If only they'd made it go faster.
With the all-new Corolla Hatchback, Toyota once again demonstrated that the core strength and light weight of its latest generation modular unibody platform lets it build cars that are more agile, ride better and are safer and more comfortable than its predecessors.
Toyota began the process of switching over to the new platform in 2015 and is nearly done. When it's completed, a dozen models, including the Prius, Camry, Avalon and the Lexus ES and LS, will ride on versions of Toyota's New Global Architecture, TNGA for short.
Though they range from $20,000 FWD compacts to $75,000 RWD luxury sedans, these cars share some critical characteristics. Each is longer, wider and lower than the model it replaces. Each is quieter and attains better fuel economy. Each—thanks to increased rigidity and standard driver-assist and passive safety features—sits at the head of the class in terms of safety.
It will be another year before the Corolla sedan sits on a TNGA foundation, but if the hatchback is any indicator, Toyota will be well positioned to do battle with estimable competitors like the Honda Fit and Civic, Kia Forte, Rio, and Soul, Hyundai Veloster and Kona, Volkswagen Golf, and the Mazda3.
Cars, who cares?
So what if Toyota is building better cars, you may ask, isn't the world turning to SUVs and pickups? After all, Chevy and Ford are closing car factories and killing off established models like Fusion, Focus, Malibu and Impala.
Ok. This is an opinion piece. Let's go down that rabbit hole. To begin with, when yours truly used the word "world," is was a red herring. The switch to light trucks is largely a phenomenon seen only in North America and among newly affluent Chinese.
On the rest of the planet, relatively high gas prices, narrow city streets and inadequate parking continue to place size and fuel economy near the top of buying concerns.
As far as American manufacturers go, it turns out we've seen this before. In 1970, 86 percent of the cars sold in the United States were built here by the Big Three. By 2017, according to motorintelligence.com, that was down to less than 25 percent; indeed three-fourths of the automobiles sold in America today carry a foreign-based brand (though often built in an American-based factory, according to Cars.Com's American-Made Index.)
What happened? Here's the short version. When the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 blew a hole in America's unending love for cheap gas, Congress established standards for corporate average fuel economy, CAFE for short. The idea was that the standards would slowly increase, but Detroit spent tons of time and treasure fighting CAFE standards.
Washington obliged, giving Detroit just enough rope to hang itself. While Detroit worked to pump out inefficient gas guzzlers, Asian and European manufacturers gave Americans gas-sipping cars that, incidentally, turned out to be safe, comfortable and durable.
"I'm so old, sonny, I remember when Ford was a car company."
"Granny! Grampa's making up stories again. Time for his meds!"
I get it. The figure I hear bandied around the internets is that the median profit on a new pickup or SUV is more than $15,000. If I were a CEO whose longevity depended heavily on quarterly dividends to shareholders, I'd be mighty tempted to put all my chips on trucks.
But, what if?
This week I heard the Speaker of the House of Representatives say that climate change is an existential threat to our planet. I have heard similar thoughts from the young people I occasionally have the pleasure and honor to instruct, but am wholly unqualified to assess when, or even if, this might come to be the prevailing sentiment among the ruling class.
But, what if two years from now there exists a like-minded Senate majority leader and president? What if legislation that encourages fuel economy—and penalizes wastefulness -- become the law of the land?
What if fuel economy is no longer a pocketbook question, but a moral one?
Detroit will face that challenge after having thoroughly and willingly hollowed itself out.
In the short term, Toyota, Honda, Mazda, VW, et.al. are positioned to grab a larger share of a smaller pie, a fourth of which comes from the Big Three. Ford and Chevy build, or used to build, roughly 9-out-of-10 cars in that slice (Chrysler really is a tiny company). The foreign competition seems willing to accept that slice.
What happens if that pie suddenly becomes the big pie, and trucks/SUVs becomes the shrinking one?
One cannot simply return to a vacated factory and turn on the lights. It takes years and billions of dollars to do the research and development, such as Toyota has done, to build a competent vehicle in the second quarter of the 21st century.
The existential threat to the American auto industry might turn out to be the American auto industry.
The modern car
In many ways, the Corolla hatchback, starting at $19.990 for a base SE with manual transmission and climbing to $24,090 for an XSE with a continuously-variable automatic, does exactly what one should ask of basic transportation,
Handling is crisp and linear. The car is well composed, yet supple enough to provide a ride comfortable enough baby-boomers.
Front seats are well formed and comfortable, even on a road trip, with six-way adjustments. The rear was cramped and difficult to access, so if you're thinking of using this to pick up some Uber dollars, we'd recommend waiting on the Corolla sedan.
Though critics despair that the naturally aspirated 2.0-L inline four-cylinder engine it is not as powerful as some turbocharged competitors, we were unaware of this on a weekend journey to Dallas. The car easily handled the vagaries of Interstate Highway travel in Texas, merging into traffic with room to spare and accelerating out of traffic jams easily.
Yes, we love the sportiness of a VW GTI, but the Corolla squeezes 30 miles out of a gallon of gas in town, 38 on the highway (even in Texas, we found) for a combined 33 mpg. The GTI manages to get 25 city/33 highway, and that's about a 20 percent difference. The Golf R gets 22/29. That's roughly a third.
This is subjective, but we found the hatch's styling attractive. A rounded, muscular rear gives the car an athletic appearance. Clean and hard character lines front-to-rear give the appearance of a an agile sports coupe.
The front hood is two inches lower than before, improving forward visibility, and flows into J-shaped, wrap-around LED headlamps.
Safety comes standard
Since this competes in a price-sensitive niche, the interior is not luxurious but, once again, is elegant in its simplicity. Gauges are easy to read and switches easy to use. An electronic parking brake, three-door SmartKey system, automatic windows, and two front USB outlets are standard as well.
Also standard is the second generation of Toyota Safety Sense, which includes pre-collision system with pedestrian detection which will first warn the driver and then hit the brakes to avoid a collision; dynamic radar cruise control which will keep one a safe distance behind traffic all the way down to a dead stop; lane departure alert and assist, which gently guides the vehicle back into its lane; automatic high beam control; lane tracing assist, which helps centered in its lane, even when side markings are absent; and road-sign assist, which warns about certain signs such as Stop, Yield, Do Not Enter and Speed Limits.
That's a lot for 20 grand, ain't it?