As the months stretched on during our Toyota Corolla long-term test, we were becoming convinced that it was the best value compact sedan on the market. In our last big comparison test of compact cars, the Corolla was second only to the Mazda3 Sport hatchback, and in a head-to-head matchup with the best-selling Honda Civic, we found the Corolla superior by the slimmest of margins.
While a new Civic is coming very soon, we didn’t have the Corolla for quite that long, so we turned to the next best competitor in our big comparison, the Volkswagen Jetta, which arrives sporting a new base powertrain, a punchy 1.4L turbo that promises efficiency and power at an impressively low price point to see if the Corolla could retain its crown in the face of a refreshed Jetta.
Power and Efficiency
At the heart of this comparison was the Jetta’s newly available 1.4TSI, four cylinders measuring 1.4 litres in displacement with turbocharging and direct injection, paired with Volkswagen’s non-DSG six-speed conventional automatic. This is Volkswagen’s new base engine for the Jetta in North America (long available in other models in other markets), replacing the venerable and painfully out of date 2.0, and is only available in Trendline, Trendline+ and Comfortline trims. It makes 150 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque. According to government estimates, fuel consumption in automatics is expected to be in the neighbourhood of 8.5 L/100 km in the city and 6.0 L/100 km on the highway.
In the other corner, the Corolla’s 1.8L four cylinder is without turbocharging, but at least incorporates direct fuel injection and is paired with one of the good CVTs. At 132 hp and 128 lb-ft of torque, its calling card is efficiency, and its 7.9 L/100 km city and 6.1 highway are overall a slightly better balance than the Jetta 1.4T because of that city rating.
But which would prevail in the real world?
During the week of our comparison, the Jetta maintained a 7.5 L/100 km rate of consumption, and over the same week in similar use, the Corolla clocked 7.7, both according to their trip computers. For the full length of our long-term test, the Corolla maintained an average of 7.3 L/100 km as measured by hand and trip computer, though that included some long-distance trips in addition to our weekly commuting routine. On the efficiency front, it’s essentially a wash without a larger sample, but the fact that the 150-hp/184 lb-ft Jetta can keep consumption on par with the less powerful Corolla speaks for itself.
The Jetta’s 1,411 kg is quite a bit heavier than our 1,295 kg Corolla S CVT, but , the 50+ lb-ft advantage of the Jetta 1.4TSI erases that deficit and is felt off the line and in passing maneuvers. After an initial pause off the line, the Jetta charges away like mad, and underway the transmission manages gears smoothly, if not as efficiently or quickly as the Corolla’s CVT handles its drive ratio. However, when looking for a little more excitement, the Jetta transmission’s Sport setting really takes it up a notch (though to be frank, I find it mostly annoying). The Corolla’s CVT also benefits low-speed maneuvers in parking and stop-and-go traffic; it’s simply smoother, and at higher speeds it helps compensate for the Corolla’s lack of power.
As good as the Corolla’s CVT is, the Jetta’s 1.4TSI is a champ, especially for a base engine that is available from $15,995 (realistically closer to $18K once Freight and PDI is factored, and over $19K with the automatic, and that’s before taxes are even factored in). Resident Corolla fan and driver Noah Shapiro even conceded, “The 1.4T, assuming reliable, will likely be the best available base engine in any compact, bar none.” We’re of a mind that the Corolla CVT offers a slight advantage, fuel consumption is close enough to be a non-issue between the two, so the Jetta’s big power advantage earns it the nod in the powertrain department.
However, power isn’t all there is to driving, and there are no 50 lb-ft in the chassis, so we’ll have to go over each car’s strengths and weaknesses on the road.
There was a time when a driving comparison between a Jetta and Corolla would have been no contest from the get-go, but this new Corolla is a sharp little number.
While the steering wheel doesn’t quite telescope as much as I’d like, it is still a decent piece to hold onto, and does a wonderful job of translating driver input to the wheels with an even, linear feel. Push a little harder and though the S features upgraded tires they’re still fairly moderate in terms of their grip. The Corolla handles reasonably well, yet it does not punish on rougher roads, and it has a fairly settled demeanour on the highways, though you can feel that it is a lighter car as it is affected more by cross winds and road surfaces.
While the Corolla is good for a typical commuter in almost every driving category, the Jetta is superior in a couple of ways. Visibility is slightly better thanks to larger windows, and it feels even more planted and composed on the highway with a cushy comfortable ride. Unfortunately that cushy ride is at the expense of any handling, where the basic Jetta feels soggy and the tires flabby. And although the steering itself is well sorted, the steering wheel itself is a bit of a creepy, artificial plastic that is best handled using thick winter gloves, and doesn’t channel the same magic of sporty Vee-Dubs we were looking for.
Noah found it curious that the Corolla feels bigger, even though they are the same size: “Shockingly, of the two, the Corolla feels the bigger car. The dashboard is high and closer to the driver, though outward visibility is fine at all times. The high trunk lid, however, does make reliance on the backup camera more of a necessity, when backing into or out of a parking spot.”
And then there are the brakes. Time and time again we’ve noted that lower VW trims have disappointing brake feel, and here again we find that the Jetta’s brakes are slow to react and feel dull. The Corolla brakes aren’t in any way extraordinary, but they are perfectly decent and reassuring, so score another point for the Corolla driving experience.
There are plenty of VWs I’ve driven in the past that outperform even the sportiest of Corolla’s, but not this Jetta. The Corolla is both easier to drive because of its smooth CVT and a better drive thanks to sharp responses in turning and stopping, without any great compromise on the comfort front. While the Jetta is marginally more comfortable and a bit more serene in highway cruising, it’s not enough to overcome the deficiencies in its braking and handling abilities.
For starters, the seats, which admittedly are an upgrade you find only from the $20K Corolla S trim (the Jetta’s power seat upgrade only comes into play at the $23K Comfortline trim). Nonetheless, the Corolla S seats are wonderfully contoured and supportive, with a bit of bolstering to give a sporty feel without interfering with entry and exit, and have even proven to be comfortable over the long haul.
A sore spot for the Jetta was its basic seats, which were lacklustre in terms of contour and support and more than a little awkward. VW seats used to be unimpeachable, but to hit their $15,995 starting price, they’ve clearly had to give up certain amenities we used to consider basic, though not the extendable and height-adjustable armrest that we love, or the auto up-down windows. However, it’s a bit of an uneven fight here with the Jetta’s more basic trim against the fully loaded Corolla – admittedly, I’ve yet to drive a Corolla without the good seats, but even the 8-way power seats in the Jetta Highline we’ve driven previously were no match for these Corolla thrones.
Both cars have fairly straightforward infotainment systems, and although lacking navigation, the Jetta’s touchscreen was on par with the Corolla’s in size and response time. The Jetta’s graphics were sharper and menus more appealing, with a more logical set of fixed buttons flanking the screen, but the Corolla’s clever home screen with a mix of map, audio info and a few phone favourites are a near-ideal use of screen real estate.
Both cars offer steering wheel controls for various functions and voice command, and while the VW’s steering wheel hub and switchgear are of good quality, the rest of the interior is a bit rough around the edges. “That steering wheel felt awful, bordering on the cheapest of all PVCs I've ever felt,” according to Noah, and the rest of the interior materials weren’t much better, a sea of hard, drab black plastic, with somewhat cheap cloth in a downright institutional and boring layout. While most materials were lacklustre, at least the buttons, switchgear and gauges were decent.
The Corolla interior, in contrast, becomes an inviting place to spend time in, with better quality materials (especially the synthetic leather option on the seats and real leather on the steering wheel) and a stylish flow to the dash and console design. However, the Corolla is not entirely free from sin, and some of its switchgear felt a little rough, and one of my pet peeves is fake stitching embossed into plastic that runs across lip of the Corolla dash. I mean really, why bother?
With uneven trims in our evaluation, it’s tempting to forgive the Jetta some of its materials faults, but this Trendline+ Jetta still rang the register at over $22K, with most of the Corolla’s price difference coming from the $3,915 Technology package that adds only simulated leather seating and a bunch of frill features that don’t fundamentally change the interior experience. Nope, this Jetta just seemed cheap, and the Corolla was comfortable and looks great.
For the most part, when it comes to passenger and cargo space, you could flip a coin between these two and be happy either way.
Their within a few millimetres of each other in all exterior dimensions (length 4,650 vs 4656 mm; width: 1776 vs 1778 mm; height: 1455 vs 1453 mm, listing the Corolla first) except for wheelbase, where the Corolla’s 2,700 mm offers a significant 50 mm over the Jetta. That edge in wheelbase results in more front and rear legroom (1075/1051 mm to the Jetta’s 1046/967) with headroom about even. The significant legroom advantage is hard to tell from the backseat, which seem equal in most regards except for the nearly completely flat floor in the Corolla compared to the large centre tunnel in the Jetta that severely restricts middle rear passenger legroom. On the other hand, the Corolla’s bottom seat cushions are significantly shorter, so they might not provide the same leg support for taller rear passengers.
The storage crown goes the other way, as the Jetta’s 444 L and more useful square shape trumps the Corolla’s 369 L and more intrusive hinges. Both have 60/40 split folding rear seats, though the Jetta’s opening is larger and offers ancillary releases in the trunk for added convenience.
Cabin storage seems to have been informed by the same focus group, with an armrest-covered storage bin, a pair of cupholders, a tray ahead of the shifter with USB port (though the Jetta’s is tough to access for the fat-fingered among us), door pockets with bottle holders and glove box, with the Jetta sporting rear door pockets to the Corolla’s cupholders in the fold-down armrest.
The Corolla offers better interior dimensions on paper, but both cabins are sufficient for four adults or a small family, and although the Corolla is better for that fifth passenger, I’d warrant most would prefer the Jetta’s extra cargo capacity.
We touched on the value briefly with the interior, and it’s a simple matter of deleting the Corolla S’s Technology package to level the playing field at about $22K with freight & PDI rolled in.
Feature for feature, it could easily be a matter of preferences, the Corolla’s brilliant auto LED headlights (the Jetta’s halogens are rather weak) or the Jetta’s wonderful armrest, the Jetta’s auto up-down windows and better screen or the Corolla’s leather-covered steering wheel. Take away the Tech package and both at least have perks like back-up camera, heated seats, sizable touchscreen interface with Bluetooth capability. The Jetta may have multi-link rear suspension to the Corolla’s rear torsion beam, but with lame 15-inch steel wheels and comfort-oriented 195/65HR15 rubber, the benefit is lost, and the Corolla S’s 205/55HR16 steelies pose a slight advantage even without the 17-inch alloys that come with the Upgrade or Tech Package.
But assessing value isn’t based on features alone. The entire package contributes to one’s subjective sense of value, a shopper’s preference for subtle understated design compared to another’s distaste for a boring, bland style might shift the equation.
For the more practically minded, Toyota’s sterling reputation for reliability and the proven 1.8L power plant will offer peace of mind, whereas Volkswagen may point to its superior crash test results (Top Safety Pick, and TSP+ in higher trims with Autonomous emergency braking and forward collision alert – features not available anywhere in the Corolla feature list).
Value can be a fairly arbitrary measure, but the reassurance of the Toyota brand and Corolla nameplate cannot be overlooked despite the Volswagen’s superior warranty, and with materials and driving experience better overall in the Corolla, it speaks to a level of quality that seems missing from everywhere but the engine bay in this level of Jetta.
At the end of the day, the 1.4TSI is a brilliant addition to the Jetta lineup, almost as powerful as the 1.8TSI, but the Jetta Trendline+ doesn’t fulfill the expectations we have of small Volkswagens (spoiled as we are by Highline and Comfortline Golfs and GTIs as we have recently driven). However, it should be noted that Volkswagen is being very aggressive with its current incentives and financing packages, so there might be a bit more wiggle room to negotiate those high trims down to mid-trim pricing…
Nonetheless, the Corolla continues to deliver the stellar value it has always represented, but the newfound injection of style, technology and driving quality put it solidly ahead in the compact sedan segment. Now bring on the new Civic!
|Optional Equipment||$400 (Connectivity Package)||$4,900 (CVT transmission – $985; Technology Package, 17-inch alloy wheels, rear disc brakes, auto climate, premium sound system, navigation, 8-way power driver’s seat, SofTex leather seating surfaces, Smart Key System, power moonroof – $3,915)|
|Price as Tested||$22,300||$26,160|