On Autos: Today’s Corolla is a rudimentary but affordable option

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The 2017 Toyota Corolla offers a roomy interior and lots of safety features at a low price, but it trails the competition in most other ways. (Brady Holt/The Current)

Many of today’s compact sedans no longer seem to warrant the label of “economy car.” Rapidly increasing standards for refinement, comfort and in-cabin technology have turned such models as the Honda Civic, Mazda3 and Chevrolet Cruze into small but sophisticated vehicles. They boast polish and poise on the road, along with ample smartphone connectivity options inside.

Then there’s the Toyota Corolla, the best-selling car in its class. If you drive today’s Corolla back-to-back against today’s Civic, it’s difficult to notice an advantage to the Toyota.

Where the Corolla delivers vague, slow steering responses, the Civic is lively and fun. The Toyota’s suspension, particularly on the tested XSE “sporty” model, stumbles and fumbles over bumps that the Honda can take in stride. The Corolla needs frequent steering corrections at higher speeds while the Civic tracks straight and true. Moreover, the Corolla’s engine, while peppy enough at low speeds, quickly reveals its weak 132-horsepower rating compared to the Civic — while also getting a mediocre 32 mpg in mixed driving, against 34 to 36 mpg in the quicker Honda.

The 2017 Toyota Corolla interior feels basic even on this high-end XSE model. (Brady Holt/The Current)

The Corolla’s interior is also a disappointment. There’s respectable room in both the front and rear seats, but the tall, blocky dashboard can make front passengers feel hemmed in and reduces their forward visibility. Cabin quality is mediocre even for an economy car, and Toyota’s infotainment system hasn’t kept up with competitors that use Apple CarPlay or Android Auto to interface with a smartphone’s GPS or other apps.

But look a little closer, and you’ll see that the Corolla does have some important advantages over the Civic and other key rivals. Most significantly, it delivers a high level of safety at a particularly affordable price.

Though it feels behind the curve in many ways, the humble Corolla now boasts the sophisticated “Toyota Safety Sense” suite as standard equipment. Starting with 2017 models, even the cheapest $19,385 Corolla can brake by itself if it senses an impending collision, steer itself back into its lane if you drift across the line, and automatically increase or decrease its speed to match the car in front of it. Such features are $1,000 extra on the Civic, and other competitors usually restrict them to expensive heavily optioned models — if they offer them at all. In addition to the crash-avoidance technology, the Corolla also has excellent safety ratings if a collision nonetheless occurs.

The 2017 Toyota Corolla lacks the peppy engine and composed driving dynamics of a Honda Civic, Volkswagen Jetta or even Hyundai Elantra. (Brady Holt/The Current)

The Corolla’s value quotient is also boosted by ample room to haggle, according to pricing site Truecar.com; even when some competitors have similar sticker prices, you’ll likely pay less for the Toyota.

If you’re shopping on a budget and safety is a top priority, the Corolla beats out such affordable competitors as the Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra and Kia Forte. But those models, along with the pricier Civic and most other compact sedans, offer a superior driving experience and more up-to-date in-cabin technology than the Corolla.

Also consider the soon-to-be-released 2018 Nissan Sentra, which will feature additional standard safety features to help rival the Corolla. The Sentra offers a similar mix of strengths and weaknesses to the Corolla — a roomy interior and low price, but a mediocre driving experience.