This is the title fight. The big one. The Battle of the Beige. It may not be the sexy, over-the-top test some have been waiting for (Lotus Evora S vs. Porsche Cayman R anyone?), but make no mistake, this is the one that counts – especially in compact car-crazy Canada.
Indeed, the ever-popular Toyota Corolla and redone and refocused Volkswagen Jetta represent the heart of our automotive marketplace. They are cheap, competent and safe: in short, simple transportation. Sexy they are not, but a wiser man than I once said the hardest thing to do is build a good, cheap car. Anybody can build a supercar and sell it for millions – Bugatti, we’re looking at you – but these two automobiles you see before you must do essentially the same job as the Veyron at a fraction of the cost; 1/85th to be precise.
Base prices start around the $15,000 mark for both cars, but once you tick the boxes for air conditioning and an automatic transmission the price tag for both climbs past $18,000.
Sidenote: we realize our contenders are silver not beige, but stay with us here.
Second Place – 2010 Toyota Corolla CE
Ah yes, the aging champ. We’d like to report that it put up a good fight and made the Jetta sweat to the last bell. It’d be a good story, like Rocky, but that’s not exactly how it went down.
At first glance, the proudly Canadian-built Corolla’s age shows. It was never a stunner to begin with and looks blander than ever today (note that a slightly revised version debuted in L.A. and is on its way soon).
Inside, you sit high on the seats rather than settle in them and the pedals are underneath you rather than stretched out in front. On the plus side, this driving position means visibility is great.
According to our three test drivers, there’s noticeably less room in the rear seat than in the Jetta. Our judges were split on the sand-coloured plastic for the interior. All agreed the door handles and some plastics look and feel cheap and the fabric on the seats is strangely fuzzy.
Driving the Corolla, however, you soon learn it’s still got some fight left. The motor feels punchier than the Jetta’s, despite the fact the Corolla’s is only a 1 .8-litre compared to the German’s 2.0. It’s only made more impressive when you realize the Toyota does all this with only four gears – two less than the Jetta. The Corolla gets significantly better official fuel economy too: 7.6 litres per 100 kilometres in the city versus the Jetta’s strangely high 9.6 L/100 km, and 5.7 L/100 km highway against the VW’s 6.9.
Everything about the Toyota focuses on non-stress, easy motoring. The controls on the centre console are intuitive and easy to use and the dashboard design has stood the test of time rather well. Toyota has been making this generation of Corolla for a while now – the sedan was introduced in 2008 so naturally, the people in Cambridge, ON have gotten pretty good at bolting them together.
Still, it’s an automotive appliance. The Corolla will get you from A to B reliably, but new cars can do that and look and feel better at the same time. This wasn’t always the case though, which explains why the Corolla remains a top-seller on our shores. Either way, when that next-generation comes along, it’ll have another shot at the title.
First Place – 2011 Volkswagen Jetta Trendline
The aspiring young contender. Finally, the company that made the peoples’ car is making cars for the people again. The Phaeton was brilliantly engineered, but silly – an $80,000, 12-cylinder, luxurious leap in Audi’s direction. But, the company is going back to its roots with the $15,000 Jetta. For reference, the outgoing 2010 car started at $22,000.
First though, its big weakness. The engine in this base model is a classic in the Volkswagen family. It’s a 2.0-litre unit paired with a six-speed auto as found in the defunct City Jetta. Sounds good on paper, but not so much on the road. It produces just 115 horsepower and 125 lb-ft of torque compared to the Corolla’s 132 hp and 128 lb-ft of torque. Slotting the gear-lever into sport mode lets the gearbox hold onto each cog longer but it comes with notably more engine noise than in the Toyota and not much more speed.
Perhaps part of the issue is that the Jetta is about 80 kilograms heavier.
We’d live with the lack of grunt though because neither of these cars are blazing fast performers and the Jetta just looks better inside and out: the blacked out window trim and B-pillars; the sharp crease running along the sides under the windows; the clean, simple lines. It looks upscale, especially when parked next to the Corolla.
Inside the Veedub’s pretty basic and feels like a barebones version of a more expensive car. But, the simplicity works; controls are straightforward and intuitive. The cloth on the seats is nicer than the Toyota’s, the gear selector looks and ratchets better, and the interior door handles are nice brushed metal-ish material. The seats are more comfortable and more supportive. You sit lower in the car, feeling more a part of the driving experience. Our only real gripe here is the lack of an armrest in the front row.
The little Toyota stood up respectably – especially considering its age – but the new Jetta is just better at delivering an attractive, well-engineered, well-priced conveyance that’s satisfying enough to drive.
Specifications (as tested):
2010 Toyota Corolla CE
Engine: 1.8L, 4-cyl, DOHC
Power: 132 hp, 128 lb-ft
Transmission: 4-spd automatic, w/overdrive
Fuel efficiency: 7.6 L/100 km city – 5.7 L/100 km highway
Dimensions (L/W/H in mm): 4,540/1,760/1,465
Weight: 1,245 kg
2011 Volkswagen Jetta Trendline
Engine: 2.0L, 4-cyl, DOHC
Power: 115 hp, 125 lb-ft
Transmission: 6-spd automatic with Tiptronic and Sport mode
Fuel efficiency: 9.6 L/100 km city – 6.9 L/100 km highway
Dimensions (L/W/H in mm): 4,628/1,778/1,453
Weight: 1,325 kg