Driving Through White Sands in a 2016 Toyota Corolla S

Have you heard, there’s a new Honda Civic, and it’s all new!  However, Honda hasn’t responded to our requests for press vehicles. So until then, we’ll bring you coverage of the Civic’s main rival.  The 2016 Toyota Corolla.  We do get loaners from Toyota, but much like most of the other manufacturers, we typically get higher end fare.  So, while out in New Mexico to do some filming, I rented one!  If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll see that I posted a picture of the Corolla the day I picked it up.

2016 Toyota Corolla S

Only, I thought it was a Yaris.  I know, car guys should know this crap, but it goes to show you how the power of suggestion can override your common senses.  The nice lady at the rental counter (I won’t say which one, since the handbrake was engaged on multiple occasions, as seen below) told me that I was getting a Yaris, and then sent me to spot C17 to pick up my car.  I did a quick walk-around of my “Yaris”, looking for dents or dings, but completely ignoring the badging.  It was a day or so later, when taking pics for the RFD Twitter account, that I noticed the Corolla badge.  This is all to say that, while I obviously don’t know my small cars, I became a little smitten with this particular one as I piloted it through southern New Mexico.

Disclaimer, I spent my own monies on this rental, and because of that, I am taking an educated guess at some of the options and trim.  Let me know in the comments if I messed up, or if this is a 2015 or something.

2016 Toyota Corolla S

How’s it Look?

Small, less expensive cars have been continually getting larger and better equipped.  At some point a Corolla will be as large as a Camry, and may already be comparably sized compared to older Camry generations.  Obviously I thought the Corolla proportions were diminutive enough for my brain to believe it was a Yaris.  It turns out it is a big larger and, while I didn’t explicitly ask to be “upgraded” to the Corolla, over the Yaris (for an additional $8 a day), I enjoyed the extra space while I was traipsing about southern New Mexico.   The formerly-smallest Toyota has a sleek profile and handsome exterior, with a look very similar to it’s big brother Camry.  I like the wide maw up front, covered in piano black plastic on the S model.  It’s angular headlamps and creases lend to the aggressive grin.  7-split-spoked wheels, two tone in silver and black, are also well implemented and help earn the “S” badge.  The rear does blend in a bit when compared to the myriad of other small passenger cars out there, but I rather liked the taillights, elongating into what looks like a bird’s beak towards the center.  Plus, I’m a sucker for a nicely integrated lip spoiler.  The Corolla S has one, and I like it.

2016 Toyota Corolla S

2016 Toyota Corolla S

2016 Toyota Corolla S

2016 Toyota Corolla S

Inside, there is more piano black, de-riguer for automakers looking to class up the joint.  The Corolla has it in various places, most obvious is the patch surrounding the radio.  I liked the silver rimmed buttons and found the automatic climate control pretty straightforward.  The leather wrapped steering wheel, notably upside-down in my amateur hour iPhone shots below, is pretty decent, with perhaps a few too many buttons on it.  Overall, I was impressed by the options and extras inside the cabin, it really did feel like a more expensive car.  I didn’t have the opportunity to haul much in the way of people, or stuff, but my carry-on size suitcase looked fairly small on the amply-sized back seat.  The trunk seemed pretty large, I only opened it to take a picture; would probably rate it solidly in the 2-3 prostitute range depending what body type you fancy, time of death, and stage of rigor mortis.

2016 Toyota Corolla S

2016 Toyota Corolla S

2016 Toyota Corolla S

2016 Toyota Corolla S

How’s it Drive?

No matter which version of the Corolla you get, you’re probably going to have a CVT transmission, except for one iteration, the S Plus 6MT.  Our more astute readers (hopefully all of you) will recognize that variant immediately as the 6-speed manual version.  Nice job Toyota.  Save the manuals.  Back in the day, the row-your-own-gear version was cheaper and more economical.  Now it’s the inverse, as a 6MT S Plus model Corolla will start at $21,665 and get an estimated 28/37 mpg while the CVT S Plus will run an initial $20,065 and 29/37 est. mpg.  So the miles per gallon is a wash, but note the premium for the manual version.  It’s a new era.  Of course that gets you a standard moonroof, some 17s, and a few other bits but the big difference is the transmission.  Regardless, I had a CVT, so how was it you ask?  Not bad actually, they do a great job of making you think it’s not a CVT, complete with paddle shifters that show “gears” labeled “1” through “7” to “shift” through.  It’s a well executed ruse that works well in practice.  Press the “sport” button and the revs jump up 1K or so and you get a quicker throttle response.

It’s not fast, aligning the gas pedal to the floorboard will result in, well, not a hell of a lot at first.  Like any variable valve timing engine, the good stuff happens later in the rev count.  And with only 132 hp @ 6000 rpm and 128 lb.-ft. @ 4400 rpm, it’s not going to win any drag races.  But I can say that, out on a long stretch of empty New Mexico highway, it will stretch its VVT-i legs and hit some substantial speeds.  So if you can keep the revs up, which the paddles were fairly successful at doing, it’s a pretty decent highway merger.

Overall it’s a good bit of fun in the paved corners (more on that in a moment), and the “sport bolsters” which appear to be standard on all Corollas were, well, quite snug.  That was a surprise in what is one of the highest selling cars on the market.  I figured the Japanese still assumed we Americans are all still fat.  I’m not, at least not yet, I’m working on it.  At 180(ish) pounds and 6′(ish) feet tall, I fit.  Just.  The seat pattern was attractive as well, as you can see below.  So overall, as a self-proclaimed seat snob, this was a solid “pass” if not “above average” seat ranking.   The aforementioned bolsters help keep you in the right spot while cornering, and the Independent MacPherson struts in the front and torsion beam rear (both with stabilizer bars) keep things pretty flat.  It’s no Fiesta or Focus ST, but it’s not as boring as you may be expecting either.

2016 Toyota Corolla S

2016 Toyota Corolla S

I got to test the Corolla special surface.  Sand.  Not just any sand, but the white sand of White Sands National Monument.  Around an hour from Las Cruces, it’s most certainly worth the drive.  Beware though, there is absolutely nothing along some stretches of highway 70 in that part of the state.  Well, aside from the occasional pop-up border checkpoint.  “Are you a US citizen” the Border Patrol agent said to me, probably for the thousandth time of the day.  “Yes” I replied and my Corolla was on its way out of the facility, escaping potentially being disassembled if he had thought perhaps I was smuggling something, or someone, illegal in my silver Toyota.  Let’s get on to the sand driving.

2016 Toyota Corolla S

2016 Toyota Corolla S

Enter the facility, pay the $5 fee to the National Park Service, bypass the gift shop out front, and you’ll be heading down a 2-lane road with explicit “no stopping” signs all down the side.  You can stop at the first parking area, I did, and walk back onto a boardwalk-type structure to take a look at the amazing white sand.  It feels out of place in the middle of New Mexico, and makes you feel like you’re in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, “perhaps there will be water nearby you think”.  But the only water is in the gift shop, and the lines were long.

2016 Toyota Corolla S

2016 Toyota Corolla S

Damn, I’m getting sidetracked again, how was the drive on sand in a Corolla S?  If you keep things legal, it’s a bit ho-hum.  If you decide to perhaps press both the “Sport” and “Traction Control Off” buttons, conveniently located next to each other between the front seats, it’s a different story.  The ability to lose traction, and receive some additional revs from the engine, combined with judicious use of the handbrake and steering wheel, result in some tail out fun.  This is a national park though, complete with their own police driving through in Dodge Chargers (which looked incredibly fun on that surface) so I don’t recommend a lot of hoon’ery.  I’ll admit to a couple of 180s in an area devoid of traffic, but that’s it.  I swear.  Overall the Corolla held it’s line through the sweeping, sand covered, turns without any drama whatsoever.  It was almost too composed, and even without the nannies turned on, it never felt out of control.

2016 Toyota Corolla S

2016 Toyota Corolla S

2016 Toyota Corolla S

2016 Toyota Corolla S

Summary

So is it better than the new Honda Civic?  I don’t have a freakin clue.  Honda, if you’re reading this, we’d love to verify.  I could compare it to the Focus ST I owned, but it’s much cheaper when comparably equipped.  It’s also smaller in some measurements (but larger in others) compared to the Focus, and much larger than the Fiesta ST, which is comparably priced.  So I can only compare Civic vs. Corolla on paper, which I’ll leave to someone else.  If you have around $20,000 to spend on a compact car, the Toyota Corolla S should be on your list, it’s quite good at a lot of things and even comes with a 6-speed manual.  Perhaps it’s because I initially thought it was a Yaris, but I left New Mexico impressed with Toyota’s former smallest car, and can say that it’s much more than that.