Toyota Corolla sets new safety standard for compact segment

OJAI, California – You would have to have been listening carefully to catch Toyota Canada VP Stephen Beatty’s “watershed moment” comment during his introduction of the 2017 Corolla in California last week. An odd oversight, given that marketing departments generally flog to death such catch phrases, using them to inflate the most trivial of upgrades.

But in this case, it’s justified. In celebration of its 50th anniversary, the Corolla has just set a new standard – not just for the compact segment, but for every type of affordable mainstream passenger car on the market.

With more than 43 million sold in over 150 countries around the world, the Corolla is the best-selling car in history. But compact cars represent bread and butter for their manufacturers, and heated competition is driving customer expectations ever upward. There are a lot of good cars in this segment; witness the meteoric rise of the Hyundai Elantra, which has surpassed the Corolla to become Canada’s second best-selling compact behind the Honda Civic.

2017 Toyota Corolla

2017 Toyota Corolla

Honda upped the ante last year when it introduced its “Honda Sensing” suite of safety technology on the Civic, earning it the highest available collision safety rating from the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). The radar- and camera-based tech package includes collision mitigation braking, lane departure warning, forward collision warning, adaptive lane keeping assist and road departure mitigation. It was a precedent-setting move – offering a level of technology once seen only in the most luxurious vehicles, and even then usually for a premium. But the Honda Sensing system is only available on upper trim levels starting at $23,123.

Economy and safety are the primary concerns for buyers in this segment. Starting next year, every single Corolla, from the base CE on upward, will come standard with the Toyota Safety Sense P (TSS-P) safety package with pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, lane departure alert with steering assist, dynamic radar cruise control and automatic high beams.

According to Beatty, that’s approximately $2,500 worth of technology, packed into a car that’s only $300 more than last year’s model. It’s part of Toyota’s “democratization of safety” strategy, making technology available to every mainstream buyer. Its approach is to “enhance driver effectiveness” rather than replace the driver with autonomous technology.

2017 Toyota Corolla

2017 Toyota Corolla

In addition to minor front fascia, head and tail lamp and interior  upgrades, there are more trim-specific enhancements such as heated leather wrapped steering wheel, power moonroof, a 4.2-inch TFT display, 17-inch alloys and LED lighting.

We drove the $19,390 Corolla CE  CVT and $21,290 Corolle SE CVT on a loop through Ojai’s Topatopa mountains. Thoroughly redone for 2016, it’s a pleasant little car, although not exactly destined to set pulses racing.

Modestly upholstered in two-tone cloth – the CE was surprisingly well-equipped with LED headlamps, Bluetooth, a 6.1-inch touchscreen audio system, a 3.5-inch TFT instrument cluster display and steering wheel audio controls. There’s neither air conditioning, backup camera nor navigation, and the seat adjustments are strictly do-it-yourself.

But for $16,290 you can get a six-speed manual CE  with a suite of safety technology that would put a $50,000 German luxury sedan to shame. And that sets a new precedent for affordable compact cars.