A few decades ago – or even more recently, depending on who you ask – American economy cars were sorry pieces of junk, undesirable models that were built only reluctantly by automakers that just wanted to improve their average fleet fuel economy. Meanwhile, Korean competitors hit the scene without competitive engineering or quality control.
This was the era in which the Toyota Corolla shone, offering solid engineering and thoughtful design that was contrasted against the indifference or inadequacy found in many competitors.
These days, though, the Corolla is in a very different market position. Against its increasingly solid competition, it feels like basic transportation; many other compact cars feel sophisticated by comparison, with well-finished interiors; polished ride and handling; and clever in-dash technology.
The Corolla, to be blunt, has none of those things – at least not by the standards of 2017.
This Toyota led the class when the current Corolla debuted three model years ago by offering a touchscreen infotainment system as standard equipment on nearly every model, but other small cars have since leapfrogged the Corolla for speed, graphics and smartphone connectivity.
Driving dynamics, never a particular strong suit of the current Corolla, languish further still against the sharp Honda Civic and Mazda3 or the solidly comfortable Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, Subaru Impreza or Volkswagen Jetta. Not only does the Toyota lack handling verve, but even its ride comfort is mediocre, and the relatively weak 132-horsepower four-cylinder engine can groan under acceleration – even though gas mileage is merely acceptable at 32 miles per gallon in mixed driving. The Corolla also feels insubstantial on the road, and it needs frequent steering corrections to stay on course on the highway.
But for 2017, Toyota has pulled out a powerful trump card that keeps the Corolla from fading into irrelevance: a suite of advanced safety features that, unlike the competition, come as standard equipment. Even at the base price of $19,385, you get forward-collision warning with a highly rated automatic emergency braking system; radar-based cruise control; and lane-departure warnings with steering corrections. A 2017 update also improved the car's crash-test performance.
A number of today's economy cars do offer the same features, but in many cases you need to load up on lots of luxury equipment to get the top safety tech – such as on the Elantra – or at least pay a substantial premium for the safety suite on its own – like on the Civic. And others don't offer such neat tricks at all.
The Corolla's position is a precarious one. Any day, another automaker could trump Toyota by making its own safety technology standard on a superior vehicle. But the fact is that if you're buying a car right now, this one offers impressive safety for the money. If you don't mind that it's behind the times in other ways, a base-model Corolla can be a solid deal. If you're spending more anyway, though, give competitors a hard look.
Are you looking for a Lincoln Continental with zestier driving dynamics? An Audi A6 with more interior room? Or perhaps a cleanly styled cross between the two with excellent fuel economy and a head-turning interior?
If so, you may find what you're looking for in the new 2017 Volvo S90, which replaced the aging S80 luxury sedan. While its imperfections were evident during a recent test, the Swedish carmarker's new flagship car demonstrated enough charm and substance alike to find itself a niche.
Although it looks like a big cushy cruiser, Volvo pitches the S90 as a sports sedan. That's borne out with lively acceleration – the tested T6 model's four-cylinder engine is simultaneously turbocharged and supercharged for an impressive total of 316 horsepower – and respectable handling poise. You'll also find evidence of its sporting focus in a perhaps unexpectedly stiff ride, though, too. Gas mileage is excellent, at least, for a car of this size and power: 25 miles per gallon in mixed driving with all-wheel-drive.
The S90's most notable quality is its interior, where luxurious detailing and distinctive styling impress. A big tall touchscreen dominates the dashboard; it's cleverly designed, but it's sometimes distracting for the driver to operate. Comfortable seats offer myriad adjustments and there's respectable room in the rear seat and trunk.
Volvo didn't quite master this car's balance of ride and handling, giving up quite a bit in the former category without truly astounding in the latter. Even so, luxury sedan buyers should give a look to the S90 if its unique market positioning sounds appealing. Prices start at $47,945 and the tested model, loaded up with extra features, hit $66,105.