2016 Toyota Corolla S Special Edition review: A solid car in need of more power

2016 Toyota Corolla S Special Edition

For 2016, Toyota attempted to bring a little extra style to its Corolla lineup to try to further shed the bland, boring reputation the car has earned over its last few generations. The result is the car here, a 2016 Toyota Corolla S Special Edition.

But what’s so special about it? Does the Special Edition package turn the milquetoast economy car into a true sports sedan? Read on to find out.

First, a disclaimer: The 2017 models are almost here, so this is pretty much a lame duck 2016 model. However, the new car is mechanically identical to the 2016, so any conclusions about its dynamics will hold true for the 2017. Any issues that the 2017 model fixes will be noted.

2016 Toyota Corolla S Special Edition


The latest generation Corolla is a decent looking little sedan. It’s not going to set the world on fire, but it has attractive proportions and simple, clean lines. The front end has a tamer, more tasteful version of Toyota’s gaping-mouth black lower grille design. This is one area where the 2017 is worse, as the updated styling increases the size of the grille and takes away some of those good proportions.

The Special Edition model ups the style by adding in black accents everywhere, black painted alloys, and in the case of the test car, bright red paint that Toyota calls Absolutely Red, and it is absolutely red. The Special Edition also came in black and white, but with a color as striking as the red, why get anything else?

2016 Toyota Corolla S Special Edition

Inside, the Corolla has a high, flat dash with a silver accent across the middle of the upper dash that continues into the door panels. The Special Edition adds red accents. With the piano-black center stack and simple, clean lines, the Corolla’s interior is a fine place to spend time. It’s one of the better Toyota interiors, much better than the RAV4. The red accents continue on the Softex (leatherette) and cloth seats, on the shift boot and on the floor mats.


Unfortunately, the Special Edition Corolla has nothing special under the hood to differentiate it from other, less special Corollas. Motivating the car is the same 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 132 horsepower and 128 lb-ft of torque. Granted, the car only weighs about 2,800 lbs, but the Corolla is one of the lowest powered cars in its class.

It’s also paired with a continuously variable transmission. The regular S Plus trim has a six-speed manual option; the Special Edition should have had that, too. The transmission does a good job of converting the 132 ponies into forward movement, but it has to spend a lot of time at 5,000 rpm or better. The engine is a bit coarse to being with, and keeping it at that high of a rev range for a long time is a recipe for cacophony.

There is a Sport mode that, as is common in CVTs, increases the idle point to make it quicker off the line or out of corners. It also has paddle shifters that move the transmission between seven set ratios to mimic a traditional automatic. The transmission responds quickly to the paddles, but there’s little tactile feedback; it feels like a video game controller.

Ride and Handling

The Special Edition, like all Corollas, rides on a MacPherson strut front suspension with an econobox torsion beam in the back. It doesn’t even get the independent rear suspension of its cousin, the Scion iM. The chassis is sport tuned, as in all S trim levels, which helps a little in the handling department but makes the ride bumpy and harsh.

Steering has the typical numbness of an electric system, but Toyota has dialed in a pleasant heft to the steering which helps make up for the lack of feel. On the whole, it’s not a bad handling little car. It’s not the best, but it’s not the worst either. It could easily handle a lot more power (more on that later on).


One place where the Corolla shines is in interior space. It’s packaged very well, and until the new Honda Civic came around it was the king of compact car rear seat space. There’s more rear legroom than in the larger Camry. For a small car, it can easily handle four regular sized adults with no problem, which is something that can’t be said for all its competitors.

The trunk is average sized, but has a clean shape without any weird nooks, making it easy to load a lot of cargo. The seats fold down in a 60/40 split, which most people don’t use anyway, but it’s good to know its there.

Front seat space is also generous for the car’s size. There’s plenty of fore and aft adjustment to handle taller people and plenty of legroom. The center console is low and out of the way, giving a sense of airiness.

The Corolla’s infotainment system leaves a little to be desired. It makes due with a 6.1-inch display flanked with six hardware buttons and two dials. It’s easy to use, and in the case of the Special Edition has Bluetooth streaming and navigation, but it lags behind its competitors. Toyota must have realized this, as for 2017 they improved the electronics with a seven-inch screen that looks as if it were pulled right from the new Prius.

The 2016 Corolla’s steering wheel controls don’t match recent Toyota offerings, and this will also be changed in the 2017 update.

2016 Toyota Corolla S Special Edition


If the Corolla is lacking in driving excitement, it more than makes up for it in fuel economy. It’s rated at 29 mpg city, 37 mpg highway and 32 combined, but in its week with me, it got 34.4 mpg in mostly city driving. It may not get the magic “40” on the window sticker, but the Corolla is one of the more efficient cars in a very fuel efficient class.

Competition and Value

The 2016 Toyota Corolla S Special Edition starts at $20,635, but with the upgraded radio, sunroof and destination it tops out at $23,520. This puts it at the high end of the Corolla’s price range, but it’s still lower than the top-level competitors. While it was common in the past to pay the “Toyota tax,” the Corolla range is right on par with the competition. The Special Edition package adds some style, but there’s nothing outstanding that it has that can’t be ordered on an S Plus with the exception of the wheels and paint.

When comparing the Corolla to its competition, it becomes apparent that, despite the fact that it’s right behind the Honda Civic in sales, it’s starting to fall way behind in terms of features, refinement and dynamics. The Civic pretty much turned the whole segment on its head with its supersized proportions and mix of driving fun and economy. The Mazda3 has been the class of the class for a while with its stunning looks and exciting performance.

The Koreans have also passed the Corolla, as the 2017 Hyundai Elantra is a big improvement over the last generation, and although it doesn’t offer a lot of driving fun, it does offer a lot of refinement and equipment for the money. And don’t forget the Americans, as the Chevrolet Cruze is all-new and much improved, and the Ford Focus, while a little short on interior space, has European chassis design and is still a blast to drive.

2016 Toyota Corolla S Special Edition


Lease itOn the TFLcar scale of:

  • Buy It,
  • Lease It,
  • Rent It,
  • or Forget It,

The 2016 Toyota Corolla S Special Edition gets a Lease It!

The Corolla is an attractive small car with a lot of useful interior space, but its lack of power and available amenities put it far behind the competition. The 2017 update fixes some of that, as it improves the infotainment system and adds driver assistance technology, but its anemic engine still leaves it at the back of the pack.

For me, I actually like the little Corolla. It’s fun, in its own way. It’s plucky. But it doesn’t change the fact that it needs more power. I would love to see the Corolla, especially the S model, with the 2.5-liter, 178-horsepower engine and six-speed automatic transmission that was in the Camry Special Edition I tested. That’s not a far-fetched request, as the RAV4, which shares the Corolla’s platform, already has it. The chassis could handle a lot more power, and the bigger engine would transform the car from an also-ran to a class leader. Are you listening, Toyota?