In Defense of the Econobox

The poor econobox doesn't get much respect around here. They're poorly conceived appliances that are ruining cars with their complete lack of anything resembling handling or road manners. Depending on who you ask, they're responsible for actively trying to kill car culture, which they'll insist on reminding you, again. In a world that dreams of filling itself with endless Miatas, someone needs to stand up for the Corolla.

In Defense of the Econobox

above image by Mark Wagner via Wikipedia

Recently I wrote an article about this thing to which someone responded with "why would you want to buy something like that when you can buy a Navion for the same price?" (A Navion, by the way, is that thing in the image above). A Navion isn't exactly a Ferrari with wings - maybe an appropriate analogy would be a BroTruck with wings, minus the coalburner mock-Peterbuilt big-rig pipes, never-gonna-see-actual-dirt lift-kit and TruckNuts. It's a (relatively) big and heavy airplane with a sizable engine capable of going a good clip faster than the average Cessna 172 Skyhawk or 182 Skylane you see crowding the small airport tarmac. Most Navions that look like the picture above are going to sit comfortably in the six-figure range (albeit no more than, say, a very nicely tricked-out 182 or a clean but used Bonanza); most of the ones 50-grand and below are going to be basket cases in some form or another. Needless to say this isn't the type of airplane you would first step into when you're learning to fly or even when you get your license. Hell, the FAA wouldn't even let you do that anyway until you got the proper endorsements (high-performance and complex ratings, in this case). The little Silence Twister may seem like much less of a bargain at the same price, but you get a brand-new aircraft with a known history (as long as you trust your own skills when you put it together) and with the fixed-gear version, the FAA says you don't even need a "full" license to fly it.

So that brings me back to the Toyota Corolla and other cars of its ilk. If there's ever a cliche in the English language (and yes, there are many) it's "you gotta start somewhere" - a sentiment that's not always applicable, but it's most certainly applicable here. Just like how you can't instantly hop into a Navion, you can't instantly hop into a Ferrari (unless you're Doug DeMuro, of course). You have to actually learn to drive first, and beyond that, actually hone your driving skills before you can begin to operate a high-performance vehicle safely. Or even a car with a stick shift.

I recently attended an auto show event (more on that soon) where the nice test drive/company representative lady told me that they can't have manual transmission cars (which means no Regal GSs with the transmission Harley Earl intended for them to have, no Jeep Wranglers with the transmission George S. Patton intended them to have and no Abarths or SRTs to speak of) because, well, nobody knows how to drive them. Including the people who got to the auto show in a manual transmission car in the first place. As it turns out, you can't try to pull off a burn-out in a Challenger SRT-8 392 right out of the Convention Center parking lot and not look like an idiot just because your daily driver is a stick. And you can't drive over sand dunes in a manual Wrangler on Venice Beach (or something like that, according to sales rep lady) without knowing exactly what you're doing - and the fact that you track a manual Miata isn't going to change that. You can't magically and perfectly transition from one car to another based solely on a few superficialities.

That's where the beauty of the econobox comes in - it's the perfect stepping stone for the new driver to learn the skill of driving in an environment that isn't stupid-bonkers crazy. Want your teen to learn how to drive stick? Hey, that's what the manual Corolla and Dart are for! Once they master the Corolla, they can save up their Dairy Queen dollars to step up to, I don't know, a brand-new Mustang or FR-S or a used Miata or if they really want to go crazy they can buy that Hyundai thing, the one that the marketing focus group morons thought should be named after the Bible to increase its street cred appeal (or maybe appeal to the nostalgia gaming crowd?) Once they do they can start the whole process over again to master their new vehicle - but once again, that process is controlled, because they got all the stupid of learning the stick in the first place out on a car designed to handle the abuse and still keep ticking for another 190,000 miles, or isn't so overpowered that you get to scrape your kid off a concrete divider. Or maybe you have a daughter and she read too many stupid Wrangler spare tire covers so she wants a Wrangler herself - once again she can take her Wrangler into a more controlled environment and master the advantages and special considerations the Wrangler has when it comes to manual shifting, instead of figuring out everything from square one and hitting up your wallet to replace her burnt-out transmission.

So no, there is nothing wrong with the diminutive, humble, even appliance-like econobox - especially if it's got five (or six!) on the floor running the course of a legitimate gate shifter facilitated through a third pedal. Maybe it's not the car you want to keep forever, but it doesn't have to be. Learn on it, then you can move onto the Miatas, the Mustangs and the Wranglers.