If there were four automotive “food groups,” the Toyota Corolla (compact sedan), Highlander (midsize crossover SUV), Sienna (minivan) and 86 (sports car) could arguably be the benchmarks. All four are popular examples of affordably priced vehicles that serve their intended purpose well.
Toyota has proven time and again it knows how to build great vehicles that sell. The brand’s midsize family sedan, the Camry, is the best-selling car in America and the Corolla happens to be the best-selling vehicle of all time. Toyota’s truck and SUV sales for 2016 are currently at an all-time historical high.
There are many factors that contribute to Toyota’s success. The manufacturer’s strong reputation for building reliable vehicles that log hundreds of thousands of relatively trouble-free miles builds fierce brand loyalty, which is often passed from generation to generation. Toyota also has a knack for intuitively launching products that meet needs and favor substance over flash or gimmicks, typically at price points that are reachable for the intended demographic.
Toyota recently hosted a group of journalists in Ojai, California, to introduce the 2017 Corolla, Highlander, Sienna and 86. Since all these models have been refreshed for the 2017, the fact that the gathering was held in the Ojai Valley – a location known as a place to visit for rejuvenation – was a well-received irony. The four returning veterans featured improvements that included new powertrain choices, updated styling and new technology.
So what does a manufacturer do to improve a vehicle that is already selling well and has been positively received by critics and consumers?
The best solution is to take a very cautious approach, and this is exactly what Toyota has done.
Three of the four vehicles are already beloved models that sell, one of them better than any other car in the history of the world. The fourth model is a reworked and rebadged Scion product, carrying the torch for the outgoing 2016 FR-S. Toyota adopted the orphan sports car and renamed the fun-to-drive grand tourer “86,” the badge already used by the rear-wheel drive sports car in Japan.
Since the Highlander, Sienna and Corolla are already top sellers, Toyota wisely implemented revisions that favored evolution over revolution.
The good news is that Toyota has repeatedly proven they understand how to implement careful evolutionary progress. Toyota’s ability to learn from past shortcomings, read the marketplace and then implement small but calculated changes usually results in new vehicles that are better than the previous models, but similar enough that brand loyalists do not feel betrayed.
2017 Toyota Corolla
No other car sells like the Corolla. With 43 million sold globally, the Toyota Corolla is the world’s best-selling car of all time. The first Corolla arrived in 1966, and 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of this compact car.
Corolla’s appeal crosses boundaries few other vehicles can even dream of reaching. Toyota’s entry into the compact sedan segment has a strong percentage of millennial and multi-ethnic buyers, some of the largest percentages of any vehicle. Of course, a diverse buying demographic should come as no surprise, considering that Toyota sells 1.5 million Corollas every year worldwide.
While not a complete overhaul, the 2017 Corolla features refreshed exterior styling and a nicely updated interior. More aggressive than the outgoing model’s, the new front grille and LED headlamps add an element of drama to the Corolla’s relatively sedate design. L, LE and LE Eco grades feature new bi-LED headlamps and attractive multi-LED headlamps arrive standard on SE, XSE and XLE trim levels. New 16-inch wheels are standard on the LE and XLE, and SE and XSE trims receive larger 17-inch alloys.
While many of the updates are subtle, the refreshed 2017 Corolla brings a significant change that might mark the beginning of a new chapter for the compact segment, and it concerns safety technology. Many manufacturers limit their active safety technology to top trim groups or more expensive premium vehicles, but Toyota has opted to include leading-edge safety features as standard equipment on every trim level of the Corolla.
The buzz-phrase is “Toyota Safety Sense-P (TSS-P).” TSS-P technology includes the brand’s top safety technologies and makes them standard equipment, even on the entry-level $18,500 Corolla L. The Corolla’s TSS-P packaging includes lane-departure alert with steering assist, a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, dynamic radar cruise control and automatic high beams.
2017 Toyota 86
We’re fans of the Scion FR-S, and when Toyota announced it would no longer sell cars under the Scion name, our immediate concern was for this model’s future. Happily, Toyota has kept the model alive, rebadging it under the name it’s sold under in the Japanese market: Toyota 86.
While similar at first glance, the newly named 2017 Toyota 86 represents a subtle progression of style and substance both inside and out. A revised front and rear fascia, fender inserts and new LED and projector beam lights dress up the exterior. The cabin features an attractive suede-like material, and the driver-centric cockpit features the smallest steering wheel Toyota has put in one of its cars.
Toyota reworked the 2.0-liter four-cylinder boxer engine to provide a 5 additional horsepower in models equipped with the manual transmission. Cars with the six-speed automatic remain unchanged with 200 horsepower. Toyota has also enhanced the power band with a lower rear differential gearing that provides more authoritative acceleration than the outgoing FR-S.
The 86 also includes a revised suspension that improves handling. We drove the 86 through some challenging stretches of twisty back roads and can attest that the car’s lean during aggressive cornering is greatly reduced.
2017 Toyota Highlander
Toyota’s Highlander is a capable three-row midsize SUV that offers room for up to eight passengers. For 2017, the Highlander gets a significant facelift, with a refreshed front fascia that helps to showcase the SUV’s sporty nature.
The 3.5-liter V6 engine also gets an additional 25 horsepower and 15 pound-feet of torque. An eight-speed automatic transmission replaces the outgoing six-speed on V6 models, while the 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine keeps the six-speed automatic. Hybrid models are also more powerful (306 horsepower versus the 2016 model’s 280 horsepower) and the lineup has been expanded to provide lower price points with the addition of entry-level LE and XLE models.
For 2017, the Highlander’s interior has also been updated. Upgrades include a revised driver information display screen.
The 2017 Highlander is available with either front- or all-wheel drive. For added safety, all 2017 Highlander models now include the aforementioned Toyota Safety Sense P (TSS-P) package.
2017 Toyota Sienna
Whether we like to admit it or not, there isn’t another vehicle on the road that can match the practical, family-friendly utility of the minivan. Crossover SUVs are great, but the seating and cargo carrying capabilities provided by a minivan are second to none, especially for the price.
For 2017, the already excellent Toyota Sienna remains mostly unchanged, but under the hood, Toyota is now using a new 3.5-liter V6 similar to the one found in the 2017 Highlander. The revised engine provides the Sienna with an additional 30 horsepower and 18 pound-feet of torque versus the outgoing model. Toyota has also added a new eight-speed automatic transmission for even better fuel efficiency.
Of interest, the Sienna is currently the only minivan with available all-wheel drive. We took the all-wheel drive model out onto some of Ojai’s more challenging terrain and although we never really pushed the envelope, the Sienna proved to be a well-composed vehicle with plenty of power to keep things interesting.
Over the past decade, the minivan has evolved to provide a satisfying and often luxurious driving experience. In many ways, the Sienna has led this charge, and the 2017 model takes it to the next level.