By Derek Price
Toyota says the Corolla is one of the most popular cars on Planet Earth, selling around 1.5 million copies in more than 150 countries each year.
That begs a question. Why?
From a driver’s standpoint, it’s hard to see what would make it such a hot seller considering it’s never been known for the classic car-magazine bullet points — horsepower, handling and sex appeal.
Look at it from a prudent buyer’s standpoint, though, and it starts to make more sense.
The Corolla’s recipe starts and ends with value, something underscored by Toyota’s decision to load it with a package of standard safety features that most of its competitors offer only as options.
Awkwardly named Toyota Safety Sense-P, this package comes at no extra cost on every trim level, including the $18,550 L model. It includes sensors that warn and react to collisions with cars and pedestrians before they happen, lane departure alert with steering assist, radar cruise control and automatic high beams.
These features are becoming common on new cars, particularly on luxury lines, but they’re rarely offered as standard equipment and even more rarely on a car priced as affordably as a base Corolla.
If the Corolla joined the circus, it would be the bang-for-the-buck freak. People would stare.
It also offers a reasonably quiet cabin, compliant highway ride and surprisingly generous back-seat leg room. Again, those are all things aimed at offering a good value, not necessarily generating Road & Track cover stories.
The Corolla flavor I tested was the XSE, still reasonably priced starting at $22,730. It’s the one that tests the limits of how far Toyota can extend this car’s appeal by making it both better equipped and sportier than it’s traditionally been known for.
In other words, it’s the Toyota that’s tackling the Honda Civic head-on.
In the Japanese economy-car wars, the Civic has always been aimed at people who like to feel the road. The Corolla has been just the opposite, trying to isolate the driver with a smoother, quieter ride.
This XSE model splits the difference. It offers a sport driving mode, 17-inch alloy wheels and multi-LED headlamps that give it a sleeker, more contemporary look.
A sports sedan it’s not, though. Its continuously variable transmission, while doing a decent job emulating the shift points of a traditional hydraulic automatic, never feels particularly invigorating. Its 1.8-liter, four-cylinder, 132-horsepower engine is competent and smooth-revving but hardly exciting.
Then again, that’s not the point.
Fuel economy is where the Corolla shines best. My tester with 17-inch wheels was rated for 36 mpg on the highway, but the best numbers come with a different trim built to impress at the gas pump: the LE Eco model.
The LE Eco is, oddly, also the most powerful Corolla with a specially tuned 140-horsepower engine, special tires, aerodynamic underbody covers and a rear spoiler that all work together to help it achieve a 40-mpg highway rating.
At A Glance
What was tested?
2018 Toyota Corolla XSE ($22,730). Options: Entune premium audio with navigation ($525). Price as tested (including $895 destination charge): $24,150
Wheelbase: 106.3 in.
Length: 183.1 in.
Width: 69.9 in.
Height: 57.3 in.
Engine: 1.8-liter four cylinder (132 hp, 128 lbs.-ft.)
Transmission: Continuously variable
Fuel economy: 28 city, 35 highway
Why buy it?
It offers a lot of bang for the buck, particularly now that it’s added Toyota Safety Sense-P as standard equipment.