Compact Sedan Fills in the Basics

Njuguna Kabugi | 9/26/2012, 5:50 p.m.

The Corolla is the car that put Toyota on the map. First introduced in 1966, the Corolla has sold more than 39 million units to date. As Corolla sales increased worldwide, Toyota's stature as a serious global contender grew.

By the late 1970s, Corolla had surpassed the Volkswagen Beetle as the bestselling nameplate in the world. After GM declared bankruptcy in 2009, Toyota quickly took over as the world's largest carmaker and it pretty much goes without saying that Corolla has been central to this success.

The Corolla has a lot going for it, foremost, legendary reliability that has rewarded its loyal buyers with many years of largely trouble-free ownership experience. It is among the safest cars in its class - a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety where it has earned the top score of "good" in frontal, side, rear and roof-strength crash tests. It has also performed well in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's crash tests.

With its storied history, Corolla is the type of car that were it in a less competitive segment; I would recommend a potential car buyer to look no further. But, after spending a week with a brand new Corolla, I am left with the feeling that this Toyota may now be lagging behind the competition.

During the week prior to my time with the Corolla, I spent days driving the Corolla's competition: the Mazda3, Ford Focus and Hyundai Elantra. I also spent several days driving the Scion tC, also made by Toyota.

Toyota, in my humble opinion, needs to refresh the Corolla because the competition has caught up. In a few cases, the competitors have surpassed the Corolla which over the past 20 years has served as a benchmark among compact cars for value, quality and dependability. The current Corolla looks dated and feels cramped compared with shapelier young rivals that use their space more efficiently. The competitors also offer versatile hatchback or sporty two-door-coupe alternatives to their basic four-door sedan body style.

The Corolla has decent fuel economy, but other compact cars offer better. Maybe it was the lethargic acceleration from the 132-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine paired with an optional four-speed automatic transmission? Sure, I muddled through D.C. area commutes with little to no worry, but my test car offered little of the excitement I got driving the competition.

The Corolla didn't come close to the Ford Focus or Scion for tracking around fast bends on rural Virginia roads or on the Rock Creek Parkway, and did not match the Mazda3 for crisp response on local thoroughfares. Compared to the Hyundai, the test car had a floaty feel, with handling that was much less precise.

I would have preferred a little more pep; cruising just a wee bit faster on I-95 to my son's soccer game. Mind you, I wasn't doing doughnuts in the parking lot either; but I would have appreciated tighter handling, especially for such a small car.

Though the current Corolla is long overdue for an upgrade, not all is lost. The automaker will soon roll out a newer version, pulling out all stops to keep it a best seller. Toyota says that one in three of its customers who bought Corollas in the last few years will eventually trade in their car for another Corolla - easily earning it one of the highest customer loyalty ratings of any automobile.

Within Toyota's long-term strategy, it's also important to note that while the U.S. automobile market is important, it is but one component of automakers' global sales, and the tastes and needs of drivers worldwide are quite different than those in America. The pricing for the 2012 Toyota Corolla starts at $17,100, with a $795 destination charge.