Rental Car Review: 2017 Toyota Corolla SE – When Frontier Airlines Completely Screws You Over, You Can Trust A Corolla To Save The Day

2017 Corolla

Sunday 6:55 a.m.: I emerge bleary-eyed in the hotel’s palatial lobby and follow the scent to the sumptuous dining area for yet another breakfast of exotic fruits, artisan breads, and cooked-to-order whatever you’d want, to be washed down with the finest fresh-pressed juices as well as coffees made with beans roasted on-site, all provided for courtesy of the Curbside Classic Corporate AmEx Card which Paul issues to all the contributors after their 100th post and which we put to good use at the 2018 Midwest Meetup last weekend.  Such is the life of us CC Contributors.

Yeah, not really.  The reality is I found Mssrs. Shafer and Cavanaugh in the dining nook, the midwest apparently rises early; and shuffled off to the buffet to load my plate with some good ol’ midwestern carbs and grains before the hotel shuttle was leaving with or without me to the airport at 7:10a.m. sharp.  While stuffing my face and keeping an eye on the pacing shuttle driver I was able to regale them with the story of how I found a $146 round trip fare from CO to MO on Frontier Airlines for this weekend.  Getting here was fine…but JPC did opine that the fare seemed almost too good to be true.

7:23 a.m. I arrive at the airport, make it through security in record time while suffering minimal indignities and stake out a seat at the gate in order to attempt a nap prior to the 9:00am boarding call for the 9:30 flight.  I notice we are next to a delayed flight to Cancun, also by Frontier Airlines.  I decide to take a picture of that plane (above) for my son, the airplane nut.

8:58 a.m. While semi-dozing, I hear something on the speaker and notice everyone around me standing en masse.  I figure it’s time to board and then immediately overhear that our flight has been cancelled.  Say what?  Along with everyone else I get in line.

9:15 a.m.  I notice a lot of people all of a sudden leave the Cancun gate and head to ours.

9:35 a.m.  At the front of the line it becomes evident that Frontier decided to take our assigned plane and give it to the Cancun flight whose plane won’t start or something like that.  The Denver passengers?  Sorry, can’t help with that, we can get you on tomorrow’s or Tuesday’s flight most likely or you are welcome to request a refund online.  Oh.  Help with a hotel or meal vouchers or perhaps rebook on a different airline?  Ah, no, next, please.  Well, this sucks.  Texts to wife back and forth are fruitless as regards other flights at remotely reasonable rates.

9:50 a.m.  I Google Costco Rental Cars and find that they can hook me up with a “Hyundai Elantra or similar” for $103 including all fees, taxes, and one-way charges from Enterprise Rent-A-Car.  Pay at the desk.  Sold!  It’s 834 miles from Lambert Field in St. Louis to Denver International Airport where my own car is.  How bad can the drive be?  I did it last year in the Mercedes.

10:30 a.m.  The Enterprise shuttle drops me off at the off-airport counter and the man fills out the form and sends to me to find my car.  I go outside and get to choose from five offerings.  The most attractive is our subject, a 2017 Toyota Corolla SE, the “sporty” offering in the lineup.  Well, here at CC we love ourselves some Corolla but I realize I haven’t actually driven or ridden in one for close to fifteen years, maybe even twenty.  Clearly, the time has come.

10:55 a.m.  I’m on the road.  I-70 Westbound with a whole lotta nothin’ in front of me for the next 800plus miles.  The western St. Louis suburbs pass in a flash.  First impressions of the car are good.  The seat is actually fantastic, lots of bolstering, but soft and cossetting, like a warm embrace after being jilted by a high-flying lover.  Just what I need in my hour of need, let’s see how it holds up over this long day.

Before leaving Enterprise, the lot attendant had me look the car over for damage.  While doing so, I noted that this is an attractive shape in general but I prefer the rear to the front.  The front is a little too busy trying to be aggressive while the side and rear treatments are smooth and attractively pleasant, if not overly exciting.  Overall it’s just a small economy car, (it’s even white just like your plumber’s van!) and doesn’t try to look like something out of Star Trek or whatever.  A positive.  The SE package adds 17″ alloy wheels and overall the look works,  darker color would tone the front down a bit too from the full StormTrooper look on this color combination.  A little more aggressive overall than the standard trims but nothing that really screams “look at me”.

Inside everything is as unassuming as outside, bar the driver side carpet which is worn through to the padding underneath.  I notice that the odometer reads over 42,000 miles so this puppy has seen some abuse!  I guess Enterprise just tosses the floormats or something, but now someone will eventually need to replace the whole carpet.  Stupid.

11:15 a.m.  This car actually scoots.  All cars have in general gotten better and more powerful as new generations of them pop up, but this is quite a bit better than I was expecting.  132hp doesn’t sound too exciting, but it’s enough really.  I haven’t driven all of this car’s competition, but in isolation the engine is plenty powerful enough.  I’m easily exceeding the posted speed limits, am able to accelerate and change lanes to get through traffic with ease and don’t feel like the objectively low power level is a hindrance at all.

12:15 p.m.  I pass the turnoff for Columbia and figure Mr. Shafer is now somewhere to my left, him having left before me in the van since he didn’t have to waste time at the airport.  Riding in his van all weekend redefines smooth for me again, nothing like a big V8 with a slushy transmission while lounging in a La-Z-Boy recliner.  While driving the Corolla and passing this point I was recalling that it should have a CVT transmission, however it drove more like a regular automatic but with excellent shift quality.

When I put it in “manual” mode to use the shift paddles (in a Corolla, yes!), it noted it was in 7th gear which confused me again as I doubted it had a 7-speed.  Researching it now, it was in fact a CVT with fake shift points.  Whatever, it worked.  At steady speed it turned about 2000rpm at 75mph, then with a prod to the accelerator a “downshift” occurred and the engine speed shot up to 4000rpm and it accelerated and eventually upshifted again a couple of times. Overall, the shift quality was seamless and exceptionally smooth, which makes sense as there is no physical “shift” in a CVT, that’s the whole point.  Anyway, it was good and not objectionable at all.

1:17pm:  Blue Springs, MO.  My gas receipt shows that I pumped 6.28 gallons to cover the last 216 miles.  The main reason for stopping was to fill my own tank as the 7am breakfast had worn off.  I assume the car’s tank was full but perhaps not brimmed when I originally got it from Enterprise.  Anyway, I filled it until it was starting to overflow to measure the next leg.  This first portion of the drive returned 34.4mpg if it was brimmed when I got it.  I stopped elsewhere for a sandwich to be consumed enroute on the next leg and picked up a gigantic sweet tea at the gas station to keep me awake and also to eliminate any chance of becoming a Kate Moss body double any time soon.

2:00pm:  The sandwich is gone, many crumpled napkins litter the seat next to me, and the Corolla is still munching the miles and sipping the unleaded while I myself judiciously sip my tea at a relaxed rate as we zip through Kansas City and cross the state border from Missouri into Kansas.  I note that the car grips the road well even while driving through the rollercoaster that is the interstate through KC.  It seems (no, scratch that, it IS) capable of rounding the turns at well over the advised limits and making time without needing to yield to anyone else.

I notice the same thing again in regard to the cornering when we traverse Topeka.  Some think that Kansas is dead flat and the roads are straight.  They would be incorrect.  Kansas in fact has large expanses of rolling hills and some of the roads have curves.  No, it’s not the Angeles Crest Highway or the Rockies, but for some reason in the middle of Topeka, I-70 ( a major interstate freeway) has several turns posted at 45mph.  The Corolla dispatches them easily at significantly higher speeds (relatively speaking, I’m not a maniac).  No, the stability control was not induced.

After that the road does straighten out a bit.  That’s I think where I spotted my car’s “fat” progenitor, an early 90’s Corolla, also in white with the “sporty” steelie wheel option, heh heh.  Still rolling along in the middle of nowhere after all these years…  Nowadays most if not all of this market’s Corollas are made right here in the USA (Mississippi, in fact), and judging by my car, the assembly quality is every bit as good as that an ocean or two away.

After Topeka I get a little antsy but notice that the seat is still plenty cozy.  My butt isn’t getting numb and my back is not aching at all.  I suffer from both in many other cars, so this is a very welcome discovery.  Maybe this is another “fat” generation, a car a bit overbuilt, more so than it really needs to be.  Or maybe it’s just progress.  The engine noise is muted, wind noise is low, but I have a rumble from the front left tire that is a bit annoying, no shaking of the wheel but it sounds like the front left tire is cupped or something.  It’s been there since the start but is finally starting to wear on me a little.

At the first gas stop I had realized that my car has three aftermarket Kelly radials and one Firestone at the front right with less tread than the others but still well above the limit.  Who the hell changes three tires out of four?  Enterprise, that’s who!  That was odd, but it didn’t seem to affect anything, the car tracked straight…but likely one of the newer tires is bad and causing my noise, not the car’s fault I suppose.

3:00pm  Somewhere near Manhattan (Kansas), I get bored with the radio and realize that my phone is plugged in and the head unit seems to recognize it.  This excites me even though I have neglected to put my music on my phone but know there are 38 songs (!) on it, all collected through some random downloads.  It proves easy to start it playing but ten minutes later I realize it is cycling through the same two songs over and over as the others are apparently “in the cloud” and I don’t have a Wifi signal out here.  So that was short lived.  Back to the “seek function” in the hopes that I can eventually land on the channel with the Denver Broncos football game.  Sound quality is good, very good compared to what I was expecting or at least was ready to be satisfied with.

3:35pm – I finally land on the correct football channel and do something I have never done, which is listen to football on a radio.  I will tell you it is VERY exciting when you are driving through Kansas and have had your fill of rolling hills.  I still have tea left so things are good and I am cycling through the trip computer (distance to empty) displays to hopefully only stop for gas once more before arriving at my destination.

6:38 pm  I arrive at the Shell station in Oakley, Kansas with less than eight miles of range remaining and manage to jam 11.5 gallons of fuel into it.  Since the official fuel tank capacity is 13.2 gallons the trip computer seems woefully cautious, I should be good for another sixty miles or so at least.  For this leg, brimmed to brimmed, the mileage worked out to just under 32mpg.  Average speed is just under 70, not great, not terrible with the construction zones on the way and I slowed down a bit as the range remaining display was counting down faster than the remaining distance to the station was decreasing and I was getting increasingly nervous about running out of gas.

I wonder how the back seat is and get in to take a picture showing me sitting behind myself while the tank was filling.  I am 6’1″ with a 32″ inseam and have several inches of room ahead of my knees which is good.  Head room is a little tight in back though.   I also note that I didn’t cut my toe to shreds under this seat as I did with literally the first car I sat in at the meetup the other day (an XJ generation Jeep Cherokee for reference, be careful, it’s a toe-biter as well as being WAY smaller  inside than I remembered it being).

I get back on the road and realize that the car has adaptive cruise control as well as lane-keep assist.  Both are very welcome to a traveler that is starting to get a bit tired (but still comfortable in his seat).  The lane keep assist beeps gently if you cross a line without signaling and softly nudges the steering wheel the correct way.  It does it gently, like a nice Japanese masseuse would, nothing Bubba about it, and can be ignored (at your own peril of course.)  The adaptive cruise control also works well and in one instance slowed the car down to almost a walking pace in a construction zone while my foot hovered over the brakes, this tech still scares me a little to be honest.  But on the open road it’s a boon, adjusting the speed as needed to maintain the set following distance.

As it gets dark and the lights go on automatically (yeah, a Corolla), I realize that it also has automatic high beam control.  With this on, it will turn on the high beams until it notices a red tail light in front or if the angle/distance of oncoming headlights is too close.  I had this on for a couple of hours and didn’t get flashed once so it appears to work well.

7:30pm-ish  I cross the border into Colorado just after entering the Mountain Time Zone (so all of a sudden it’s 6:30pm-ish).  It’s now pitch dark and the Corolla’s standard LED headlights cast a bright white light ahead into the distance.  The engine is still humming along, the shifts are butter smooth (CVT, yo!), and the automatic temperature control which is something I virtually never use in any car is doing a marvelous job at keeping the cabin at a comfortable 68 degrees Fahrenheit.  Only one zone, but it could not be simpler to operate.  One toggle tab for temperature, another to cycle through the delivery choices and that’s pretty much it along with a couple of buttons for A/C, recirculate, etc.

The screen above the temperature controls is large enough to be legible and easy to read, but is still integrated into the center console, not attached to the top of it.  The touch areas around the perimeter function well, but do require taking your eyes off the road to be sure you are selecting the correct whatever it is you want.  When I was hitting “seek” over and over again, I would rest my hand on the top edge of the screen/console area and let my finger hang down over the appropriate spot and then nudge it repeatedly.  Not as good as a physical button that a finger can locate without looking at it.  But I assume this costs less than a physical button mechanism and I don’t ever use seek in my own cars where I have music and local radio or satellite anyway so not a deal breaker in this case.

8:57pm – I pull into the closest gas station to Denver International Airport and fill ‘er up again, this time it takes 6.2 gallons to get it full enough to click off which is good enough for the rental car return guy.    That leg was 251 miles but traffic was slow closer to Denver and the airport approach was packed as the four lanes were reduced to one for construction.  In any case that would be about 40mpg but note I did not take pains to brim the tank so let’s call it around 34mpg or so.  While I was pumping gas the Broncos won the game in the last couple of minutes when tthings weren’t looking so good so that was an excellent finish as well.

9:05pm  I finally pull into the Enterprise rental car return line and the agent remarked at all the bug carcasses on the car, she was shocked when I told her I just drove in from St. Louis, but handed me my receipt while I gathered my backpack.  Then I took the rental shuttle to the terminal, and then the parking shuttle to the parking lot and found my Jeep and then settled in for the final 70 miles to my driveway.

Overall, the Corolla was a wonderful travel companion, I had considered spending a few more dollars for a larger car but then decided against it, thinking I’d never driven a Hyundai Elantra and it might be interesting.  In the end the “or similar” choice was as good as I would have hoped, and better than I expected.  My back did not hurt at all, in fact this is the most refreshed I have felt in a long time after a long drive, the seats in this model really worked for me.

The total trip mileage according to the car was 834 miles, and took me a total of 11hours and 54 minutes taking the time zone into account and seeing the difference in checkout vs checkin times/miles on the rental car receipt.  I made three stops for fuel that I combined with my own pit stops and photo sessions), and one for food (to go).  About 34mpg overall.

For a car with 43,241 presumably somewhat hard rental car miles on it that is registered in Florida but now in Colorado, the Corolla had zero rattles, and with the exception of the carpet where there should have been a floor mat, was in excellent condition with virtually no wear on it.  It was tight, handled good, performed well, was easy to operate with a minimal learning curve for the controls.

I was not cramped, it did not fatigue me as much as I thought it might, and I looked forward to getting back into it after each stop.  It is no wonder that it still sells as well as it does and if one is completely honest with themselves, driving anything else is as much or more about vanity than anything else given most people’s typical driving patterns for the vast majority of their days (which is perfectly fine, I hasten to add, to each their own and there aren’t three Corollas in my driveway either).  Equipped as mine was, Toyota asks for around $21,000 which is a bargain.  Paul apparently purchased a slightly more basic model on behalf of a group home recently and was able to negotiate a significant portion (many thousands) off the asking price.

I spent exactly US$103.43 on the car, $68.81 on gasoline (to go almost 1/4 of the way across the US), and less on food and drink than I would have at home.  And I will get a refund of my $73 flight.  So not too shabby, way cheaper than driving any of my own cars to Missouri and back.

What started out as a fairly miserable day ended up as, well, not exactly a delight, but certainly not at all something to be recalled with horror.  It turned out to be a decent day after all, all things considered, thank you for virtually car-pooling with me.  Enterprise (through CostcoTravel) and Toyota saved the day, Frontier Airlines can go get stuffed, and the St. Louis area of Missouri is a wonderful place to spend a few days enjoying baseball, breweries, and architecture along with, of course, many automotive entertainment options.  And the Pear Tree Inn at the airport serves a perfectly good and nutritious variety of breakfast foods should my opening have implied otherwise along with providing a good night’s sleep at a very reasonably price.