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2010 Toyota Corolla (MIchael Bettencourt for The Globe and Mail)
2010 Toyota Corolla (MIchael Bettencourt for The Globe and Mail)

2010 Toyota Corolla

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It's hard not to like the Toyota Corolla, but it's also hard to love it. Yes, the 2010 model road tested here has been the subject of two of Toyota Canada's highly publicized recalls, but it still has an outstanding overall quality and safety reputation earned over the past 30 years.

What makes the Corolla so easy to like in its current 10th generation version is the big car refinement it packs into a compact car price. This includes a quiet engine note, good sound dampening at highway speeds, and a surprising amount of technology for just a touch over 20 large.

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Sure, most Corollas look as bland as day-old oatmeal, and handling is surely tuned for comfort rather than sportiness. But a base Corolla will still feel more agile and flatter in turns than even car-like crossovers like Toyota's own Venza, which is taller and heavier and similarly sprung for gentle tush treatment. You could liken the Corolla to a mainstream Lexus model, offering more toys and comfort than the competition for similar or fewer dollars, but with class-leading fuel economy, too.

First, the recall issue. Yes, a surprising number of Toyota vehicles have been recalled, including many Corollas, covering selected 2007-2010 models for a sticking throttle issue caused by either a brake pedal issue or all-rubber floor mats that may interfere with the throttle pedal. For the brake pedal recall, which affected all 2009 and 2010 models, condensation has been found to build up over time in rare circumstances, which can cause a depressed gas pedal to let up slower or stick.

Toyota messed up here, waffling on putting the word out quickly enough. This particular Corolla had its recall service performed, a pin inserted into the brake pedal to prevent sticking, and unsurprisingly, there were no unrequested bouts of acceleration, either with this car or any other of the many Corollas I've driven in the past five years.

The Corolla still ticks all the boxes - it looks just fine and delivers all the basics at an affordable price, says Bob English

But compared to those Corollas, and the previous car I drove (Cadillac CTS) just before this tester, the brakes seemed to need a harder push than usual to keep the car stationary, unexpectedly creeping forward slowly on at least a couple occasions when I wasn't paying close attention. So was it a few simple acts of absent-mindedness on my part that would go unmentioned in any other firm's car? Or another good reason to always be ready to put your car into neutral, no matter the brand?

Regardless, the Corolla's overall safety record is still enviable. It's a Top Safety Pick against its peers in the toughest IIHS rankings, with the highest "good" results going back to 2003 models in frontal crash tests, garners four and five-star ratings all around in U.S. government tests, and scores a coveted Recommended rating from Consumer Reports, which takes into account safety ratings as well as reliability and instrumented emergency response testing - which Toyota knows all too well from the recent CR Lexus GX 460 "do not buy" rating that led to another Toyota recall.

The 2010 Corolla also offers an impressive host of standard active (collision-preventing) and passive (collision-protecting) safety equipment: ABS, brake assist, side airbags, electronic brake force distribution, whiplash-fighting active front headrests, and electronic stability control on all but the most basic Corolla CE.

This particular $22,485 Corolla LE tester added onto that automatic climate control, tire pressure monitoring system, a height adjustable driver's seat, the usual electric accessories and fake but still handsome wood grain accents that furthered the Corolla's major bang-for-your-buck appeal.

But the most useful feature was the handy smart key system that would unlock or lock the doors as soon as you touch the door handle with a bare hand, allowing you to keep your car keys in your pocket as you hit the Start button. All of a sudden, any 40 grand and up luxury car without such a system is hopelessly outdated, as this is one of those features that's handy for anyone at any time of the year.

Toyota spent some good bucks under the hood too, upgrading the Corolla's engine for this generation with drive-by-wire technology, as well as electric power steering, both of which help the Corolla achieve a laudable fuel efficiency figure of 7.6 L/100 km city, and 5.7 on the highway, a figure that most likely could have been even lower had Toyota opted for a five-speed automatic instead of a mere four-speed unit. Then again, the Corolla still sips slightly less than the five-speed automatic equipped Honda Civic, according to government figures, and notably less than the Mazda3.

This engine is far from the powerhouse of this holy sales trinity, the top three best-selling cars in this country for most of the past five years. The Corolla's 132 hp 1.8-litre mill is likely the smoothest and quietest of the bunch, but even the more spritely 158 hp in the sportier Corolla XRS won't impress many folks down at the local drag strip. This larger 2.4-litre four's 164 lb-ft of torque puts a major hit on fuel economy, even with a five-speed automatic, at 9.4/6.5 city/highway.

Where my own personal funds would go first if I was spec'ing out a practical Corolla would be to spice up the bland style of most Corollas with the XRS's front and side skirts, as well as its rear spoiler. Otherwise, like this LE, the car looks like any other small car you may see a hundred times at your local mall, or maybe even on the five-minute drive there.

Other quibbles include a few large and uneven gaps on the three-spoke steering wheel hub, as well as a chintzy trunk closing sound, even with the 60/40 split rear seats folded up and the trunk empty. On top of the aforementioned rear drums and four-speed auto, costs were also obviously taken out of the suspension, now a rear beam arrangement. It also seemed a touch strange to have a high-tech entry and starter system, but then no audio controls on the steering wheel, though they are available.

Overall, though, the Cambridge, Ont.-built Corolla is a luxurious and practical commuter. It might not offer the extensive list of luxury options or slick styling of a Mazda3, or sportiness of a Civic, but especially with recent rebates being thrown at it, the Corolla offers a lot for relatively little money.

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2010 Toyota Corolla LE

Type: Compact commuter sedan

Base price: $21,165, as tested $22,485

Engine: 1.8L in-line four cylinder; DOHC

Transmission: Four-speed automatic

Drive: Front-wheel-drive

Horsepower/torque: 132 hp/128 lb-ft

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 7.6 city/5.7 highway; regular recommended

Alternatives: Chevrolet Cobalt, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Ford Focus, Kia Forte, Mazda3, Nissan Sentra

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