2014 Toyota Corolla Review

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

Here’s scary:

You’ve been assigned the job of restyling — and re-engineering — the company’s Number One Seller. It’s on you to get it right.

And if you don’t… .

That’s what dropped into the lap of the people given the nerve-jangling task of redesigning the world’s best-selling car, ever — the Toyota Corolla. Forget the Beetle. Forget the Model T. Since the Corolla’s launch back in ’66, almost unfathomable numbers have issued forth. 30 million of them — as of 1990. That’s 24 years ago, almost. Imagine the number today.

So, yeah, a lot is riding on the success of the all-new 11th generation Corolla.

I’m grateful all I have to do is review the thing!

WHAT IT IS

The Corolla is Toyota’s bread-and-butter compact sedan, one-up from the subcompact Yaris in size and price — and just below the mid-sized Camry. It competes in the same class as its principal rival, the Honda Civic — as well as the Mazda3 and new kids on the block such as the Dodge Dart and Ford Focus.

WHAT’S NEW

Everything except the drivetrains — and they get tweaked, too. One of them — the LE Eco version — boasts 140 hp and 42 MPG highway. This is almost-diesel (and nearly hybrid) fuel economy — without the extra up-front cost of the diesel engine or hybrid powertrain.

There’s also an all-new body riding on a much longer wheelbase — which allows for a mid-sized car’s backseat legroom, as well as a mid-sized car’s ride quality.

But perhaps the most obvious change is that the ’14 Corolla is a much less austere car than any of its predecessors. It has evolved into something considerably more substantial than a basic transportation unit — as have most of the other cars in this segment.

Prices start at $16,800 for the base trim L and $18,300 for the gas-sippy LE Eco trim.

A top-of-the-line S trim with six-speed manual transmission starts at $19,000.

WHAT’S GOOD

Smart-looking — and class-roomiest — interior.

Updated outside is sporty — but not over-the-top. Should appeal to under-35 Millennials, without alienating the over-40s Gen Xers.

Near-diesel/almost hybrid fuel efficiency for thousands less than the cost of a diesel or a hybrid.

New six-speed manual and seven-speed CVT automatic in upper trims.

Electronic suite (Entune apps) ought to make The iPad Generation very happy.

Nominal price uptick for all this goodness vs. the outgoing 2013s.

WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD

Base L trim still comes with four-speed automatic.

No, really.

We won’t get the hatchback wagon version Toyota sells in Europe and Asia.

Hasn’t got the beans to go heads-up against Mazda3 or Dart when those cars come equipped with their optionally available engines — and forget about the Honda Civic Si or the Ford Focus ST.

UNDER THE HOOD

All ’14 Corollas come with a 1.8 liter four — same as last year in size, but in two states of tune. Base L, step-up LE and S trims get the 132 hp version — same output as last year. But you can get a 140 hp version — if you order the LE Eco, which is the one that’s capable of 42 MPG.

The fact that the Corolla’s economy engine is also the most powerful available engine may come across as a little weird. Usually, you lose a few hp to gain a few MPGs. In this case, you don’t. Torque is down by an unnoticeable 2 ft.-lbs. (126 vs. 128) but the peak comes sooner, at 4,000 RPM vs 4,400.

So, what’s up? A more efficient engine can also be a stronger engine.

The Eco version of the 1.8 liter engine features what Toyota calls “Valvematic” continuously variable valve timing and lift; it’s designed specifically to optimize part-throttle efficiency by reducing pumping losses through the intake tract. This increases hp by 6 percent and fuel economy by 5.3 percent, to 30 city and 42 highway vs. 28 city and 37 highway for the regular 132 hp version of the 1.8 liter engine.

It’s a win-win.

And it’s also exceptional relative to others in this segment — easily besting competitors like the Dart (a lackluster 25 city, 36 highway) Focus (28 city/40 highway with the optional Super Fuel Economy package) and Mazda3 (29 city, 40 highway). It’s also damn close to the hybrid version of the Honda Civic — which only manages 44 on the highway — and which also starts at $24,360 — a titanic $6,060 more than the LE Eco Corolla. Now, granted, the hybrid Civic also rates 44 in city driving — 14 MPG better than the Toyota’s number. But six grand is a lot to pay for the privilege.

One might also stack the Eco Corolla up against diesel-powered smallish cars like the not-quite-here-yet (at the time of this review) Mazda3 Sky-D and also the Chevy Cruze diesel. I can’t give you price or MPG quotes on the Sky-D Mazda because it wasn’t available at the time I wrote this review in late August. But the Cruze diesel is available — and it rates 27 city — less than the Corolla Eco — and only 46 highway — just 2 MPG more — and it starts at $24,885. Wait, I’ll do the math. That’s $6,585 above what you’d pay for the gas-engined Corolla.

You might get more miles out of the diesel — but the mileage is a wash.

The only sucky thing is you’ve got to pay $1,500 more to get the more fuel-efficient version of the 1.8 liter engine. Toyota does sweeten the pot by teaming the 42 MPG-capable engine up with an all-new seven speed continuously variable (CVT) automatic — which is something no other car in this price range even offers. And the S and LE (non-Eco) trims are available with either a new six-speed manual or (S trims) a more aggressively set-up version of the CVT with driver-selectable gear changes via steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters.

Well, there is one more sucky thing: The base L trim doesn’t get the new six-speed manual or the new CVT. It comes with the same four-speed automatic used in last year’s Corolla. Functionally, there’s nothing objectionable about this transmission. Gas mileage — 27 city, 36 highway — isn’t top-drawer but it’s still acceptable for the class.

However, a four speed automatic in a 2014 model year car seems as dated as finding a cassette player in the center stack of a 2014 model year car — and (in my opinion) it was a mistake not to give the base Corolla L the same transmission options as the other trims, or at least the next-up LE trim.

Toyota did not give media at the press launch in San Diego 0-60 data, but it’s a safe bet the base Corolla L is about as quick as the old car — since they’ve both got more or less the same drivetrains. So probably about 10 seconds to 60 with the four-speed automatic. This is on par with the Dart and Civic when equipped with their standard engines; a bit slower than the Focus and Mazda3.

Corollas with the new six-speed manual and seven speed CVT ought to be (and felt, to this writer) quicker than the base car with the four-speed automatic. But don’t go gunning for Si Civics or — cue Ivan Drago voice from Rocky IV — you will lose.

ON THE ROAD

The new Corolla rides on a much longer — not-far-from-mid-sized (and significantly longer than has heretofore been typical for a nominally compact car) wheelbase: 106.3 inches vs. 102.4 inches for the 2013 Corolla. To give you some perspective, a current Camry’s wheelbase is only 109.3 inches — and a mid-’70s Corolla’s wheelbase was all of 93 inches.

Historically “compact” cars like Corolla are edging ever closer to mid-sized in terms of both their specifications (more on this in a moment) as well as their driving feel. The 11th generation Corolla is the latest such example of this trend. It is solid, not tinny. Planted, not bouncy. You are the pilot of a real car — not a toy car. Corolla’s competitors — the Mazda3 (wheelbase also exactly 106.3 inches) and Civic (close, at 105.1) have adopted the same strategy, which is good for us — but perhaps not so good for the companies that make them in that they are perhaps unknowingly undermining the reasons for buying their mid-sized cars, like the Camry (and the Mazda6, etc.).

There is, however, one thing that’s still characteristically compact when it comes to Corolla: its engines.

Both versions of the 1.8 engine are without doubt economy-minded engines. They’re among the best such you can buy right now (in the case of the 42 MPG-capable Eco, the best, period — short of a diesel or hybrid). But there’s not much else to them.

Like hp — and performance.

Toyota tried to impart some verve by adding the new six-speed manual to the mix — it has tighter gear spacing than the old five-speed manual — as well as the new CVT, which in the Sport trim comes with a “stepped” manual mode and seven driver selectable (via paddle shifters) forward speeds that mimic a conventional automatic or manual transmission’s gear changes.

But with no more than 132-140 hp on tap — and no optional engine available — acceleration is … adequate. You’ll keep up with traffic, you’ll be able to merge without strain. This is certainly sufficient in the base and LE trims, which haven’t got the plumage of sporty trims. But in the cockier-looking S trim — which gets a wide-mouthed front-end treatment that’s much more visually aggressive than the rest of the Corolla lineup, as well as the obligatory sport wheel/tire package, fog lights and jaunty decklid spoiler, absence of more-than-merely adequate hp is all-too-apparent. You can work the 1.8 liter mill more effectively with the new six-speed (or the optional CVT) but the bottom line is more power is needed to give the putatively sporty S model the sporty acceleration to match its sporty appearance — and to give the car some game vis-a-vis competitors like the Mazda3, Dodge Dart, Honda Civic and others that can be ordered with more than merely adequate powerplants.

The Mazda, for example, can be equipped with a 2.5 liter, 184 hp engine in lieu of its standard 2.0 liter, 155 hp engine. Dodge offers an optional turbocharged engine (1.4 liters, 160 hp). And of course, Honda offers a 201 hp engine in the Civic Si.

I was wowed by the new Corolla’s appearance, by its overall sophistication (especially its beautifully appointed and newly spacious interior) but its carryover engines were something of a letdown in relation to the foregoing.

The rest of the car is so good that the absence of home-run performance in addition to home-run fuel-efficiency was perhaps more obvious than it would have been had the new Corolla been a so-so car in other respects. The good news is this is an easy fix. Adding an optional, higher-performance engine to an otherwise outstanding car is easy.

Redesigning a so-so car is not.

AT THE CURB

No mixed bag here. The new Corolla looks a lot like the first generation Lexus IS, especially from the side (take note of the C pillar/rearside quarter glass in particular) and does an excellent job of imitating a current Lexus on the inside, too. A bit much, perhaps? I encourage you to see the car in person.

A handsome — and space-efficient — breadbox-style dash layout is the centerpiece. In higher-trim LE and S Corollas, accents are provided by piano black and pewter/brushed nickel covers and a┬ávery clever thin blue almost electrolumenescent pinstripe that seems to glow slightly in between the upper and lower dash sections. There is a most un-Corolla (historically speaking) chronometer-style gauge cluster (S models get a revised cluster with Thin Film Transistor display) and thick-grip steering wheel with thumb pads, too. Off to your right, a new six or (optionally) eight-inch LCD screen that can be split three ways — and which can be operated finger slide-style, just like your iPad.

All the latest Toyota Entune services are included, too. No extra cost, from here on out. Entune (and apps) comes with the car. Facebook places (god help us), Yelp, Open Table (restaurant locator), movietickets.com and Pandora custom playlists. Plus Bluetooth wireless/voice recognition, too.

The ’14 Corolla is the first Toyota to get the very latest version of Entune. That means even Avalons and Sequoias that cost two and three times as much haven’t — yet — got what this one’s got. They won’t, either — until sometime next year.

You’ ll also get standard LED headlights — including the base L trim. This, too, is class-unprecedented. The advantage of LED lights is not only more superior illumination but more natural (to the human eye) illumination. The beams deliver a daylight-style white light rather than than the yellow-ish light you get with non-LED beams.

But the Big One is backseat legroom. Like the deadly straddling of a salvo from a battery of 16 inch guns, the Corolla devastates the competition with an astonishing 5.1 inch increase in second-row legroom. The hip point of the redesigned backseats has also been moved 3 inches toward the rear. The result is mid-sized car spreading out space for the backseat passengers. No, wait. Better than mid-sized car spreading-out space.

Compare:

The new Corolla has 41.4 inches of second-row legroom. A current Camry — nominally “mid-sized” — a mere 38.9 inches.

How about that?

The current Civic has just 36.2 inches. The Mazda3, a knee-scraping, deep vein thrombosis-inducing 35.8 inches. The Dart’s even worse: 35.2 inches. You don’t even want to know about the Focus (ok, I’ll spill: a medieval 33.2 inches).

The new Corolla beckons with 8.2 inches more legroom than the Ford. Six inches more than the Dodge Dart. Five-point-six inches more than the Mazda3 — and 5.2 inches more than the Honda Civic. It’s not even a contest.

That old joke about seatafiveahcomfohtabry? No joke here, folks. The new Corolla could seat five large adults comfortably. It seats me comfortably. I’m 6ft 3 — and when I sat in the back, I had no less three inches of air gap between my knees and the seats ahead of me.

Try it yourself and see.

Up front’s not bad, either: 42.3 inches — which by the numbers is only just slightly more than in cars like the Mazda3 and Dart (both 42.2 inches) and Honda Civic (42.0) however, there’s more usable space all around due to the way the interior panels are fitted. The door panels, for instance. They do not bulge outward and intrude upon your elbow room. They’re scalloped inward at the armrests and rise straight and true up to the door glass. The breadbox dash, meanwhile, leaves more air between you and it — adding to the car’s extremely spacious feel.

The Mazda3’s interior layout may be sportier-looking, but nothing matches the new Corolla as far as classy looking.

Or roomy.

The new Corolla is the only car in this class I’d recommend as family-viable — not as a second car, but as the primary go-to car for the entire family.

THE REST

With this new Corolla, you’re getting a lot more car — literally — for about the same money. Thank ever-increasing production efficiencies, favorable exchange rates — whatever you prefer — the happy fact remains that the eons-nicer (and so much larger) 2014 Corolla is only slightly more expensive than the dearly departed: about $570 more for the base 2014 L vs. the base 2013 L. And the phenomenally fuel efficient 2014 Corolla Eco LE is priced a mere $120 higher than last year’s LE — a car that did not have the 42 MPG Eco engine or the Eco’s superb CVT or its handsome new body nor its sharp-looking (and upsized) interior.

It’s also worth mentioning that the competition costs more for less car.

In some cases, a great deal more. A 2014 Honda Civic sedan starts at $18,165. The Mazda3 is a bit more price competitive at $16,945 for the base trim — but that’s still an additional $145 for 5-plus inches less backseat room. Ditto the Dart ($16,990 to start) and the Focus ($16,995 to start).

There’s just one small catch — already mentioned — which is more about perception than actuality, but nonetheless: The base Corolla’s four-speed automatic. The Mazda offers six speeds (either manual or automatic) in the base trim 3. The Civic comes with five speeds (also your choice of manual or automatic). The Dart and the Focus both come with six-speed transmissions. I don’t think any major automaker offers less than five forward speeds in any 2014 model year car — no matter how lowly. Even the Hyundai Accent comes with six speed transmissions. Well, wait. There is another new car besides the new Corolla that still uses a four-speed automatic — and it’s another Toyota. The 2014 Yaris. But the Yaris is Basic Transportation, nothing more.

The new Corolla isn’t — and deserves better.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Nothing but goodness in terms of looks, comfort, efficiency, features and overall sense of class. This is a nice car — one you’d be inclined to buy because you wanted to buy it. Not because it’s merely a good deal — though it’s that, too.

All it needs is a stronger optional engine — and a more up-to-date standard transmission.

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