Toyota Corolla S rises above the vanilla

Toyota Corolla S rises above the vanilla

I have to admit, I'm typically not a fan of Toyota. Don't get me wrong, they aren't bad cars. They're perfectly reliable, perfectly functional and perfectly boring. But they're not ugly and they get good fuel economy. I've even recommended them to friends for dependable transportation.

They just don't sing to me.

However, in a recent test I got a glimmer of a song out of the Toyota Corolla S. And, I was surprised.

In the 8 years I've been reviewing cars, this is actually the first time I've driven a Corolla. So, I should add "impressed" to surprised. I don't know what I was expecting, but this peppy, maneuverable and almost fun vehicle wasn't it.

Corolla S comes with a 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine that actually has some go. It was quick off the line, performed well in highway merges and had just enough pep to make things interesting around cloverleaf highway on ramps. It's mated to a 4-speed automatic transmission, which is less than inspiring but perfectly functional. I'd hope for at least a 5-speed, but 6 is quickly becoming the standard. I think changing the transmission would go a long way toward moving this vehicle past almost and into definitely fun. Not to mention that it would give the 26 city/34 hwy mpg ratings a bit of a boost.

Luckily, this car is standard with a 5-speed manual transmission, and I'd probably keep it there rather than go with the unenlightened automatic. But, unfortunately, you can only get the MT in the base Corolla model, which means minimal options and exterior color choices. No leather. And no sporty red or blue paint. Sigh. Conundrum.

In terms of maneuverability, the Corolla is a phenomenal little city driver. With a  length of 179.3 inches and a turning radius of 35.4 feet, this compact car can slip in and out of tight urban spaces and is super easy to parallel park.

Styling on the Corolla certainly follows the Toyota line, but in such a petite package, the overall design pops just a little bit more. What is vanilla on the Camry, somehow looks something close to stunning on the Corolla. The wraparound headlights and blocky taillights perfectly accent the tight little package, looking more bold and less boring.

The interior is less, um, well, just less. The center stack is logical and plain. The cloth seats are comfortable and plain. The behind the wheel gauges are easily readable and plain. I think you get where I'm heading with this.

What I really like about Corolla is the base price of $16,660. You can get a perfectly nice new car that does really well in an urban environment for not a lot of money. But if you want to upgrade, you can move to the S ($19,360) or the LE ($18,360), add some more standard features and still keep it under $20K. The test vehicle was an S model that added Bluetooth wireless technology ($520), moonroof ($890), ashtray ($26) and alarm ($359) for a perfectly reasonable final price of $20,855.

Chicago-worthy rating: 8. While I think Corolla is a really great choice for an urban vehicle, there are a couple things that could make it a perfect choice. First, it needs a different transmission for better fuel economy. For a car this size with a 4-cylinder engine, I'd like to see numbers closer to 40 mpg on the highway. Second, I also think the money jump between the base model and the up-level models is a little high. Not to mention the fact that I'd like to see the manual offered on the S and LE models. Basically, I'd like to see Corolla take a harder look at the Hyundai Elantra ($16,445) ... and you should, too, if you're looking for a compact sedan.

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