When auto editors go on vacation, we rent cars too.
Which is how a pair of very plain 2010 Toyota Corollas in South Africa taught us a few lessons about fuel economy, green value, and what other countries drive.
The bottom line: U.S. buyers get a lot more car, for a lot less money, than elsewhere in the world.
Toyota has built cars in South Africa for many years, avoiding punitive duties on imported cars that have kept local car manufacturing humming for decades.
Toyota minivans are everywhere, used as taxis and minibuses all over Africa. We actually drove past Toyota's giant Prospecton assembly plant on our way to the Durban's King Shaka Airport, which now exports Corollas to Europe.
Corollas are also built in North America--in Fremont, California, until recently; currently in Canada; and soon in Mississippi--but they offer more powerful engines, better pollution controls, far more safety features, and far more standard and optional equipment.
And they cost a hell of a lot less to boot.
Two identical rentals
We rented not one but two identical white Corollas, in Cape Town and Durban respectively. Let's look closely at what's considered a base Corolla sedan in South Africa, and compare that to its counterpart in the U.S.
In South Africa, the compact Corolla is a medium-sized to large vehicle, though it comes with much smaller engines. (The largest 1.8-liter gasoline engine offered in South Africa is the smallest one used in the States!)
The most popular car size in South Africa seems to be what U.S. buyers would call subcompacts, including the Honda Civic, Toyota Yaris, and the Volkswagen Polo that will be offered in the U.S. for the first time as a 2011 model.
We saw no major differences in exterior styling between our Corolla 1.3 Professional rental and its base North American equivalents. The familiar Corolla shape is known all over the world; while ours had plainer wheels and less chrome trim, it'd go unnoticed in the U.S.
The plain black nylon interior was relieved only by pale grey upholstery above the beltline. But, low-level Corollas in the States are close to equally grim, so we felt right at home.
Except for the steering wheel on the right, of course, which made our South African friends laugh as our North American habits betrayed us. Time and time again, we strode confidently up to the car, unlocked it, and sat down ... in the front passenger seat.
Our rental Corolla featured the smallest engine, a 1.3-liter four not available in the U.S. market. It puts out a meager 99 horsepower (rated as 74 kilowatts in South Africa).
It's paired to a six-speed manual transmission, and automatics are only offered with the larger 1.6-liter and 1.8-liter fours--though each comes standard with the six-speed. There's also a 2.0-liter diesel four, another option not offered in the States.
Over a total of 1.070 miles (1,722 km) in the two cars, we used 32.2 gallons (122 liters) of gasoline-for a combined overall gas mileage of 33.2 miles per gallon.
By comparison, the EPA gives the U.S.-market Corolla with the smallest 1.8-liter engine and 5-speed manual transmission a combined rating of 30 miles per gallon (26 mpg city, 35 mpg highway).
That's close enough that your driving style probably swamps the difference in actual gasoline savings. For that gasoline, by the way, we paid about $4.10 per gallon (8.3 Rand per liter).
In other words, gasoline in South Africa costs about 40 percent more than in the U.S.--though every station charges the same price, raised and lowered by the government as global oil prices dictate.