- I often compare the Tesla Model 3 to the ToyotaCorolla in terms of basics: Both vehicles are compact sedans.
- I’ve driven several Model 3s. Recently, after reviewing a new Toyota Corolla, I decided to put my comparison to the test.
- The Model 3 is a more compelling and important car – full of ideas, with a revolutionary attitude.
- But after decades in the US market, the Corolla is still always just there for you. That counts for a lot in my book.
- Also, Tesla never stops talking about how hard it is to make the Model 3. Toyota, meanwhile, has been quietly cranking out Corollas since the late 1960s.
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Whenever I generalise about Tesla and the Model 3, I often point out that although the vehicle is in many ways revolutionary, if you boil it down to its automotive essence – and take out the battery pack and electric drivetrain! – it’s a Toyota Corolla.
In other words, it’s a compact family sedan. The Model 3 and the Corolla are almost exactly the same size, while the Model 3 is significantly heavier thanks to its fairly large battery. They each have four doors, six windows, and four wheels. (The Model 3, of course, has a panoramic glass roof.)
The fastback Model 3 and the more traditional deck-lidded Corolla are also kin when it comes to the trunk. Because the panoramic glass roof can’t move, the Model 3 isn’t a true hatchback.
Obviously, we have gas versus electrons here. But the cheapest Corolla comes in at under $US20,000. The least expensive Model 3, as listed on Tesla’s configurator at the time of this writing, is just under $US40,000.
I’ve driven several Model 3 variants, but the one I officially reviewed was the rear-wheel-drive, single-motor, long-range Premium example, then priced at $US57,500.
More recently, I reviewed a $US29,189 2020 Toyota Corolla XSE. And an opportunity knocked: Why don’t I test my compulsive comparison of the Corolla and Model 3 to determine if I actually have a point?
A quick note before we get started: YES, I KNOW THESE ARE VERY DIFFERENT CARS CONCEPTUALLY. But formally, they aren’t so divergent. You could electrify the Corolla or gasify the Model 3 and have something of an interchangeable experience.
Read on to see how it went down.
Tesla doesn’t do model years, but the $US57,500 long-range Premium I tested was more or less a 2019. It had a 75-kilowatt-hour battery pack and could travel 310 miles on a single charge.
The 2020 Toyota Corolla XSE arrived in “celestite grey metallic” livery. Celestite, for the record, is a mineral admired for its delicate blue colour.
Let’s start with the Model 3, which had a cool red multicoat paint job. My tester was fully loaded with options, including about $US5,000 worth of Premium upgrades, plus another $US5,000 for Enhanced Autopilot semi-self-driving systems.
The Model 3 is a sharp-looking set of wheels, but it’s hardly anything radical. This is by design: Tesla has never sought to make its vehicles come off as too space-age. The Model 3 is sleek, not overly curvaceous, and something of a hybrid of midsize and compact sedan. No grille because … there’s no gas engine to feed air!
The Model 3 in this configuration can dash from 0 to 60 mph in about five seconds. That’s speedy enough for anybody, and the quality of that speed is very Tesla and very electric-car. EVs have 100% of their available torque at 1 rpm, which means potentially neck-snapping velocity.
A Model S P100D with Ludicrous Mode engaged can do 0 to 60 mph in under 2.3 seconds. That’s jarring acceleration. The Model 3 is calmer. But not too calm. You are rewarded when you punch it.
The Model 3 also has regenerative braking, which can be customised to be heavy or light. Heavy acts almost like an engine brake and permits the driver to actively brake much less frequently than with a gas vehicle while recharging the battery. Light mitigates the sense that the Model 3 is tugging when coasting.
For what it’s worth, the Model 3 I tested lacked a Ludicrous or Insane mode – the default is quick acceleration. But you can switch that to Chill Mode, which dials it back. And I did. Chill is considerably easier to live with.
So the biggest obvious difference between the Model 3 and the Corolla is that the Model 3 has to be recharged.
Free supercharging for life used to be a great perk of Tesla ownership. But as ownership has grown, Tesla has adjusted the deal.
The company also discourages owners from using Superchargers for casual daily fill-ups, preferring they plug into slower charging options at home and save supercharging for longer trips.
A Supercharger can recharge a long-range Model 3 from zero to full in about an hour. Using 240-volt power will get the job done overnight, and a basic wall outlet will get you some miles in a pinch.
The 15-cubic-foot trunk can easily swallow a week’s worth of groceries …
… while the smaller front trunk, or “frunk,” adds enough extra space to give the Model 3 crossover SUV-like cargo capacity.
The Model 3’s interior is a study in minimalism. The steering wheel has a just a pair of thumbwheels to control various functions.
The black-upholstered cabin featured brushed-metal trim and a single piece of open-grain wood for a dashboard. Tesla makes its own seats, by the way, and they’re rather comfy.
In the rear, pretty terrific legroom!
The panoramic glass roof is a wonderful feature. Sadly, while I had the Model to test, the weather was uncooperative.
The Model 3’s attention-getting centre touchscreen controls almost all vehicle functions — everything from navigation to Autopilot settings to climate to unlocking Easter eggs — and the important instrument-cluster display take up the left third of the panel.
The audio system is Tesla’s creation – and it sounds fantastic! Some reviewers have complained about the lack of physical controls for the AC and heat, but I got used to the touchscreen pretty fast.
The navigation system can guide you to charging stations, track charge levels to plot a course and organise recharging sessions, and integrate with Autopilot for the “Navigate on Autopilot” feature, which I reviewed on another Model 3.
I’ve tested Autopilot in several Tesla vehicles, including the Model 3, and while it has performed as advertised for me (don’t ever take your hands off the wheel!) I liked driving the Model 3 so much that I barely used it.
The Corolla isn’t as cool-looking as the Model 3, but the 12th-generation design is perhaps my favourite in decades.
Alongside the Camry, Toyota’s stalwart midsize sedan, the Corolla has been jazzed up. The 12th-generation car debuted for the 2018 model year and brought much more slashing, aggressive lines to styling that, to many eyes, had grown staid.
Toyota has been selling the Corolla in the US since 1968. It’s been around almost as long as the Ford Mustang (1965)! The Corolla’s most recent US sales peak was 2007, when over 370,000 units were sold. Last year, that number was a still impressive 280,000.
The base Corolla starts at just under $US20,000. Our tester was the top-level XSE trim, priced at $US25,450 before the addition of a few thousand dollars’ worth of extras took the sticker to $US29,189.
A rock-solid, 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engine — with no turbocharger! It makes 169 horsepower with 151 pound-feet of torque. The fuel economy is fabulous: a whopping 31 mpg city/38 highway/34 combined. I drove the car a lot and barely dented the fuel supply.
The power it piped to the front wheels through a continuously variable transmission, which helps with the sterling mpgs.
For the record, the Model 3 bests the Corolla’s 0-to-60 by a wide margin: The Toyota makes the dash in a leisurely 7.8 seconds.
The Corolla’s trunk has 13 cubic feet of cargo space. That’s average for the segment, but the Model 3 can haul more stuff.
Toyotas aren’t noted for premium interiors — that’s more Lexus, Toyota’s luxury brand. However, the Corolla XSE was, I thought, rather nice. The seats were predictably comfy, yet not too soft, with good bolstering. And the plastics weren’t too plasticky.
Rear-seat legroom was segment-typical, and my tester had a moonroof to brighten things up.
The leather-wrapped steering wheel was adorned with the usual bevy of buttons to control numerous vehicle and infotainment functions. The gauges were old-school analogue. This trim level has paddle shifters, but they were sort of useless, given the CVT.
The infotainment system runs on an 8-inch central touchscreen. I’m not a huge fan of the setup, and I say this as the owner of two Toyota vehicles. It does, however, get the job done.
Bluetooth device pairing is easy, and there are USB ports for your devices. Navigation worked as advertised, and the nine-speaker JBL audio system sounded quite good.
The system also has Apple CarPlay, so you can override the Toyota setup and use your iPhone.
My tester also had wireless charging, a feature that I’ve come to appreciate as it’s shown up on more and more new vehicles.
My verdict on the Toyota Corolla?
The bottom line here is that the Corolla is a terrific choice – and a classic no-brainer if you don’t want to think about your set of wheels.
Legendary Toyota reliability means a Corolla is unlikely to give you many problems, if any. The latest generation is also premium enough in the upmarket (yet still sub-$US30,000) trim to make a strong case for buyers who aren’t in their 20s and who don’t feel the need to look at Audis and BMWs.
That’s what the Corolla has going for it: credibility. This car has a splendid reputation. And that’s always worth investing in.
And what about the Model 3?
What’s really so hypnotically and addictively compelling about the Model 3 is how many great ideas have been crammed into one automobile.
This is a car that’s absolutely bursting with thought, about the present and the future – and the distant future. Those ideas are overwhelmingly optimistic. Clearly, because it creates no tailpipe emissions, you can buy a Model 3 to feel better about yourself and your life on the environmentally embattled Earth.
The Model 3 is one of the greatest cars I’ve ever driven. Period.
Expecting me to pick a winner? Well then …
In the interest of full disclosure, I own two Toyotas and had a Corolla for a while back in the 1990s. That means I’m a tad biased, though I’ve always been pretty clear on how generally brilliant I think Teslas are.
I mean, I’d get the Corolla and use the extra $US20,000 to $US30,000 to do something else. I’d also be able to gas up in five minutes once a week instead of waiting around for hours to recharge the Model 3. (Most owners do it overnight at their home setups, by the way.)
But what about my original question: Is it fair to keep comparing the Model 3 with the Corolla?
It sure is! In terms of driving and daily usage, these vehicles are the same. Yeah, yeah, the Model 3 can sort of drive itself and has a lot more in terms of technological bells and whistles. But at the end of the day, it’s a four-door with four wheels.
This is where the distinction comes in. Toyota sells its four-door with four wheels for much less than Tesla sells its four-door with four wheels. Toyota has never, in my experience, made any noise about how difficult it is to manufacture its inexpensive and staggeringly reliable four-door with four wheels. The car just happens. It’s been here and on sale since Nixon was president.
The part of me that adores the Corolla is the part of me that wants to have a life and not think about my car. (That part of me isn’t the professional-auto-journalist part of me.) The Model 3 demands mindshare, bandwidth. It’s pleasurable to think about the car. But pleasure can get old.
The Corolla doesn’t ask this of you. And you can bet on one thing: It won’t have any trouble getting old while you ignore it.
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