When it comes to offering buyers a reliable four door sedan that can safely haul people and cargo from one place to another, one venerable nameplate has always stood out among compact car buyers, the Toyota Corolla.
While the bulk of the changes for 2018 are focused on its new hatchback sibling (which we tested a short while ago,) the sedan still soldiers on for 2018 with very minimal changes. But can this infusion of minimalist themed updates allow the aging Corolla to still maintain its iron grip on top of the compact sedan segment?
Or is it time for this icon to get the ground up redesign it so desperately needs?
To find out, we recently spent some time behind the wheel of a 2018 Toyota Corolla SE, and took it straight into the heart of Detroit to see if it can still hang with segment rivals. The exterior styling of our SE tester is supposed to represent the sportier side of the Corolla, and it certainly managed to live up to that thanks in part to its slick Barcelona Red paint job, which helped our tester stand out from the crowd. Other more discrete touches include a sportier front fascia that features a gloss black mesh pattern grille, 17-inch alloy wheels, and other minor trim alterations. We appreciate Toyota's attempts at spicing up the Corolla's flanks, but with entries like the 2019 Kia Forte and the Nissan Sentra upping their aesthetic game, the Corolla is starting to noticeably fall behind its rivals.
The interior of the 2018 Corolla may seem unchanged at first glance, but look at the finer details, and you'll discover that the bulk of the changes are in areas where you might not expect. For example for buyers that occasionally have to use the Corolla as a rolling styling station, Toyota engineers added lighted vanity mirrors for both the driver and front passenger sun visors. Meanwhile XLE and SE models like our tester now feature a leather wrapped steering wheel, and revamped steering wheel controls.
Wheras the 2017 model forced you to dig through the Entune infotainment system to access key menus, the driver can now control features such as Bluetooth, audio adjustments, active safety settings, and more with satellite buttons (a feature that should please consumers that were befuddled by the old arraignment.)
The Entune system itself is a decent unit to operate, but like before, menus are spaced too close together, and once again we were forced to operate without built in navigation. Toyota does give you the option of using it via the Scout App. But that solution requires putting Scout on the phone in question, and in our view, its more efficient to just use Google Maps to help get the directions you need. Thankfully, the back seat of the Corolla is compromise free, and still offers occupants decent amounts of room to stretch out. It's not a Mercedes S-Class, but it is one of the better back seats we have seen in a compact four door.
It's just a shame that the rest of the interior is largely a hit or miss affair. While base models embrace their role as a cheap penalty box, higher trims add some enhancements, but still suffer from quality issues. During our tester's time with us, we noticed that the Entune screen and the surrounding black trim were fingerprint magnets, and the plastics here are a significant step back from the more upscale materials we have seen in the Mazda 3, as well as the Honda Civic.
Performance for the Corolla has not changed for the 2018 model year, which means its business as usual when it comes to not getting that much driving enjoyment from the car. Like before an anemic 1.8 liter four cylinder provides middling amounts of performance, with only a meager 132 horsepower providing leisurely acceleration. Transmission offerings are limited to either a six speed manual, or a CVT, but unlike other compact offerings, we cannot recommend the manual option. While a shift-it-yourself option usually cures all ills, in the Corolla, the combination of low torque, and an obnoxiously high take in point sap much of the fun out of the car when getting it up and moving.
Our tester arrived with the CVT which is on par with other CVTs in its segment, and did a good job going through the motions in daily driving. However, like a heavy sleeper who doesn't like getting out of bed right away, the CVT does not like being rushed in spirited driving, and instead prefers to take its time when it comes to acceleration. For those that are curious how long it takes the Corolla to reach 60 mph, our tester eventually completed the jog to 60 in a stagnant 9.5 seconds. We are hopeful that Toyota will eventually add a turbocharged option to the Corolla when it enters its next generation redesign, it's exactly the double shot of espresso that the model needs to boost its value for fun factor.
Once you look past the half-hearted showing by its performance hardware, the Corolla manages to shine in other areas. Handling for instance is relatively secure, and SE and XSE models benefit from the larger wheels and tires. The trade off is a harsher ride, but it's not as bone jarring as some more sport focused models. The Corolla's small size also proved to be a valuable asset navigating the narrow streets and alleys of downtown Detroit while attending a boxing match at the Masonic Temple Theater. Our tester was truly in its element here, and like Clarissa Shields, was able to go into spaces where bigger cars would dread going, and land its shots perfectly. However, like others of its species, the steering in our tester had too much boost, but we will give points for its quick turn in, and the way it fit seamlessly into our hands while driving the Corolla around town. These traits re-emerged once again when me and Emily took the Corolla to visit Lansing, Michigan and grab dinner at Bul-Go-Gi (a traditional Korean restaurant) as well as a brief layover at Pinball Petes.
Pricing for the 2018 Toyota Corolla starts at $18,700 for the bare bones L model, with LE and LE Eco models firmly in the $19,000 price bracket. SE models like our tester start at $20,645, with our car's $1,535 SE Premium package and $895 destination fee pushing the final sticker to $22,925. While this pricing lets the Corolla hang with its rivals, a closer look at the finer details reveals that it is falling quickly behind the pack.
The Honda Civic for example has upped its athletic prowess for 2018, and not only makes more power from its base engine than the Corollas entire model lineup, but also offers a more viable hatchback layout. Meanwhile, the 2019 Kia Forte has been heavily updated, and not only offers a better overall driving experience then the Corolla, but also a denser pool of standard equipment including an 8.0 inch touchscreen infotainment system and support for both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Lastly for buyers wanting to take in one last morsel of the Ford Focus before Ford goes all in on its bold and profit focused push towards CUVs and SUVs, the 2018 model (ST and RS excluded for fairness purposes) can still be found in many dealer lots despite the Blue Oval recently ending advertising for both it and the bigger Fusion sedan to try and make folks forget about them. Base models also make more power than the Corolla, and higher trims can be equipped with Ford's slick SYNC infotainment system which has a leg up on Toyota's Entune system, and offers better menu layout in return.
In short, the 2018 Toyota Corolla is still a potent entry in the compact sedan segment that certainly offers buyers a somewhat compelling way to get from Point A to Point B with minimal fuss. However, the compact sedan genre is constantly evolving, and the Corolla's grip on the kingdom is slowly eroding as its rivals add more tech, power, and style to their list of must have features. We look forward to its eventual redesign to see if Toyota will bring the long sought after spark that the Corolla needs to stay ahead of the game.