Corolla moves on, ahead of new engine

August 2, 2017 by
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Corolla celebrates 50th anniversary with style, handling, slick CVT.

By John Gilbert

     This is a great summer for festivals, with something going on every week, if not every day, in Duluth and other community celebrations at virtually every Northeastern Minnesota town. One of our favorites is the annual Blueberry Festival in Ely, a colorful little outfitters’ town on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area wilderness. That was all the incentive we needed for a Saturday road test of a 2017 Toyota Corolla XSE

   The Corolla was loaded, from its sloping and racy looking nose to the XSE emblem emblazoned on the rear panel, where it glistened in bright silver against the car’s deep blue — “Blue Crush” they call it.

    With the 2018 Camry about to hit showrooms, it can be easy to overlook the 2017s. But 2017 happens to be the 50th anniversary of the Corolla, which continues to battle heads-up against the Honda Civic, Mazda3, Nissan Sentra, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, Chevrolet Cruze and Ford Focus.

   At a price range of just under $20,000 to $25,000, that competition is ferocious; the top-line XSE model ranges from $22,000 to as-tested at $24,410. The Corolla was revised a year ago and looks the part of a swift, sleek, sporty compact. But we apparently will have to wait another year for a newly revised powertrain to catch up to the appearance and chassis.


Sporty and supportive bucket seats adorn the XSE version of the Corolla.

The standard 1.8-liter 4-cylinder is the familiar, if aging, Toyota unit with 4-valves-per-cylinder and variable valve-timing. It’s been around for a lot of years, and its dependable 140 horsepower and 126 foot-pounds of torque easily sustains freeway speeds anywhere. But it doesn’t match up to the fun quotient of the newest engines from Mazda or Honda in the under-2-liter level 

     Especially for the 50th anniversary of the car, I would have liked to see maybe a direct-injected 4 with a turbocharged version for those who are seeking a more exciting ride. Under the eye of Akia Toyoda as new CEO, Toyota is in the process of redoing its arsenal of engines.

With sleek lines and low-profile tires, the 2017 Corolla looks the part of a sporty compact.

   The 2017 version is what it is. My wife, Joan, enjoyed driving the Corolla, and I agreed with her that it has a taut handling feel and good, responsive steering, it cornered with stability, and the power is OK, too, if you accept that it will be a bit shy of enthusiastic.

    One of the best assets of the car is one of the best CVT (continuously variable transmission) units I’ve ever driven. CVTs often are a letdown for someone who enjoys driving as much as I. But this one had “Sport Drive mode” and it includes paddles affixed to the steering wheel. Even though the transmission operates by a flexible belt that transfers ratios between two pulleys, using the paddles altered the tension and made a convincing case for itself.

    To get to Ely from Duluth requires a short drive up the North Shore of Lake Superior, and then you head North using a combination of Hwys. 1, 2, and/or 3. You keep your focus on driving because of the wonderful curves through the thick trees, and you also know that if you’re lucky and alert, you might spot a deer, or maybe even a wolf.

    Ely has a wolf center where you can view wolves close up and study their habits in what is their comfort zone. It also puts on this Blueberry Festival in late July. I drove moderately, and watched the fuel-economy gauge rise to 30, and then 32 and 34. When we pulled into Ely, we turned left and drove past the crowd and parked cars of the festival to drive through town. Our destination was Henry’s Shoe Repair, a tiny shop adjacent to Piragi’s Outlet and the Chocolate Moose restaurant.


Businesslike instruments show choice of information.

My intention was to get both our sons, Jack and Jeff, hand-made belts made by Florencia Held, a wonderful Mexican woman who had married Henry years ago. Henry died in a tragic surfing accident in the Pacific years ago off the Mexican Coast, but Florencia had found a home up in Ely running the shop, and she makes the finest leather belts, custom fitted while you wait, plus choppers and other leather items.

   We were disappointed to find the shop closed early in the afternoon, but a small sign notified us we could find Florencia at the festival, in one of over a hundred booths dispensing everything from hobby creations to clothing to things to consume. Someone said they sold about 500 blueberry pies.

   Florencia custom made me the two belts, to my order. These are lifetime belts, and I expect the three belts I’ve accumulated from there will outlive me. Joan found a unique down pullover jacket at another booth, with all sorts of zippers that assured prevention of any Northern Minnesota winter cold.


The XSE comes fully loaded with features, but still under $25,000.

And, I found a little “Chiqui’s” stand where Catalina Berg and her husband operated. She makes all sorts of chocolates at their house in beautiful downtown Pengilly, 50 miles to the West. and at the festival, you could get various flavors — including the requisite blueberry caramels. I spotted the last small vat of caramel sauce, and bought it, because our neighbors, who just celebrated an anniversary, share assorted dessert findings with us, and I knew it would be the perfect gift.

    When we left, we hit the Chocolate Moose, then headed for home in our Corolla. We had smooth sailing back down to the North Shore on a perfect evening and our leisurely gas mileage reached 35.5 for a high segment.

    Like other compacts, the Corolla is now nearly midsize size. It can be bought with a 6-speed stick shift or the surprising  CVT for the shiftless among us, which allowed upshifts through seven different settings on the way up, and decelerate back down.

    The cornering quickness was fine, but on some surfaces we felt annoying little mini-jolts, perhaps because the stylishly attractive alloy wheels were 17 inches, mounted with 215/45-R17 tires that were low profile and built for cornering rather than compliance. My thought is that 15 or 16 inch wheels with thicker tire sidewalls would provide more cushioning and less harshness over road irregularities.

Raised rear gives Corolla XSE adequate rear seat room and a large trunk.

   Toyota has loaded up the top Corolla with all the safety stuff. Pre-collision warning, pedestrian detection, radar cruise control, lane departure alert, automatic high beams, stability control, TRAC, ABS, EBD, Smartstop, and some convenience items, such as a moonroof, power adjustable front buckets, and LED headlights.

   It also had Entune Audio, a Toyota thing. I had no trouble connecting my iPhone to the system and getting or making calls hands-free, and it wasn’t until I decided to forego the satellite radio for some specific songs Joan and I had been discussing that I encountered some stubbornness going to an iPod.

    When the brilliant Texas songwriter Guy Clark died a year ago, we found so many unknown but incisive songs that we’re still discovering them. I mentioned one called “The Cape,” which is subtly inspirational, and I wanted to play it for Joan. I plugged it in, then clicked the audio to bluetooth, and a Guy Clark song came up and I couldn’t change it. The only music it would play was what was on my iPhone.

   Apparently, Toyota is fighting both iPod and Android and is developing its own system, so it won’t allow anyone to use other sources. Also, there is no CD player, so we went back to satellite radio until we got out of the woods.

    Still, I enjoyed driving the Corolla, and I appreciated the look of the car. If I  bought one, I would not forget upgrading the audio or navigation system until Toyota lets buyers plug in their choice of after-market players, and I wouldn’t opt for the too-large wheels until I at least tried smaller ones for better compliance. Or until Toyota gives us that coming new engine with enough power to better appreciate all-out handling potential.

I-35W bridge anniversary

    Ten years ago onTuesday, August 1, 2007, we were splitting time between our home in Duluth and an apartment we had in Roseville to accommodate Joan’s job at a physical therapy facility in the western Minneapolis suburb of Golden Valley. She drove every day down a short stretch south on Interstate 35W, crossing the Mississippi River in Minneapolis before peeling off to the West. In late afternoon, she reversed her course and returned to Roseville, via the same I-35W bridge.

    I was at the apartment when Joan called and said she was getting off early, so maybe we should go to a nearby restaurant. I called our older son, Jack, to meet us. Joan got to the apartment about an hour earlier than usual, and we waited outside for Jack while waiting for a table.

   When Jack arrived, he said, “Did you hear about the bridge?” We hadn’t. Jack heard it on WCCO on his car radio as he drove to meet us that the I-35W bridge had collapsed and plunged into the river below.Thirteen people died, and over a hundred more were injured. The bridge was undergoing repair and several heavy-duty trucks were parked on it. The weight, and faulty construction, caused the collapse. It was an incredible stroke of luck that Joan had driven across that bridge an hour early that day, because it went down at about exactly the time of her normal daily crossing.



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