I remember when I drove a Toyota Corolla. I was supposed to judge it. The car judged me instead.
The unveiling of the all-new 2020 Toyota Corolla this week got me thinking about this story from a few years back. It was my second time being sent out on assignment to review a car at a launch.
The way these things work is that when an automaker launches a new model, they invite a bunch of journalists from the world over, gather them all up and have them all drive the car all together, usually only for a few hours. Saves them time and money, I think, and it gives them a chance to control the PR of the car. Carmakers (technically, the PR firms they contract the job out to) wine and dine the writers, put them in nice hotels, and choose roads that flatter the car on test.
I’d done the dance once before, with the then-new Volkswagen Beetle. I didn’t really like the car, but I was so pressured by the weight of the launch that I didn’t say anything about it for months. The presentations detailing consumer studies, the engineer briefings about X, Y, Z improved metrics, the grinning consensus of my colleagues who gushed about canyon carving in diesel manual convertibles. (It was a different time.)
That was my first time around, I told myself. This time with the Corolla would be different.
I had seen the 2014 Corolla early on the internet and it looked less like an all-new car than a heavy revision of the past model. That’s not what Toyota was saying, so I set myself the task of getting some proof of my own. I was confident.
I knew the old Corolla was widely regarded as a joke of a car, staggeringly lacking in refinement compared to its rivals. It might have been reliable, at least, but it was made at a time when Toyota was caught up in a number of very public fallouts over skimping on their reputation-making build quality. This 2014 model would be an update, and if it was a turd, I was not afraid of saying it.
I arrived. I got the same hotel treatment. I got the same presentations, grinning colleagues, accommodating PR managers.
I pestered and got some of the proof I was looking for that the car’s bones stretched back half a decade. I fell short of proving my pet theory that the fundamental architecture of the car dates back to the first years of Bush Jr’s first term. It felt good, a twenty-something kid with a mixed up heart, to stick a knife into the fucked up cultural stagnation of my youth. I was proud. I had my fists up.
And then I drove the car.
It was fine. The wheels turned. The paint gleamed. The car was easy and comfortable and economical and perfectly adequate for the typical American highway-driving consumer.
It’s not that the 2014 Corolla was shockingly good. It was sufficient. Again, it wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, but I told myself that it was ok for the average buyer.
But this presented me with a philosophical question. Who is the average buyer? What is good enough for them? And this line of thought instantly set me apart.
I’m not an average buyer. I don’t put MPG first. I don’t worry about warranty repairs. I don’t have a nine to five and a highway commute. I live in the city, drive my car mostly for fun, and take public transit much of the time. And it’s not just that I don’t fit the profile for Corolla buyer’s automotive needs. I looked at the 2014 Corolla and it became a symbol for majority society. It started as a car I didn’t fit into; it became a world I didn’t fit into.
Why wasn’t the 2014 Corolla good enough for me? It’s fine enough for the rest of the country. They like it fine, Raphael. They smile when they drive their 2014 Corolla, proud to see it in their driveway. It’s parked on the driveway that they pull clean of weeds. It’s next to the white picket fence. They stop on the way home from work at the drive-thru. I never stop at the drive-thru.
In the hotel late that night I tried to file my review. I eventually managed to convince myself that 2014 Corolla buyers aren’t really being treated as well as they could be. Take a look at how America is set up. People don’t just get to enjoy cars the way that some car reviewer gets to enjoy a Lamborghini on an all-expenses paid “press drive” in Portugal. Americans need cars to get around. From that perspective, it’s not that a car is good enough for some two-job commuter. There is a social impetus for cars to be as good as possible. That a 2014 Corolla rides alright and will last a few years before it needs major work isn’t enough from that perspective. It ought to be as close to perfect as possible, five, 10, 20 years down the line.
But nobody’s made a car like that since the Model T. Automakers don’t care. They don’t get paid to care about that stuff. Ford only did it because Henry Ford himself was a monomaniac. Toyota’s not going to make a perfect Corolla, meant to last forever. There’s no business case for it.
But that’s a hollow statement. My then-coworker Travis Okulski wrote the better half of the argument in my head. His words were the compliments to its imagined honest driver that I couldn’t figure out how to voice.
And I still can’t reckon myself against the 2014 Corolla. I look into its headlights and see it weighing my heart against a feather.