Pros: Solid roster of standard equipment (except in the base L model); available Entune mobile-app interface; strong reputation for reliability

Cons: Below-average fuel economy; outdated four-speed automatic transmission; bland driving experience

The 2012 Toyota Corolla is a challenging car to evaluate. On one hand, it continues to be the default choice for many small-car shoppers, and for good reason. Seemingly everyone we know has a story about a Corolla with hundreds of thousands of miles that just refused to die. The Corolla's perennially strong sales numbers show how powerful these stories can be.

But on the other hand, the Corolla doesn't bring a whole lot to the table beyond its sterling reputation. Its performance, fuel economy, styling, interior quality and bang for the buck all pale by comparison with its competition.

So it's hard to pass definitive judgment on the 2012 Corolla. Is it a bad car? Not by any stretch of the imagination. It does more than enough to please the Corolla faithful, and it almost certainly won't let you down as long as you own it. But before you sign on the dotted line, we strongly recommend test-driving the Corolla's newer, more satisfying rivals, many of which have superior warranties so you won't lose that Corolla-style peace of mind.

We can't blame anyone for choosing a Corolla, but we also understand why drivers might look elsewhere to fulfill their small-car needs.

Comfort & Utility

The 2012 Toyota Corolla is offered in L, S and LE trim. The L model is very basic, although at least it provides power windows and locks for 2012; they used to be optional. Other L features include a four-speaker CD stereo with an auxiliary audio jack (but no USB port), a tilting and telescoping steering wheel and a height-adjustable driver seat. Optional on the L and standard on other Corollas is a six-speaker stereo with iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity. The LE model adds standard cruise control (unavailable on L), audio controls on the steering wheel and-as an option-the Entune smartphone-based touchscreen interface with navigation (see Technology, below). The S is basically the same as the LE but with some sporty styling cues. Both the LE and the S offer an optional sunroof.

The Corolla has two different front-seat designs. The standard design, featured in the L and LE models, is about as flat and featureless as you'd expect in a no-frills economy car. We've found them to be lacking in lower-back support on longer trips. The S model has what Toyota calls sport seats, which is probably a generous description, although we'll concede the side bolsters are a bit meatier. The back seat certainly isn't the roomiest in this class, but there's adult-size room for short trips, and it helps that the floor is nearly flat with no center hump to speak of, providing extra room for feet or even a middle passenger in a pinch.

The Corolla's instrumentation also comes in two flavors - normal (L and LE) and sporty (S) - and either way, we like it. The lighting is crisp, and the displays are all clear and concise. Unfortunately, the rest of the interior isn't up to the same standard. Poke around, and you'll find a nondescript collection of hard plastic that doesn't do justice to the Corolla's sterling image. But as usual in a Toyota, the ergonomics are excellent. We doubt you'd ever have to consult the owner's manual to operate the Corolla's well-placed, clearly marked controls.

The Corolla's trunk measures 12.3 cubic feet, which is about average for a small sedan. If you need to carry more stuff, the 60/40 split rear seatback will oblige by folding flat.

Technology

The centerpiece of the 2012 Corolla's technology suite is undoubtedly the optional Entune system, which uses your compatible smartphone (ask your Toyota dealer whether yours is on the list) to power a 6.1-inch touchscreen interface that features handy apps like Pandora Internet radio and OpenTable dining services. Entune inflates the Corolla's modest price significantly, but we like its crisp display and intuitive functionality. Also included is a DVD-based navigation system, which works well even though it lacks the hard-drive-based music storage of some rival systems. Happily, the Entune system adds Bluetooth music streaming capability, so you can wirelessly play music that's stored on your phone.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The front-wheel-drive Corolla is powered by a 1.8-liter inline-4 engine that produces 132 horsepower and 128 lb-ft of torque. The standard transmission is a five-speed manual, but most Corollas (and all LE models) will have the other transmission, a four-speed automatic.

On the road, the Corolla's performance is something of a letdown. Toyota usually nails this part of the equation, but the Corolla's engine is low on power, and it makes some surprisingly primitive noises during acceleration. The four-speed automatic is also relatively primitive; almost every rival has at least a five-speed automatic or a CVT by now.

As for fuel economy, the Corolla is EPA rated at 26 mpg city/34 mpg highway with the automatic and 27/34 mpg with the manual. That might sound okay, but it's actually behind the curve. Even the much larger four-cylinder Camry, for example, is rated at 25/35 mpg, while the rival Hyundai Elantra checks in at 29/40 mpg.

Safety

All Corollas come with six airbags (front, front side, and full-length side curtain), stability control and active front headrests.

In government crash testing, the Corolla was awarded four stars out of five for frontal protection; side-impact testing was not conducted. The independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the Corolla its top rating of Good in almost every testing category.

Driving Impressions

The Corolla is tuned to ride softly, so even with the available 16-inch alloy wheels and larger tires (standard on the S, optional on the LE), it basically drives like a pint-size Camry. We've got no problem with that, as it makes the Corolla a reasonably pleasant commuting car. However, the brakes don't impart confidence, and the steering is so numb that it might as well be a PlayStation accessory. We're also surprised by the amount of road and wind noise that filters into the cabin.

Other Cars to Consider

Ford Focus - Like the Corolla, the Focus costs a little more than some of its bargain-bin rivals, but you definitely feel like you're getting what you paid for with the Focus's upscale cabin and sophisticated driving dynamics. Good fuel economy, too.

Hyundai Elantra - Brimming with value and bristling with style, the daring Elantra isn't for everyone, but it's got a lot going for it. We also like its no-nonsense fuel economy, which is rated at the same 29 mpg city/40 mpg highway regardless of which model you choose.

AutoTrader Recommends

The Corolla LE is what most buyers will choose, and we think they have a point. You get all the basic economy-car features plus that special stereo with iPod and Bluetooth compatibility. Not bad.

author photo

Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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