Test Drive: 2017 Toyota Corolla SE XSE

For years, the Toyota Corolla has been two things: a great seller – and slightly boring. With some notable exceptions like the rear-wheel-drive Corolla GT-S of the mid-1980s, the Corolla has been a solid choice for a car but has done little in the way of inspiring passion. That lack of excitement has never seemed to hurt the Corolla at the dealer with Toyota selling more than 40 million of them over the last 50 years. But lately, Toyota has been making an effort to move their lineup higher on the excitement spectrum. Moving from boring but functional to exciting, but still functional. First, they brought the youth-oriented Scion family back under the umbrella, and now they are trying to add sportiness to their mainstream cars.

It’s a strange thing to see other drivers noticing a Corolla.

A big part of that is the facelifted Corolla for 2017. In order to add excitement, the 2017 Toyota Corolla has a new nose with sharper lines, a bigger, more prominent main grill opening, and LED headlights across the line. The SE model gets some more cosmetic enhancements thanks to some big faux brake ducts and LED running lights helping frame those ducts. The new nose isn’t a huge change compared with the outgoing one, but it certainly is more interesting, and, oddly for Toyota before now, more aggressive. It’s a strange thing to see other drivers noticing a Corolla, but I definitely noticed some mildly surprised glances from other drivers during my week in this car.

Inside, there isn’t much sportiness, but there are more features. Toyota has added their Safety Sense-P, which includes lane-keeping and -departure warnings with steering assist, collision detection with pedestrian detection and automatic braking, automatic high beams, and radar cruise control. The only absence is a lack of blind-spot alerts. They’ve actually added the suite to all Corolla trims, which means that even the $16,390 base model Corolla CE with a six-speed manual gets all of the active safety tech. They all get back-up cameras too. It’s a big step forward in making these features available to anyone who wants them, and it makes the Corolla the cheapest car to offer radar cruise by several thousand dollars.

The upright, flat dashboard of the current-generation Corolla has always reminded me of a late 1990s Buick Park Avenue, but with better detailing, materials, and fit and finish. It’s been improved for 2017 with nicer materials and a new surround to accommodate the 6.1-inch touchscreen that’s standard on the base car. The instrument cluster is also new with a big pair of dials for the speedometer and tach separated with a new colour information display. The outer dash vents have been transformed from dull triangular vents to a pair of round vents with a center on/off dial that are much more attractive.

The Corolla’s cabin is tall and airy, at least in the front. I found the seats supportive and easy to get comfortable in, with a long bottom cushion. There is good headroom and width for the driver and front passenger and the low door sill means that visibility is good in all directions. In the back things get a bit tighter. Knee room is excellent, with 6'3" me getting lots of knee and foot room with the front seat set for me (most of the way back). Headroom is a different story. The figures say that the Corolla is close to the rest of the class, but different cushions and different places for measurements can distort that. Between it and the Civic, Cruze, and Mazda3 sedans as well as the Elantra, it’s the only one where my head touches headliner. But it doesn’t just touch the headliner, I couldn’t bend my neck enough to fit, I had to lean to the side. So if you frequently have passengers long of torso you’ll probably want to look somewhere else. If you don’t like getting kicked or kneed in the seatback, then you’ll appreciate the back seat more. Trunk space is similarly small, coming in at just 369 L. That’s about 50 L smaller than most of the class, although for larger or longer items the rear seats do fold down.

My test car is an SE model, which gets a sport mode button for the continuously variable transmission along with paddle shifters to help choose one of seven virtual ratios in the CVT. Sport mode keeps the engine at higher rpm, and also increases both how quickly it will jump to a higher ratio and how well it holds it. At the price of a bit of fuel consumption due to the higher revs it really does improve the responsiveness, which is something sorely lacking from CVTs.

The SE also gets synthetic leather trim on the door panels, steering wheel, and heated sports seats with leather seat trim. Pick the available blue crush paint and you get matching blue piping on the seats, doors, and dash. It’s a striking look that livens up the otherwise all black interior to good effect. My test car had the $3,920 XSE package added on that makes those seats SofTex leather and adds eight-way power adjustment to the driver’s seat, push-button start, and a power moonroof. Ticking the XSE box also gets you a 7.1-inch touchscreen that has navigation, but still lacks Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. XSE has some mechanical upgrades as well, bumping the wheels to 17-inch alloys and putting disc brakes in place of drums on the rear.

The big question whenever there is new styling that’s supposed to add sportiness is: Does the drive back it up? Well, the Corolla probably won’t make you want to head for the canyons, but it is a surprisingly enjoyable drive. The steering is light and heavily boosted, but it is direct and reasonably responsive. It certainly doesn’t dive in and attack corners, but the springs and damping are firm enough that it turns in surprisingly quickly. The firmness of the suspension in this car is a surprise, but, especially in the rear, does make for the occasional harsh impact on an expansion joint or other sharp bumps. It will spring off of those bumps in a way that unsettles the car and the rear suspension sends much of that impact into the cabin as noise.

The only engine choice across the line is a 1.8L four cylinder that makes 132 hp and 128 lb-ft of torque. That’s low for the segment and acceleration suffers accordingly, but despite that, it never feels slow. The CVT loves to jump for redline and it responds more quickly than the multiple downshifts of a six-or-more-speed automatic. It helps the Corolla feel quicker than it is, but if you want maximum acceleration the six-speed manual is probably a better choice. The engine is quiet at low rpm, and fortunately, based on the programming, doesn’t lose too much of that refinement at higher revs. The CVT is programmed to give simulated shifts rather than stay pinned to redline, and that does a great deal to stop the droning that is the hallmark of most CVT boxes. The cruise control will also raise the revs to provide some engine braking to help maintain speed on a downhill. It takes some getting used to, especially the first few times while you try and identify why the engine is jumping to 4,000 rpm for what seems like no reason. As equipped, the engine and transmission are rated to get 8.3 L/100 km city and 6.5 highway. According to the trip computer, I averaged 7.4 in my time with the car, which was mostly rural driving. Not a bad number for snow tires in the cold. For buyers of the CE model, that car’s four-speed automatic is finally gone this year, in favour of the CVT.

Choose the LE Eco trim, rather than the SE of my test car, and you get the same engine with a different valvetrain. It uses continuously variable valve openings much of the time instead of a conventional throttle butterfly to improve efficiency. It’s complicated, but it adds eight hp and drops the rating to 7.8/5.9 L/100 km. It’s always nice when the eco choice gives you more power to boot.

For 2017, Toyota has taken the not-quite-exciting but always competent Corolla and given it a dose of sporty looks. They’ve also added most of their active safety technology, but only bumped prices by a few hundred dollars. It takes a car that has spent decades building a reputation for reliability and value and helps make it an even better deal.

2017 Toyota Corolla SE XSE
Engine Displacement: 1.8L
Engine Cylinders: 4
Peak Horsepower: 132 hp @ 6,000 rpm
Peak Torque: 128 lb-ft @ 4,400 rpm
Fuel Economy: 7.5 L/100km
Cargo Space: 369 L
2017 Toyota Corolla SE XSE
Base Price $21,290
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,590
Price as Tested $25,310
Optional Equipment $3,290 – XSE Package $3,290
Optional Equipment
10 0
Scoring breakdowns 8.1
7 Styling
8 Powertrain
7 Quality
8 Comfort
9 Practicality
8 Drivability
8 Usability/Ergonomics
9 Fuel Economy
8 Features
9 Value