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Toyota's Corolla: Bland But In Demand

Toyota Corolla
The first time I ever reviewed a car for BusinessWeek a decade or so ago, I drove a Volvo sedan around for an afternoon, came home, sat down at my computerand had nothing to say. "Nice car, drives pretty well," was about all I could think of.

I have a similar feeling as I sit down to write about the 2007 Toyota Corolla. It's a nice enough car that will probably run forever. But you're never going to get excited about driving one. It seems designed to avoid offending anyone rather than to inject a little excitement into an otherwise humdrum day.

That doesn't prevent American consumers from adoring the Corolla, which is in its 37th year on the U.S. market. In the first 10 months of this year, Corolla sales soared 13.2%, to 330,995 units. That's a much faster rise than for the Honda ( HMC ) Civic (see, 6/7/06, "Civic Virtues" ). Sales of that car are up 5.9%, to 272,886 units, during the same period.

The average Corolla spends a mere 11 days on a dealer's lot before selling, according to the Power Information Network, turnover that's almost as fast as the Civic's eight days, and faster than the Mazda 3 (15 days) and the Ford ( F ) Focus and Chevy Cobalt (24 days).

For driving enthusiasts, though, the Corolla just got duller. That's because as of the '07 model year, Toyota ( TM ) has dropped the sportier XRS version, which had a feisty 164-horsepower engine. The Corolla now comes in just three trim levelsall of them four-door, front-wheel-drive sedans with the same little 1.8 liter, 126-horse engine. By contrast, you can get the Civic in numerous variations, including a hybrid and the sporty Civic Si.

The entry level Corolla CE, which starts at $14,825 with a manual transmission and $15,625 with an automatic, comes fairly well equipped, with a CD player, air conditioning, power mirrors, tachometer, 60/40 fold-down rear seat, tilt steering wheel, and a height-adjustable driver's seat.

The Corolla S, the version of the car I drove, is similar except that it has what Toyota hyperbolically describes as "aggressive styling" (in my opinion, there's nothing aggressive about the Corolla), including a rear spoiler, body styling kit, fog lights, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. The S starts at $15,870 with a stick shift and $16,670 with an automatic.

The fanciest version of the Corolla, the LE, starts at $16,035 with a stick, $16,670 with an automatic, and adds fake wood interior trim (Toyota describes it as "wood-like"), remote keyless entry, and power windows and locks. Even on the LE, though, you can't get a navigation system as a standard option like you can on a Civic.

The Corolla's big selling point is fuel economy. With a stick shift, it's rated to get an incredible 32 mpg in the city and 41 on the highway. In 360 miles of driving my automatic-transmission-equipped test car, I got 32.9 miles-per-gallon.

That's very high mileage considering how hard I drive test carsand about the same as the 33.1 mpg I got in the Civic. One reason the Corolla is so stingy on gas is that its co-efficient of drag, a measure of how slippery a car's exterior is, is just 0.30same as the new BMW 335i Coupe.

The Corolla buyer profile is older and more feminine than rival compact cars. Women make up 51% of Corolla buyers, as opposed to 45.5% for the Civic, 44.6% for the Ford Focus and 44.2% for the Mazda 3, according to the Power Information Network. Only 28.8% of Corolla buyers are under 35, according to Power, about the same as for the Focus but far less than for the Civic (37.4%) and the Mazda 3 (48.9%).


Toyota's Corolla: Bland But In Demand
Japanese Import Car, New & Used Car, 2007