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2013 Toyota Corolla S Road Test

Trying to understand why the ubiquitous, uninteresting, and unsophisticated Corolla is so perfect for so many.

What It Is
One of the best-selling compact cars in the U.S., despite nearing the end of its lifecycle.
Best Thing
It's comfortable and relatively refined.
Worst Thing
It feels dated, is saturated with cheap materials, and it's expensive for what you get.
Snap Judgment
A not-horrible car for those who don't shop around; a woefully outdated car for everyone else.


It's not hard to figure out that the Toyota Corolla is one of the best-selling cars in the U.S., if not the world. Go anywhere, and you'll see them in droves.

The question is: Why?

Last year, Toyota vied for the top of the compact sedan charts and sold nearly 300,000 Corollas in the U.S., with the model having lingered in the market since 2009. That, in truth, isn't too impressive for a mainstream nameplate that's been around continuously in the U.S. since 1968. What is, is that the current Corolla is more or less a simple reskin of the car that landed in showrooms in in 2002. Same transmission. Same engine. Same. Exact. Size. And yet it's still handily outselling much more modern and sophisticated entrants from Chevrolet, Nissan, and Ford, among a long list of others.

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We corralled a 2013 Toyota Corolla S from the automaker to see what makes this car so appealing. Hypnotism? Kool-Aid? Is it just that good? Surely, after a week with the compact Corolla, we'd discover whatever witchcraft the Corolla had working in its favor.

What We Drove

Without knowing how much our Corolla cost at the time, I poked around the car, thinking to myself that there are worse ways to get from Point A to Point B. Nothing looked too impressive; the Corolla even still had drum brakes in back, which are almost unheard of on all but the lowliest compact cars today. Ours had an automatic transmission and a navigation system. How expensive could it possibly be?

$21,455, including $795 for destination and handling.

Even in a little more basic trim, the 2013 Toyota Corolla starts at $17,025 with a manual transmission, Bluetooth, keyless entry, and power windows and door locks. The four-speed automatic transmission--all direct competitors offer a five-speed, six-speed, or a continuously variable automatic transmission--costs an additional $1,030.

Our Corolla S model came with 17-inch wheels, "sport" cloth seats, a sunroof, and Toyota's Entune infotainment system with navigation. When we tried to price out a Corolla on Toyota's website similar to ours, we couldn't get one with all the same options ours had. We assume it's because Toyota is winding down production and paring different variations in preparation for the just-debuted and nearly all-new 2014 Corolla.

Inside of the '13 model, however, passengers are greeted with a cabin filled with hard, cheap-feeling plastics and a dated design--albeit one that's really user-friendly. Heck, there are two glove compartments, enough for all 20 pairs of gloves Corolla owners must have; the 2014 Corolla is getting rid of this must-have feature. The Corolla has six airbags and is an IIHS "Top Safety Pick" as well as a four-star government crash-safety awardee. That's out of five, by the way.

The Commute

If you dive into the etymology of Toyota nomenclature, the "S" in Toyota Corolla S is supposed to stand for "sporty." Somehow, it feels more like "spongy" and/or "soporific." Because if this car is supposed to have any semblance of sport to it beyond the body kit and tacked-on spoiler on the trunk lid, we have yet to find where.

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The Corolla is instead a comfortable, mindless cruiser, one I opted for a weekend span over a BMW X1, in fact, because I simply didn't want to have to think about driving for once. I didn't want to have to think about the weight of steering effort versus road feel--the Corolla has light steering and almost no feel. I didn't want to have to think about how it rides--comfortably and soft without quite feeling like it's wading through melted marshmallows. I didn't want something too loud or that squeaked over every patch in the road.

Much like Domino's is an easy pick for a generic, relatively edible pizza or In-N-Out will always net you a decent burger, the Corolla is a commodity whose offerings are hardly the most exciting, yet the car does everything you'd expect of basic transportation. We'd love for there to be another gear in its transmission, coaxing better than the 22.9-mpg figure we got out of it after a week. I saw 25.3 mpg out of my extended weekend of driving, which still fell below its 26 mpg city/34 mpg highway rating. For the first time in this job, I had to take out a piece of paper and a pen and calculate the Corolla's fuel economy. This may sound like a First World auto journalist problem, but every other new car I've driven over the last two years has had a built-in fuel economy computer.

All and all, the Corolla struck me as just a comfortable motorized transporter for going from one place to another. But there are other cars that will do the same tricks with a modern ambience and still cost less.

The Grocery Run

Perhaps not the best idea, I started my weekend with the Corolla by buying a new dining room table off Craigslist, underestimating its size, pretty much like what any other young adult who drives a compact car will do.

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This taught me two things: 1) If you're going to buy a table, ask for dimensions ahead of time. And, 2) always have a roommate with a hatchback, wagon, or truck on-hand for whatever you can't fit into your ill-prepared sedan. In the end, I ended up fitting three chairs and some hardware into the little car. My roommate's Subaru hatchback got the last chair and the entire table itself.

With 12.3 cubic feet of cargo space in the trunk, the Corolla is on the small side for the class, but still in the hunt. The Volkswagen Jetta leads leads all compacts with 15.5 cubic feet, and the Chevrolet Cruze, Nissan Sentra, and the Hyundai Elantra and Kia Forte aren't far behind. In our standard grocery bag test, we fit 15 bags in the Corolla's trunk; 11 with our Britax stroller. That's right on par with the Honda Civic's 16 and 10, which has but 0.2 cubic feet more capacity than the 'Rolla on paper.

Moral of the story: Buy all of your furniture unassembled from IKEA if you're in the market for a compact sedan; bring a friend with another car if you're in a '13 Corolla.

The Weekend Fun

My daily driver has a manual transmission, which doesn't allow me to wear flip-flops while driving. I was looking forward to the Corolla for the better part of a week specifically because I could avoid wearing socks and don some open-air footwear. Or something like that. I hadn't done laundry in a few days.

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Does any of that make the Corolla especially fun? Not really.

It was the most exciting thing I could say about the Corolla, however. At about 70 mph, the car's engine hums along at more 3,000 rpm. Inside, it's still moderately quiet, as I was able to carry a few conversations over the Corolla's Bluetooth system without a problem. The only part of the Corolla experience--that should be the name of an electronica group--that doesn't feel behind the times is its Entune infotainment system. Not only does it have a large touchscreen interface at your fingertips, but if you go into its "APPS" menu, Entune offers up an navigation system, Bing, Pandora, iHeartRadio, and plenty of other programs that stream off your phone and work through the car's audio system. That's also one of the only parts of the Corolla that's carrying over to the next-generation model.

Summary

When we went on the First Drive for the 2013 Nissan Sentra, that automaker brought along two very low-hanging fruit for which we'd compare its new car: The 2012 Honda Civic, a car that was redesigned shortly thereafter because it was so bad, and the 2013 Corolla. Of course, the Sentra was going to look good against those two.

Since then, Honda has made the Civic class-leading again. Yet, Toyota continues to stick closely behind in second place--at least on the sales charts--reaping massive sales numbers long after the automotive press stopped haranguing Toyota for its subpar compact. It just wasn't worth the effort anymore. Or maybe we've just not had high expectations for the Corolla in a while.

That's not to say that it's an outright horrible car; plenty of people will continue to happily buy the current-gen Corolla just because of its stalwart reliability and comfort. But when you compare it outside of its little Toyota bubble, it quickly falls behind everything else in the class. Everything.

The only consolation for this car otherwise mediocre cockroach of a car is that we've already prodded around the larger, more sophisticated 2014 Toyota Corolla, inside and out, and so far, it looks like a frontrunner in the class. We'll get to drive it later this year to see for certain. No matter what, though, we know it'll put Toyota back where the storied Corolla nameplate deserves to be: Somewhere above the bottom of the class.

Spec Box

Price-as-tested: $21,455
Fuel Economy
EPA City: 26 mpg
EPA Highway: 34 mpg
EPA Combined: 29 mpg
Cargo Space: 15 bags/11 with Britax stroller Child Seat Fitment, Second Row: Good
Estimated Combined Range: 382.8 miles
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Above Average

Notebook Quotes

"It's easy to see why the Corolla sells in droves, as it does everything well, but without any flash. I felt like I was wearing camo on the 405, I blended in really well and didn't feel the need to jam on the brakes when passing a cop hidden on the side of the road if I was moving a little quickly on the freeway." -Trevor Dorchies, Associate Editor
"So, we shouldn't be bashing Corolla because Toyota designed it to fit this horrible terrible no good single, cat-loving lifestyle for boring secretaries and librarians and accountants. We should instead be bashing the people behind the wheel." -Jason Davis, Associate Editor
"It's not exactly cheap, is it? The problem with the Corolla is that eventually, people will figure this out, and start buying other things. Toyota's new Corolla can't come soon enough." -Keith Buglewicz, News Director

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