Corolla XSE finds the treasures of Ely

John Gilbert

 Corolla’s 2017 model looks good for 50th anniversary. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Corolla’s 2017 model looks good for 50th anniversary. Photo credit: John Gilbert

This is a great summer for festivals, with something going on every week, if not every day, in Duluth, and other community celebrations all around Northeastern Minnesota towns. One of our favorites is always the Blueberry Festival in Ely, a colorful little town on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area wilderness, and it gave us all the incentive we needed for a Saturday test drive.

Our chariot of the week was the 2017 Toyota Corolla, and this model was loaded, from its sloping and racy looking nose to the XSE emblem emblazoned on the rear panel, glistening in bright silver against the deep blue — “Blue Crush” they call it -- color of the car.

Sleek lines and smooth performance hold popularity as Corolla awaits new-generation engines. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Sleek lines and smooth performance hold popularity as Corolla awaits new-generation engines. Photo credit: John Gilbert

While all eyes are on the 2018 Camry that’s about to come out, it can be easy to overlook the 2017, but this happens to be the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the Corolla, which continues to battle heads-up against the Honda Civic, and now such stalwarts as the Mazda3, Nissan Sentra, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, Chevrolet Cruze and Ford Focus.

At a price range of jusst under $20,000 to $25,000, that competition is ferocious, and the Corolla looks the part of a swift, sleek, sporty competitor. It fulfills that role, pretty much. The standard 1.8-liter 4-cylinder is the familiar, if aging, Toyota engine that has 4-valves-per-cylinder with variable valve-timing, which sounds high-tech and all, but it’s been around for a lot of years. With 140 horsepower and 126 foot-pounds of torque, the engine is swift enough to hold freeway speeds anywhere.

But if the engine is adequate for power and economy, it doesn’t match up to the newest engines from Mazda or Honda in the under-2-liter level, and it certainly falls short of the sporty appearance of the Corolla itself. Especially for the 50th anniversary, I would have liked to see maybe a direct-injected 4 and maybe a turbocharged version for those who are seeking a more exciting ride. Under the eye of Akia Toyoda as new CEO, Toyota is in the process of redoing its arsenal of engines. The Camry gets one for 2018, and we assume the Corolla will be next, perhaps for 2019.

Sporty instruments and fingertip controls of CVT add to upgraded Corolla. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Sporty instruments and fingertip controls of CVT add to upgraded Corolla. Photo credit: John Gilbert

The 2017 version isn’t bad, and it is what it is. The test car came in at a sticker of $24,416, after a base price for the XSE of $22,680. My wife, Joan, enjoyed driving the Corolla, and I agreed with her that it has a taut handling feel and good steering, and it cornered with stability. And the power is OK, too, considering.

To get to Ely from Duluth requires a short drive up the North Shore of Lake Superior, and then you branch off headed North using a combination of Hwys. 1, 2, and/or 3. You keep your focus on driving because of the wonderful curves through the thick trees, and you also know that you might spot a deer, or maybe even a wolf.

XSE model features sporty upgraded model in Corolla line for 2017. Photo credit: John Gilbert
XSE model features sporty upgraded model in Corolla line for 2017. Photo credit: John Gilbert

Ely, which has a wolf center where you can view wolves close up and study their habits in what is their country, also puts on this Blueberry Festival. I drove moderately, and watched the fuel-economy gauge rise to over 30, and then 32 and 34. When we pulled into Ely, we turned left and went right past the crowd and parked cars to drive through town.

Our destination was Henry’s Shoe Repair, a tiny shop adjacent to Piraga’s Outlet and the Chocolate Moose. My intention was to get both our sons, Jack and Jeff, hand-made belts made by Florencia Held. Florencia is a wonderful Mexican woman who had married Henry years ago. When Henry died in a tragic surfing accident in the Pacific years ago off the Mexican Coast, Florencia stayed up in Ely running the shop, and making the finest leather belts, plus choppers and other leather items.

Adequate power and good fuel economy are historic Corolla assets. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Adequate power and good fuel economy are historic Corolla assets. Photo credit: John Gilbert

We were disappointed to find the shop closed early in the afternoon, but we found Florencia at the park, in one of over a hundred booths dispensing everything from hobby creations to clothing to things to consume. Someone said they sold about 500 blueberry pies.
While we waited, Florencia custom made me the two belts, to my order. These are lifetime belts, and I expect my own will outlive me. Joan found a unique down pullover jacket with all sorts of zippers that assured prevention of any Northern Minnesota winter cold.
And, I found a little stand where Catalina Berg and her husband operated Chiqui’s Chocolates. She makes all sorts of chocolates at their house in beautiful downtown Pengilly, and at the festival, you could get various flavors of caramels -- including the requisite blueberry caramels. I spotted the last small vat of caramel sauce, and bought it, because our neighbor, who just celebrated an anniversary, share assorted dessert findings with us, and I knew it would be the perfect gift.

After a late lunch or early dinner at the Chocolate Moose, we headed for home in our Corolla, and had smooth sailing back down to the North Shore on a perfect evening. Our final gas mileage reached 35.5 for a high segment.
Like other compacts, the Corolla is now nearly midsize size. It can be bought with a 6-speed stick shift, which is a good thing. The test car had a CVT -- continuously variable transmission -- which often is a letdown for someone who enjoys driving as much as I. But this one had what is called “Sport Drive mode” that includes paddles affixed to the steering wheel, and even though the transmission operates by a flexible belt that transfers ratios between two pulleys, using the paddles made a convincing case for the method. 

You could upshift through seven different settings on the way up, and decelerate back down, and if it wasn’t the best CVT I’ve ever experienced, it was among ’em, and I believe someone who owned the car and used the paddles all the time might not know they had a CVT.
The cornering quickness was fine, but on some surfaces we felt annoying little mini-jolts, and when we stopped I checked to see that the very attractive alloy wheels were 17 inches, mounted with 215/45-R17 tires that were low profile and built for cornering rather than compliance. My thought is that I’d like to try the car with 15 or 16 inches, which would mean there would be thicker tire sidewalls and thus more cushioning and less feel of harshness over road irregularities.

Toyota has loaded up the top Corolla with all the safety stuff. Pre-collision warning, pedestrian detection, radar cruise control, lane departure alert, automatic high beams, stability control, TRAC, ABS, EBD, Smartstop, and some convenience items, such as a moonroof, power adjustable front buckets, and LED headlights.

It also had Entune Audio, a Toyota thing. I had no trouble connecting my iPhone to the system and getting or making calls hands-free, and it wasn’t until I decided to forego the satellite radio for some specific songs Joan and I had been discussing that I encountered some stubbornness.
When the brilliant Texas songwriter Guy Clark died a year ago, we found so many incisive songs that we’re still discovering them. I mentioned one called “The Cape,” which I think it subtly inspirational, and I wanted to play it for Joan. I had an iPod and the proper cord, so I plugged it in. Then I clicked the audio to bluetooth, and a Guy Clark song came up. But when I tried to change songs, it went its own direction. All of the songs were on my devices, but none were the song I wanted.

It took most of the way back before I realized the sound system had encoded the songs that were on my iPhone, and completely ignored any and all attempts by me to play anything on the iPod. Apparently, Toyota is fighting both iPod and Android and in the process of developing its own system, it won’t allow anyone from playing such normally compatible devices.

Also, there is no CD player, so we went back to satellite radio until we got out of the woods, and then we got home, and I could plug in my iPod and play The Cape for Joan.
Still, I enjoyed driving the Corolla, and I appreciated the look of the car. I fI bought one, I would not upgrade the audio system until I could plug in my choice of after-market players, and I wouldn’t opt for the too-large wheels until I at least tried smaller ones for better compliance.

I-35W bridge anniversary

Ten years ago last Tuesday, we were splitting time between our home in Duluth and an apartment we had in Roseville. Joan worked at a physical therapy facility in Golden Valley, so she drove every day down Interstate 35W, crossing the Mississippi River in Minneapolis before peeling off to the West. In late afternoon, she reversed her course and returned to Roseville, via the I-35W bridge.

I was in Roseville when Joan called and said she was getting off early, so maybe we should go to Joe’s Crab Shack, at Snelling Av. near Rosedale, and  I called our older son, Jack, to meet us. Joan got to the apartment about an hour earlier than usual, and we put our name in, then sat outside waiting for a table. 

When Jack arrived, he said, “Did you hear about the bridge?” We hadn’t. Jack heard it on WCCO on his car radio as he drove to meet us. Thirteen people died, and over a hundred more were injured when the bridge, which was under heavy-duty construction, collapsed and dropped into the river below. It was incredible. And it was an incredible stroke of luck that Joan got off early that day. We calculated the time, and the bridge went down about exactly the time she would be making her daily crossing coming home.