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Explaining Corolla vs Dart sales — with a test drive

by David Zatz on

There are a few cars that many enthusiasts dislike, as a matter of principle — such as the Prius, usually loathed for symbolic, rather than rational, reasons. Another is the Toyota Corolla, often derided as an “appliance” — reliable, but unexciting — as though the normal purpose of a car is not transportation but sport.

toyota corolla

Toyota sold 20,011 Corollas in January alone — beating the sales of Chrysler, Fiat, and Alfa Romeo combined; or, if you prefer, the combined sales of all FCA US sedans and coupes combined.  Combine Ford Focus and Chevy Cruze sales and you don’t come close. In short, it’s a popular car. But why? I sought to find out in a 2018 Corolla XLE.

US Dodge Dart sales were 83,858 in 2014. US Toyota Corolla sales were 339,497 in the same year. 

First, let’s look at power. It has almost identical power and gas mileage as the 1995 Neon (132 hp, 128 lb-ft of torque, and 28/36 mpg with the automatic), which yields fairly mediocre 0-60 sprint times — around 9.5 seconds with an automatic.

Gauges are oddly similar to those of our 2013 300C.

The CVT has fast and smooth “downshifts,” but some may find it a little disconcerting, especially since the engine drones like a sewing machine under hard acceleration. Many drivers likely won’t notice the differences from a standard automatic; it’s fairly well implemented.  The Corolla is consistent in acceleration and responsive once you’re moving; I didn’t have problems getting onto the highway, though I would have liked a quicker off-the-line push.

The stiff suspension made the ride busy, with bad pavement, concrete cracks, and the like all coming through — well cushioned around town, so it wasn’t nearly as bad as my own Dart Aero; but, ironically, it felt less cushioned on the highway. The car had decent ground clearance and handled speed bumps with aplomb, again better than my Dart.

Cornering far better than Toyota’s image among car enthusiasts would suggest; one magazine hit 0.83g in the skidpad. It sticks well to the road, even with broken pavement, taking high-speed turns easily. I would rate cornering right there with the Dart (except maybe the GT). The downside is awkward-feeling electric steering. Most other automakers, including Chrysler, have figured out electric power steering now — it’s surprising that Toyota, with its advanced technologies, hasn’t.

The telematics are a mixed bag; it’s nice to have fuel economy charts in the center console, the navigation works well despite an iffy interface, and the sound system is better than many, though not as good as the Dart’s. Toyota’s soft-buttons on the sides of the stereo aren’t usable with gloves.

The system is beautiful to look at, well-integrated into the car; but it’s not as functional as the one in the Dodge. Nor is the between-the-gauges trip computer. There’s a phone app, but it does little (and didn’t work for me). Toyota lets you set some preferences, but not nearly as many as Dodge and Chrysler do.

Wind noise is loud on the highway, and it feels like there’s more wind resistance than in the Dart; it’s even much louder than the Dart Aero, which didn’t have the same acoustic glass as upper models.

The car is similar in size to the Dart, with the kind of trunk you used to have to get a large car for; the car is a bit narrower, but neither is a five-passenger car, and Corolla’s trunk opening is wider. It has, under cover, a spare with an intelligently stored jack and space for first aid kits and jumper cables and a few books to pass the time.

Given these quick comparisons, why do so many people buy the Corolla, when they refused to even consider a Dart?

First, the quality — the Corolla has been consistently strong over the years. Ours, with 12,000 miles, had many rattles (almost as many as our Dart); but TrueDelta rates each generation “best” in quality. Overall, the Corolla seems to be a good bet for people who don’t want to have problems.

Second, the balance — the Corolla isn’t tops in anything, but it is good enough at most everything. It’s especially good for daily commuting, which is all most people ask (and do). Don’t stoplight race, and you’ll probably be happy. The powertrain is more responsive than the Dart’s Fiat 1.4, and more economical than the 2.4… and takes regular gas.

Third, resale value — high quality ratings over decades help the Corolla keep much of its value over time, while the Dart’s resale value was plummeting even before it was dropped. That made leases untenable, unless heavily subsidized by FCA. Which feeds into…

Fourth, the deal — the Corolla makes the most of economies of scale and long-depreciated engines. The XLE is well loaded with features, and starts at $21,825. That includes pre-collision sensing using radar and cameras; smart cruise; lane departure alerts; automatic high beams; antilock brakes; and eight airbags (including front and rear side curtains and seat-mounted side airbags).

LED headlights are included with the XLE, along with heated power mirrors, heated power seats, keyless ignition, filtered automatic climate control, and a power moonroof.  Those are all standard in the $21,825 car, and quite a few of them are on the base Corollas, too. That makes the stick-shift version of the Corolla almost unique, and any version cheaper than similarly-equipped competitors.

Blind spot detection and rear cross path detection are both missing in action, though (to be fair, the Dart never got them either, but they’re optional on the Compass.)

Dodge and Chrysler could learn from some niceties, like up-down rocker switches for the climate control — easier than pairs of buttons — and round vents, pioneered by Chrysler’s own PT Cruiser, for fast, well-directed, quiet airflow. The LED headlights are a major attraction, bright and clear; the Dart had optional HIDs ($295), but I’ve never seen them on a dealership lot or on the road.

It’s fairly easy to see, after a while, why the Corolla sells so well; while reviewers look for personality and acceleration, or some special capability or quirk; the little Toyota provides reliability and a good balance for the person who has to commute back and forth through city and suburb. We had the car for a week, and it filled our needs admirably — even with enjoyment around town, whipping around turns and fitting into parking spaces.

The Dart, unfortunately, launched with a not-ideally-tuned 1.4 turbo engine, a DCT transmission that critics disliked, a relatively high price, and, with no past models, it could not rely on sales from satisfied owners of the prior generation. There are Dart owners that love their cars, and for good reason; but low quality ratings after the first year, ever-dropping resale value, and the lack of a credibility-enhancing SRT (or even higher-power R/T) likely sealed the Dart’s fate, while the Corolla keeps on selling.

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