Yep, this week’s installment is about a Toyota Corolla- one of the most-recognized cars in the world. Truth be told, so much has been said and written about this venerable car, I’m not sure how much I can add to this discussion, but I’ll take a crack at it. The automotive press, slanted as it is toward performance, has usually tended to dismiss the Corolla as a bland “vanilla” transportation appliance. If the statistics are right, since the Corolla’s introduction in 1966 almost 50 million car buyers worldwide have ignored that opinion and bought one anyway. They’re so ubiquitous, there’s a good chance you’re going to be at least a passenger in one at some point in your life. That got me to thinking about all the Corollas that have crossed my path before this one.
For example, one of my earliest memories of a Toyota Corolla involves a white ’71 two-door my dad’s friend Jeff owned. Jeff drove me to school on many a rainy Portland morning, and I remember he smoked like a chimney (didn’t almost everyone back then?). We’d be stopped at a light, the tiny wipers whirring with a mechanical drone as the wind blew the traffic signals side-to-side almost in sync with the back-and-forth of the blades. As the smoke filled that little Corolla and I watched those signals swing rhythmically from their braided cable, the whole effect was stupefying.
Besides the ’71, Dad bought a ’75 wagon (in lemon-yellow, no less!) to replace the much-loathed Vega. We had that car for several years and it made a number of trips across the Cascades to Klamath Falls, often during the summer. This, mind you, was a car with black vinyl seats and no A/C (cue the four Yorkshiremen: “Well, we had it tough!”). Otherwise, here’s a tally of model years that I’ve been in, either as passenger or driver: ’78, ’81, ’85, ’90, ’93, ‘09 and, of course, the 2013 that is this week’s feature. All those Corollas…but this is the first one I’ve actually owned.
As you can see, I’ve had some real, butt-in-the-seat experiences with Corollas of multiple generations. So getting back to that “vanilla” criticism, let me make a counter-argument: first of all, vanilla is a wonderful flavor- especially for ice cream. By itself, it is subtle yet distinctive. There is a creamy goodness to a well-made vanilla ice cream that pleases but does not overwhelm. Vanilla also mixes well with toppings: you can add to it without taking away from its basic goodness, and at the same time it enriches the toppings, transforming the whole mixture into a new and flavorful creation. So if the Corolla is vanilla, maybe it’s vanilla ice cream.
When it came time in 2014 to finally break down and buy a second car, Ms. D and I had no reservations of buying one of those “vanilla” Corollas. We’d always managed just fine with one car up to this point, and in a pinch when we needed a second vehicle, Mr. O’s Nissan pickup was at our disposal. But now Miss E was growing up, and she enrolled in the “Running Start” program at Clark College. This lets high-school age kids take college-level courses and simultaneously earn both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree. And all for pennies on the dollar compared to normal tuition. Yowza!
Clark College was 10 miles away in Vancouver, and we knew we needed a second vehicle so Miss E could drive herself to school without leaving us sans car during the day. At first I thought about buying an older car that would be dedicated to that purpose. But the Yaris now had over 100,000 miles on it and we thought we’d get ourselves something a little newer and let Miss E drive the car she was most familiar with. By this point, I was a total Toyota fan-boy. We considered a second Yaris, but we thought maybe something a little bigger and more comfortable might be in order.
I decided to take small risk and find a near-new car to save some money. Our Corolla had 30,000 miles on the clock when we bought it. It had been a California car, so coming from that mild climate, the body and paint were in near perfect condition. Buying slightly used also meant we got some things I wouldn’t normally consider if buying new, the “extra sprinkles” on our vanilla as it were: a power sunroof, fog lights and factory alloy wheels. All in all, I figured we saved between $6,000 and $7,000 compared to buying new Corolla similarly equipped. That was more than enough savings to justify the purchase and 30,000 miles on a Corolla is practically nothing. The car was still in diapers. Then there was the color: Barcelona Red. I’d never had a red car before. So now we had a well-built car with a storied nameplate, with extra features and in a pleasing color. What’s not to like?
Like all ’13 Corollas, ours has the 1.8-L 132hp DOHC four. The somewhat long-in-the-tooth 4-speed auto that’s in our car has been efficiently shifting gears for other Toyotas for years, so I know that it is going to be reliable. Yep, there’s my practical side rearing its head again. Inside, the Corolla has that clean “late-00s” dash layout. 2013 was the last year of the ’09 generation…things got busier-looking inside with the 2014 model. Ergonomics are excellent- everything is logically placed and there are real, honest-to goodness knobs for the climate control. I’m a huge fan of knobs, and you can quote me on that. You can keep your flimsy sliders, up/down toggles, and confusing touch interfaces, thank you very much. (Yeah, I know, cars with automatic climate control…yada yada.) Seriously, I don’t understand why, if a perfectly good solution to a problem exists, that you have to ditch it just because it isn’t the latest and greatest. I mean, cars still have round wheels, right? Some things just work better.
Like so many other Japanese cars from the late 00s and early teens, interior materials could be better. I made this complaint about the Yaris, too. I remember the ’93 Corolla I rode in had almost Lexus-like-quality materials. Almost every surface in this Corolla, save for the seats (obviously) and the door trim inserts, is hard as hard and unbendable as Tommy DeVito’s* heart (or maybe his head. Probably both).
On the road, the Corolla is, well, a Corolla. It feels composed, is reasonably quiet given its size and class, and there’s little drama. Pretty much about what you’d expect. Sure, steering is a bit numb and the handling is about average, but that’s not why people buy Corollas. People buy these cars because they know that day in and day out, as they slog through the muck of life, the Corolla will be there for them to make that journey a little easier. Peace of mind. That’s what Corollas are for.
So far, our Corolla is living up to those expectations. We’ve put 75K on the car since 2014 and I only had a couple of minor incidents when the car wouldn’t start right up. The first time was a very cold morning and the guys over at Les Schwab said that the original Toyota battery was kind of wimpy. They recommended a heavier-duty battery and so I had it replaced. The second time, I’m not sure…maybe there was a little water in the gas tank? I haven’t had any problems since then and it’s been over two years. Our car also has also been recalled because it has Takata airbags. I need to get on this because I’d prefer that neither my, nor Ms. D’s face be shredded by hundreds of pieces of tiny shrapnel if either one of us is in an accident. I’ll give Toyota a partial pass on that since they didn’t actually make the part. Other than that, smooth sailing, which pretty much sums up Corolla ownership experience. Smooth. Like good vanilla ice cream.
Matt, I noticed you used the “she” pronoun when talking about your Yaris, but you’re not doing that here. Okay, you got me. I have to admit as nice as this car is, I have a soft spot in my heart for the Yaris. Even after Miss E bought her own car and no longer needed to use one of ours, I found myself driving the Yaris way more than the Corolla. Comparing the two, the Corolla absolutely had the better ride, was quieter, and was more nicely equipped. But there was a “fun factor” to the Yaris that was somewhat missing in the Corolla. Maybe it’s the size or my completely irrational nostalgia for the Tercel. I don’t exactly know. But though we had never intended it to be this way, the Yaris ended being “my” car while Ms. D mostly drove the Corolla. We don’t have the Yaris anymore, but I find myself driving its replacement just about as frequently. You’ll find out about that car soon.
Our Corolla never took the trip to Klamath Falls, by the way. By 2014, my folks had moved up to Woodland, Washington to be closer to us. However, it has taken us to some other scenic locales, especially the Oregon and Washington coasts. I’ll leave you with a few pictures from those trips.
*Joe Pesci plays this character in “Goodfellas.”