PRNDLoser RentalReview: 2012(?) Toyota Corolla LE

Welcome to PRNDLoser’s RentalReview feature, where we give brief but detailed reviews of the rental fleet cars we encounter in our travels.

This weekend, Budget Rentals stuck me in a Toyota Corolla.  As a long-time fan of cars designed with passion and soul, I was less than pleased with these circumstances.  Still, I thought, who knows?  Maybe this car, with the best-selling nameplate in the history of automotive sales, will have a charm of its own.  Maybe Japan’s volume sedan for the masses will have some sort of character.  Spoiler: no, no it does not.

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Exterior: 3/10

This car gets one point because it does, in fact, have an exterior, and a second point because it’s actually a rather pleasing shade of red.  The third point is for it not being as hideous as the Pontiac Aztek, Fiat Multipla, or 2004/5 Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback.

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It’s a relatively inoffensive shape, but only because it is so completely anonymous.  There are one or two design flourishes—the outer corners of either headlamp, for instance, protrude slightly off the edge of the body.  This is a pretty common Japanese design touch, seen in the taillights on the Mazda3 hatchback and the headlights on the Nissan Juke and Nissan Leaf.  Another very Japanese design touch is the sharp tapering of the edges of the headlights, and the curious mixture of circles and lines in the taillights.  My impression overall is that the exterior looks busy, generic, and cheap.

Interior: 4/10

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Oh, god.  I don’t even know where to start with this interior.  I’m not sure I’ve ever been in a car finished quite so unimpressively as this one.  It’s not that the controls are confusing—far from it.  They’re straightforward and relatively intuitive, but only because there are literally three of them.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of a simplified HVAC/infotainment system, and this is absolutely that.  The HVAC system isn’t the problem (and I’m definitely not complaining about a lack of superfluous buttons).  This car is just an unpleasant place to be.

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You know how when you touch literally anything in a German car, it has a satisfying sort of weight to it?  Case in point: shut the door on a 3-series or a Golf, and it makes this gratifying whud that makes you pause and think,

“Wow, this car is incredibly well-engineered.  Forty engineers probably had to work nights and weekends to get the door to feel like this.  This door will still feel as solid as it does right now when I am dead in the cold ground.”

When you touch literally anything in this Corolla, it has just a little too much give in it (or not enough), to the point where you must pause and think,

“Wow, this is uncomfortable-feeling, but it probably won’t break.”

The thing is, a base Corolla costs $16,230.  A base Jetta costs $16,720, and its interior is light-years nicer than the Corolla’s.  What rational human being picks the Corolla over the Jetta?

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This car’s interior gets four points because it’s fine.  It’s an interior.  It has (cheap-feeling) seats, and it’s not lacking any important controls.  And it’s not, strictly speaking, hazardous to your health in any way.  But it’s impossible to find a comfortable driver position, and everything feels unapologetically cheap.  Considering the high caliber of the Jetta’s interior, I don’t think Toyota has any excuse for how low-rent these materials are.  Hard plastics are everywhere, the head unit looks like it’s straight out of the 1990s, and the steering wheel is incredibly uncomfortable.  Oh, and I hate the way the numbers on the IP look.  They’re in some kind of italicized sans serif font that makes me want to retch.  And the interior lights don’t turn on when you open the car, even when you turn on the headlights, so that’s annoying anytime it happens to be dark out.  Bottom line: I didn’t know carmakers still sold things in the U.S. that could pass for 1990s vehicles, but if you stuck me in this car with a blindfold on, took it off, and asked me who was president when this vehicle was made, I would say it was Bill Clinton.

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Ride: 4/5

One of this car’s only redeeming features is the way it rides.  It’s not unforgivably floaty, but on the badly-worn, potholed roads of upstate New York, it kept us satisfactorily insulated from turbulence.  Not a big surprise coming from a Toyota, but there you go.  I’ve been in cars that ride better, but not cars as small as this one.

Handling: 1/5

You expected something different?  The steering wheel is positively numb.  I chucked it into a few corners at, shall we say, inadvisable speeds, and it tracked fine, but it inspired literally no confidence that we’d make it out of the corner pointed in the right direction.  Despite this, it still manages to torque steer off the line.  If I could, I would score this “depressing/5”

Brakes: 4/5

The brakes are actually quite nice, and easy to modulate.  They were a surprising bright spot in the hell that Toyota hat wrought.  Unfortunately, by day two of my experience with this car, it had developed an unfortunate squeak which reared its head every time I so much as looked at the pedal.  That was annoying, but the only thing that separates these brakes from a perfect 5/5 is that I’ve used better brakes before.  These are about all the brakes most people will need, though.

Gearbox: 1/10

I am extremely disappointed in this car’s gearbox.  I drove around for a while trying to figure out how many speeds the gearbox has, and eventually, not being able to suss this out by listening to the shifts (because the car was so determined to be in its highest gear at all times), I turned to the internet.  Wikipedia tells me it is a 4-speed automatic, and I’m sorry, but a four-speed?!  What year is this?

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Long ago, I inherited my mother’s 2003 Lexus RX300.  That car had a four-speed transmission.  And, you know, this Corolla feels almost exactly the same to drive as that SUV which was produced ten years ago.

The car is constantly seeking 4th gear, so much so that I once floored it on a very steep hill trying to accelerate away from a light, and it refused to leave 4th.  Frequently I find that I mash the pedal to the floor, and it just hums away, one or two gears too high, refusing to come down to a gear where there’s some power.  I’m surprised there’s no Overdrive button on this thing.  It’s just pitiful, and by far my least favorite thing about the car.

Acceleration: 4/10

Here’s the most frustrating thing about this car.  The 1.8L I4 chucks out 132 bhp and 128 lb-ft, all of which is noticeable around 4250 rpm (the spec sheet says that peak torque is at 4400).  Now, in a car that only weights about 2,800 lbs, this is actually plenty of grunt for the car to get out of its own way if you can keep it in the torque band.  I’d almost call it peppy in second gear.  But!  The transmission—being the work of Satan himself—conspires at every moment to shove the car into 4th gear to maximize fuel economy (which it sort of has to do, being as it only has four gears to work with).  So every time you squeeze the throttle up a steep hill, it downshifts, revs for about two seconds, and then falls back into fourth, leaving you with no power.  It’s maddening.  The power is up there, but the gearbox won’t let you have it.  It wants you to be in fourth.

Now, the transmission does have individual manual gates for gears 1, 2, and 3 (which it needs, because in this car, “Drive” equals “fourth gear”), and that’s all well and good, but the automatic shift lever is vague and annoying to use, and if you’re going to have to shift every gear yourself anyway, what’s the point of having an automatic?  In short, the 4-speed transmission has completely compromised the utility of this otherwise competent engine.

Sound: 1/5

My girlfriend and I tried for about fifteen minutes to nail down exactly which kitchen appliance this sounds most like.  “Is it a blender?” I asked seriously.  “No,” she replied, “it’s more like the noise a vacuum cleaner makes when you lift it off of the carpet.” Ultimately we decided that the engine note most resembles an electric mixer on a low speed.  It’s not a pleasant sound.  So one moment you’re wishing the engine would just get out of fourth already, and the next you’re wishing it had stayed there instead of spinning up to 4000 rpm and making such a dismal din in the process.

The stereo is harmless—even if the head unit looks like an aftermarket piece from the late 1990s.  One weird thing, though: more so than other cars we’ve driven out here, the radio goes in and out of stations that I know to be perfectly fine in certain areas.  Anyway, I gave the Corolla a point for having speakers for the audio, and a second point for having an engine note at all (i.e., not being electric and therefore a silent assassin of joy).

Toys: 1/5

It doesn’t have any.  Unless A/C, cruise control, or power windows count as toys.  This is understandable, since it’s a rental, but still.  It gets one point for having an AUX-in port, but that’s it.

Value: 2/10

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I got into this car thinking it would be anonymous, generic, boring-but-reliable transportation.  I thought, “You know, this is the best-selling nameplate on the planet.  Maybe this machine will resonate with the deep sense of quality that comes from things that simply work well.”  It did not.  I believe that the kindest thing I can say about the Corolla is that it is functional and it is probably not dangerous in itself.

I cannot recommend that you buy this car.  I cannot even in good conscience recommend that you accept one as a gift.  For basically the same money, you could have a Jetta, and for a couple grand more, you could have a Golf, and the gulf in quality between those VWs and this Corolla is simply immense.  The Corolla has been described as sort of a 7/8ths-scale Camry, but honestly, this isn’t half the car a Camry is.  And I hate the Camry!

It’s not often that I get the chance to write a review which takes the position that a car is irredeemably bad.  Most modern cars are good, or at least competitive with each other.  But this car feels like it may have been competitive a decade or more ago.  Today, if you buy this car, it is because you’ve never looked at any other car in that price range.  Don’t buy this car, because it’s not worth the money you’ll pay for it.  Not even close.

Aggregate Score: 25/75 (= 33/100)

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