There's a reason the Toyota Corolla is the best-selling car of all time, with more than 40 million of them sold worldwide since the nameplate made its debut in the late '60s. It's efficient, reasonably priced and has a well-earned reputation as a car that will run forever.
Here in the U.S., the Corolla tends to be the butt of "boring car" jokes. Despite that – and the fact that only 340,000 of the 1.2 million Corollas sold worldwide found new owners in the States – it's still the best-selling small car, and the second-best-selling car overall, in the country.
That's because driving a Corolla is a liberating experience. It's comfortable, it looks decent and – hot damn! – is it ever practical. Roomy inside with a spacious trunk, it gets great gas mileage and comes with the bells and whistles most cars are mostly standard these days. Forget about that Dolce and Gabbana-attired family sitting next to you in that new Land Rover. You can crank up the Sirius XM-equipped stereo in your $23,000 Corolla and blast Neil Diamond songs through the sunroof without a care about what other people think about you.
This car screams, "I make sound, rational decisions and I don't care who knows it!"
My first car was a 1983 Corolla wagon, and although the recently-refreshed 2015 model is much improved, the spirit of utilitarianism I'd experienced with the old rear-wheel drive wagon seems to have survived into modern times. There's the sense that you could put the key in this thing and go anywhere without worrying for years to come. Only you don't have to put a key into anything, because the new cars come with keyless entry and start.
If you're the supremely pragmatic type, you might opt for the $18,000 Corolla L, which comes equipped with a 6-speed manual transmission and the same 132-horsepower 4-cylinder engine as the other ten Corolla trim levels. But its only available in black, grey, silver or white. The model we tested – a nearly top-of-the-line Corolla LE Premium with a power seat, a sunroof and a fancy stereo system – came with a lot of extra options, but means ponying up an additional $5,000 over the base price.
Some of the LE Premium's practicality is eroded by that higher price but it still manages to redeem itself slightly by being easy to use. The CVT, while not great for quick off-the-line acceleration, worked well once the engine had reached higher rpms. It also bumped up fuel economy a little bit – 1 mpg by the EPA estimate. At 70 miles per hour, it felt no different than any other car, able to accelerate its way into and out of trouble with relative ease. The car handles well, as a small car should, and the steering is nimble.
Exterior styling comes off as "mini Camry," and features a nice rear quarter "hip" to give the small car a more commanding presence in profile. It's also reminiscent of the look Toyota cultivated on its cars in the mid-'70s. Front and rear styling on the Corolla have been faulted for being bland, but the look is unmistakably (if subtly) Toyota and is probably what other automakers looking to mimic Toyota's success have tried to emulate.
Inside, the dash is clean and well organized, but its height and protrusion into the passenger space makes it look like a big cliff. Perhaps Toyota could have shaved off a few cubic inches to open up the interior a little bit.
Personally, I can't see paying more for the few extra gadgets the LE Premium offers among the Corolla variants. The base model still boasts the same drivetrain (albeit in manual transmission form, which may be a little more fun to drive if you don't have to sit in traffic all day) and a bluetooth-compatible 6-speaker stereo system to help take your mind off of everything else.
But if you're really shopping for a deal and are willing to forego Toyota's reputation for rock-solid-dependable vehicles, Hyundai's cars have been getting pretty good of late. The Hyundai Accent, for example, offers everything the Toyota does (minus the decades-long reliability rep) in brighter colors, with more power and similar fuel economy, for less than $16,000. Then again, its safety rating doesn't measure up to the Toyota's. The choice depends upon where you find the most value.