchoman49 Ponchoman49 on Apr 10, 2012

    Detroit's Malaise era was considered to be during the mid 70's to early 80's. Mid 2000 to current is Toyos Malaise era and this is a shining example. Both my cousin and dad's elderly friend have 2010 LE sedans without cruise control and automatic. My cousin's has been in the shop for a defective battery that left her stranded, a squealing belt that turned out to be a bad alternator bearing, then 6 months later the belt tensioner went south. Dad's friends car which has but 6K miles already has several interior rattles, a defective gas cap which threw a code and cel light and the transmission sometimes flares when going into 4th gear which I did not notice on my cousin's car. He is bringing it in as we speak to see what they are going to do about that(maybe a transmission flash). When asked how they like there cars both think they are tinny and cheaply constructed but knew this when going into the purchase but neither said they would probably buy another next time around which speaks volumes about the car in general.

  • SilverCoupe I am one of those people whose Venn diagram of interests would include Audis and Formula One.I am not so much into Forums, though. I spend enough time just watching the races.
  • Jeff S Definitely and very soon. Build a hybrid pickup and price it in the Maverick price range. Toyota if they can do this soon could grab the No 1 spot from Maverick.
  • MaintenanceCosts Would be a neat car if restored, and a lot of good parts are there. But also a lot of very challenging obstacles, even just from what we can see from the pictures. It's going to be hard to justify a restoration financially.
  • Jeff S Ford was in a slump during this era and its savior was a few years away from being introduced. The 1986 Taurus and Sable saved Ford from bankruptcy and Ford bet the farm on them. Ford was also helped by the 1985 downsize front wheel drive full sized GM cars. Lincoln even spoofed these new full size GM cars in an ad basically showing it was hard to tell the difference between a Cadillac, Buick, and Oldsmobile. This not only helped Lincoln sales but Mercury Grand Marquis and Ford Crown Victoria sales. For GM full size buyers that liked the downsized GM full size 77 to 84 they had the Panther based Lincoln Town Cars, Mercury Grand Marquis, and Ford Crown Victorias that were an alternative to the new GM front wheel drive full size cars that had many issues when they were introduced in 1985 and many of those issues were not resolved for several years. The Marks were losing popularity after the Mark Vs.
  • SCE to AUX Toyota the follower, as usual. It will be 5 years before such a vehicle is available.I can't think of anything innovative from them since the Gen 1 Prius. Even their mythical solid state battery remains vaporware.They look like pre-2009 General Motors. They could fall hard.