2016 Toyota Corolla S Review: The "S" is for sorta-sporty

  • Handsome looks
  • Affordable pricing
  • Entune infotainment does the basics well
  • Better than promised economy
  • Performance doesn't match ambition
  • CVT is underwhelming
  • Noticeably lacking in active safety and infotainment tech

Never mind brand loyalty, how about name loyalty? The 2016 Toyota Corolla is the eleventh generation of the car, larger than ever before and – in this "Special Edition" Corolla S form, at least – faintly striking on the road, courtesy of Absolutely Red paint and 17-inch gloss black alloys. It's a car that promises not only the predictability that Corolla addicts expect, but some sort of driving enthusiasm too, though in the face of tough competition only half of all that is true.

Like so many cars these days, the Corolla's dimensions have increased over its multiple iterations. Toyota has sharpened the styling, too, and it's really not a bad looking vehicle: the bright red paint job contrasts well with the minimal chrome and gloss black plastic. I like the subtle honeycomb grill and the fact that Toyota gives you LEDs for both the daytime running lights and the low-beams.

As a car for daily puttering it ticks the right boxes. Toyota fits it's experienced 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine under the hood, pairing it with a continuously variable transmission, and at both city speeds and in highway cruising it's reasonably quiet and delivers power smoothly.

Things get less pleasant when you lean on the accelerator. The Corolla S doesn't lack speed, it's 1.8 liters not reliant on the potentially-laggardly contributions of a turbocharger, but it's soundtrack leaves much to be desired. Rough and faintly agricultural when pressed, rising and falling with the drunken glissando of the CVT, the engine note does more to encourage laid-back, economical driving than either rising gas prices or weeping polar bears on shrinking icebergs ever could.

It's a sharpened dagger to the heart when you consider the competition. Honda's latest Civic, in 1.5-liter turbo form, is a gem of a car, it's engine several leaps ahead of Toyota's in refinement. The Civic gets better fuel economy, too, at least on paper: the Corolla promises 32/29/37 mpg for combined/city/highway, though in my own mixed driving I came closer to 34 mpg.

Sport mode, I found, made the CVT more jumpy, though the Corolla is at least willing to rev all the way to its 6k redline. Taking charge with the paddles – at which point the transmission feigns six traditional gears – avoids the hunting, and though 132 horsepower and 128 lb-ft. of torque won't set your hair alight, the Toyota proved predicable in the corners as long as I ignored the body roll.

The Civic has a more salubrious interior, too, Toyota's proving heavy on black and gray plastic, a somber color scheme only emphasized by the high, cliff-like slab that is the dashboard. There's a little soft-touch plastic, and the steering wheel is leather-wrapped, but too many of the points at which your fingers naturally fall are hard and unforgiving.

In its favor, Toyota's big buttons and clear display for the HVAC are easily navigated, and though the Entune Premium Audi system – a $1,200 upgrade to add navigation, HD radio, and apps that connect via your smartphone's data to the 6.1-inch resistive touchscreen with its FM/AM radio, CD player, Bluetooth, and USB/aux-in connectivity – is on the small side, its on-screen keyboard keeps up with more rapid typing, and the interface is simple. The cloth seats are comfortable and supportive, and there's a surprising amount of rear legroom and trunk space, despite this being a sedan not a hatchback.

Toyota buyers clearly aren't expecting much in the way of technology or driver-assistance from the Corolla, or at least I hope they're not. A back-up camera and keyless start are included; if you want Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, lane-keep assistance, or anything similar, you'll have to leave the showroom and find your nearest Honda, Mazda, or Ford dealership, since unlike its direct competition they're not even options on the Corolla.

In fact, beyond the infotainment upgrade, the only option ticked is the $850 tilt/slide moonroof. It's surprisingly welcome, too, given it brightens the otherwise dark interior.

I suspect Corolla fans find much to appreciate in this latest model. It's solid and predictable; the interior is spacious and the dark trim hides stains and dirt well, whether from pets or kids. It won't shock or confuse; Toyota's technology is tried and tested.

NOW READ: 2016 Honda Civic first-drive

Unfortunately, there are simply better cars elsewhere for the same sort of money. The Honda Civic won Car of the Year 2016 and for good reason: for what you'd spend on this Corolla S, you could have a Civic EX-T which gets better economy, drives more smoothly, has more tech and comfort (heated front seats and dual-zone climate control, for example), and includes the full Honda Sensing suite of driver aids.

Faced with that combination of refinement and technology, the Corolla S starts to look more than a little tired. Lingering in its favor is Toyota's near-bulletproof reputation for reliability and its crisp, handsome appearance, just don't expect too much in the way of fun as you cover the hundreds of thousands of complaint-free miles the Corolla is undoubtedly capable of.