A Toyota Corolla is not a car bound for a pampered, garage-kept existence. It is instead a utilitarian conveyance that will live the hardest life possible in the hands of people who won’t be kind to it, precisely because it is a common Corolla—cheap, reliable and robust. So, I wasn’t kind to the Corolla I was loaned either. I took it on a time-speed-distance rally in the middle of winter in the northeast.
(Full disclosure: I needed a car while I was in the northeast this January, so Toyota let me use this Corolla to fetch pork roll sandwiches, pass Amish buggies, and oh yes: enter in a winter rally. It came with a full tank of gas which was promptly eaten up driving across Pennsyltucky.)
If you or your family have never owned one of these small Toyota sedans, you probably know several people who have. Toyota built such a reputation for reliability that the ubiquitous Corolla is as common in high school lots as it is in the garages of corporate America. Corollas are driven by the young and old alike. Corolla owners are many. They are legion. You cannot escape the Corolla.
The Corolla is by no means an enthusiast’s car, but its run-of-the-mill status invites a certain lack of care and hooliganism. You accidentally curbed a wheel, but oh well; it’s a Corolla. You don’t care if your kid roasts the clutch when he’s learning how to drive; meh, it’s a Corolla. You need a car to get places even though vehicular maintenance is a foreign concept, so you bought a Corolla.
For 50 years now, Corollas have had the reputation of a car that will just take whatever gets thrown at it. They’re simply hard to break.
But is Toyota’s newest Corolla just as unbreakable? While I can’t simulate your forgetful aunt’s years of neglect, I could at least take it through some adverse conditions. So in January, I took a manual 2016 Corolla S into the woods of upstate New York and Pennsylvania to do a winter road rally to find out.
Brisk-paced winter road rallies don’t exist in Texas, so I really wanted to do one again while I was in the northeast. For me, winter driving is a novelty, and whenever I go somewhere else, I want to take on as many cool things as possible that I don’t get at home. I had a blast with the first winter rally I tried, so the second I found out I’d be around for another one, I was all over it.
The humble, pedestrian Corolla isn’t the all-wheel-drive beater Subaru, Audi or Mitsubishi you’d usually see roll up to an event that involves slushy, unpaved winter roads, but it was available. I found out that there was a rally shortly before I left for the northeast, so the options available in the press vehicle pool on short notice were a Corolla and a Tacoma. Even though the Tacoma is a smaller truck, I still felt as if it’d be easier to navigate the compact sedan through narrow country roads better than a pickup.
So, Corolla it was. Thing is, given the Corolla’s usual hard life—a true purchase it and whatever, dude car if there is one—this turned out to be the perfect test. After all, there’s great joy to be had in driving cars that aren’t meant for something outside of their prescribed purpose.
Anyone can drive something like a Lancer Evolution fast in the mud because cars like that can sometimes make you feel like a superhero just for being the knob behind the wheel. A Corolla, though? There’s a challenge.
The Rally Test
The plan was to take the Corolla out of Pennsylvania up to the Ithaca Winter Rallye—a TSD rally held on some of upstate New York and Pennsylvania’s most troublesome public roads. In TSD rallies, you can choose which average speed you’d like to run—36, 40 or 45 mph, all of which are legal speeds on the roads chosen for the rally—however, you had to arrive at each checkpoint at the prescribed time for whatever speed you were running.
Co-driving with me for the rally was OppositeLock moderator and stage rally co-driver Steven “Dusty Ventures” Harrell, who probably got tired of hearing me ask what my next turn was for hours upon end.
There was ice. There was mud. We took a few wrong turns. Checkpoints, as usual, were cleverly hidden around blind corners and crests to try catching us too early or too late for our expected arrival time.
That’s the goal: to arrive on time.
Maintaining even the slowest 36 mph average speed would be lunacy, as my tropical front-wheel-drive special came riding on all-season tires, which were all but useless in ice and snow, despite that misleading name.
We tried doing 40 mph to begin with but quickly dropped down to 36 mph to err on the safe side of not sliding Toyota’s Corolla into a ravine and stayed at that speed for the rest of the rally.
Fortunately, the first part ended up being the iciest chunk of the entire rally. The all-seasons struggled to bite into anything on the frozen, hilly gravel path they were using for the rally. A firm ridge formed in the middle of the seat as my buttocks clenched involuntarily as a response to both the slippery conditions and nearby trees to hit. I promised that I would not wad up this press car. I promised.
Imagine my relief when most of the rest of the rally was more muddy than icy. Tight turns provided a challenge when it came to staying at an average speed, and the all-season tires weren’t great in the mud, either. Still, the sloppy, slushy stuff was much easier to handle than solid ice. Best of all, the car’s traction control just worked when it was needed without being too obtrusive or noticeable.
Perhaps the biggest non-tire-related problem with Toyota’s little trooper was the numbness of its pedals and steering, which is geared more towards trips to Luby’s on Fish Friday than any kind of hyper-accurate performance driving. The brake pedal feels more like it’s connected to an extra soft feather pillow than calipers munching onto four-wheel discs. This felt like a mismatch for such an otherwise light and chuckable little car.
If you’re getting a manual car, it’s because you want more control of things. The driver’s controls should be made to feel more connected and less spongy to match.
That being said, the six-speed shifter itself has a good, solid, notchy feel, despite its longer throw. The Corolla’s gears are relatively tall, with adequate grunt in lower RPMs to set the car in second gear and leave it there through the twistiest sections of the rally with zero drama.
We expected the Corolla would struggle to pull off the winter heroics of an Audi or a Subaru. Instead, we were met with this weirdly surprising theme with the little car: very little drama. Everyone thinks of it as the Camry’s dull little brother, but it’s probably closer to a rugged, modern-day Lada than folks give it credit for.
The wheels sometimes felt as if they were squishing grapes in a giant bucket alongside Lucy Ricardo, but other than that, the car just went. It’s the most basic, one-size-fits-all means of four-wheeled transportation on sale today, and here it was, holding its own against cars that were properly equipped to handle mushy rural goat paths.
Many of the other cars on the rally were even modified to handle loose surfaces better, either for rallycross or these road rallies. The Corolla was the exact opposite, and pressing on through the slop was the single most hilariously awesome thing we could’ve done with it.
One of the biggest hiccups on the entire rally was a closed bathroom at the rally’s mid-way point. That was more of a personal problem more than a vehicular one, but it was a real threat to our chance for a good finish. Unlike my co-driver (ahem), I couldn’t just take care of business in the woods after a checkpoint. I had to drive through full-bladder rage to an entirely different gas station in the middle of nowhere and make it back in time to start the second half of the rally.
That alternate bathroom was out of the way, and given that we had been driving really cleanly for several sections in a row after our initial run-in with the ice, we had a chance! I didn’t want to blow our opportunity to show people up in a bone-stock, factory-fresh Corolla because I needed to pee. We could do what shouldn’t be done: show some folks up in the least enthusiast-oriented car there.
For a duo who’d both only ever done one TSD rally before, we were downright crushing it. I had only ever run with a fancy rally computer that showed me precisely how far I was behind or ahead at all times, and Dusty had never been on the navigation side of a TSD before. I tried to see if the Corolla would show the car’s average speed in the center display in front of me, but there wasn’t any convenient way to manually reset that before each section, so that was a bit useless.
One wrong turn in the notes meant that we were furiously trying to figure out where we were on roads that weren’t all that well labeled on Dusty’s GPS. When the next turn wasn’t showing up, we got worried and eventually had to pull over to find our way back on the rally route. Eventually, one of our phones was able to highlight a route back to the rally road despite the weak data signal far outside of civilization. That route back meant I’d taken an awkward shortcut on the rally, but we certainly weren’t ahead because of the extra time it took to find that shortcut.
TSD rallies give you time allowances to make up for minor setbacks like getting stuck behind a tractor on the route. We used a significant chunk of our allowance for the second half on that one stupid detour. There was no longer much room left to screw up.
This was a pretty effective wake-up call. We had to be dead-on accurate for the rest of the rally if we wanted to keep our shot at a good finish. After that point, I kept arriving to checkpoints nearly exactly on time, with one section only a few hundredths of a second off. Score: us.
The humble Corolla let us finish second in Novice class, despite our lengthy detour. Go Team Rally Chicken!
Regular Road Driving In An Aggressively Regular Car
The journey back meant a trip down from the Ithaca area through rural Pennsylvania, complete with a search in vain for an upstate Tim Hortons and a side trip to check out one of the Susquehannock Trail Performance Rally stage roads.
With only a 2,845 pound curb weight, the Corolla felt light and nimble. It was easy to hoon around on curvy back roads. Despite only having 132 horsepower and 128 lb-ft of torque, it never felt as if it couldn’t get out of its own way. Power is adequate. Sixth gear is comfortable for highway cruising without being too buzzy at speed. Like all relatively light, small cars, it wandered around a bit in the wind on the freeway, but that cold northern wind was pretty brutal.
The little Corolla got between 25 to 31 MPG with me driving like a maniac. Like many other aspects of the Corolla, this was perfectly adequate. I did wish it had a slightly larger fuel tank, as it’s apparently common for deep-Pennsyltucky gas stations to remove the feature from gas pumps that allow you to set the pump handle to run until your tank is fuel. I thought my fingers would freeze solid and fall off while I was holding that in. Ouch.
On the dry pavement of the open road, the Corolla has the turn-in of a dead squid, however, I feel as if this is something an owner could easily fix with grippier season-appropriate tires and a trip to the alignment shop. Chances are, Toyota also stuck to a safe, understeer-prone alignment when setting up the car, and the all-seasons on it only served to make the steering feel even more like a imprecise pot of soggy oatmeal in the freezing temperatures.
Other aspects of Toyota’s tendency to build for The Olds work better than others in this car—like the interior. Everything is relatively straightforward and easy to use, without the need of a manual to figure it all out. The prevalence of tried-and-true buttons and dials that can be tapped without looking made me very happy.
Sometimes it was hard to hear the navigation system over the radio as it didn’t seem to adjust in volume along with the radio, but that was my only real complaint with the car’s tech.
Best of all, that elder-friendly interior is also just a nice place to sit. The brown and black interior scheme is one of the most attractive looking interiors I’ve seen in a while, and mind you, this was in a car priced at $22,992. Head room was an issue for taller passengers we had in the back seat, but the two front seats were just fine.
This wasn’t any sort of luxury car, but it was perfectly put together inside for its purpose of “basic transportation.” The little Corolla S had all the basic modern kit you really need in a car—stereo, navigation, heater, air conditioner and power windows and locks—and nothing you really didn’t.
And thus comes another adequate offering from Toyota. It may not be the ideal car to play in the mud, and the clutch pedal appears to be connected to a puddle of old mayonnaise, but it will keep going anyway. It and its slushbox brethren will continue to reproduce like reasonably-priced tribbles, slowly engulfing vast swaths of carparks everywhere. It is the very definition of a “regular car,” and sometimes that’s okay.
It, like the many Corollas that came before it, is still fine to drive like a total hooligan without guilt or shame. Driving such a commonplace, pedestrian car with gusto sometimes feels delightfully transgressive. You’re doing something the car isn’t meant to do. You’re getting away with something.
And it’s something you should do. It won’t be the most fun car you’ll ever drive, but don’t let that keep you from having fun with it. The Corolla is okay.