Calling the Corolla “Toyota’s most important car” would be an understatement. This single model accounts for 38 percent of all Toyotas ever sold in the USA and they expect to shift 330,000 next year alone. If the sheer quantity wasn’t amazing enough, ponder this reality: 75% of sales will be split between just four different configurations. If you’re in a 2014 Corolla, the odds are about one in five that the Corolla next to you is identical save for paint color. Often derided by the automotive press as a “driving appliance,” is there more to the 2014 Corolla or is it just a toaster with wheels? Let’s find out.
When you plan on selling 330,000 of anything, mainstream styling is essential. When many of those shoppers are repeat Toyota and repeat Corolla buyers, it’s also essential to avoid anything that could be described as “adventurous.” The result is the attractive but plain sheetmetal. You won’t find any Mazda-esque swooshes, any Ford/Aston inspired grilles and you certainly won’t find anything “aggressive.” And that’s how Corolla shoppers like it. Corolla shoppers apparently also like getting bigger cars with every re-design, so this 11th generation model has grown by 3.9 inches. Why don’t they shop up the ladder to a Camry? Who knows.
Plenty of reviewers have found fault in the way the 11th gen Corolla looks, most of them complain vehemently in private and say little in public. I however, am not afraid to say what I think in public: the Corolla is pedestrian but far from offensive. I also find the Corolla S (pictured above) to be the more attractive of the bunch although neither nose is any more or less exciting than the Sentra, Civic or Elantra. The biggest problem with the way the Corolla looks has nothing to do with the Corolla and everything to do with timing. I drove the 2014 Corolla two days before sampling Mazda’s hot new Mazda3. If looks matter to you, the Corolla is unlikely to be on your short list. Adding a little visual flair to the front, Toyota made LED headlamps standard on every Corolla. Yep, even the $16,800 stripper model. The other thing that’s standard is an oddly tall ride height resulting in a larger than average distance between the top of the tire and the wheel-well making the Corolla look “off road ready.” Make of that what you will.
After a week in the RAV4’s discordant interior, I was concerned what Toyota would do with the volume leader. Thankfully my concerns were unwarranted and I found the Corolla’s interior surprisingly elegant. Yes, I said that out loud, I found the design elegant. (Notice I didn’t say exciting.) There are a few caveats however. While the dashboard styling reminded me a great deal of the Mazda6, parts quality still lags behind the Focus, top-level Forte and, in some ways, even the Chevy Cruze. The picture above is of the more attractive (in my opinion) two-tone interior. You’ll only find this on the LE, LE Plus, LE ECO and LE ECO Plus model as everything else is black on black and looks a hair cheaper. 2014 brings soft touch points to most of the Corolla’s cabin and a new fabric headliner in most models. The exterior may be plain my bottom line on the interior is that I could live with it long term without a problem.
Front seat comfort proved average for the segment but I found the lack of adjustable lumbar support to be a problem for my back. Stepping up to the “Premium” trim LE or S gets you an 8-way power seat but still very little back support. The big change for 2014 is out back, the stretch allowed Toyota to add 5.1 inches to the back seat, ballooning to 41.4 inches total, just 2/10ths less than a Camry. More legroom meant more room for the seats themselves and allowed the rear bench to be lengthened for more thigh support. Putting that in perspective, that’s 5 inches more than most compacts, four inches more than the Sentra’s cavernous back seat and a whopping 8.2 inches more than the Focus. Sadly even the Corolla hasn’t been able to escape the low-roof trend limiting headroom for taller folks in the back. 2014 brings some trunk love, bumping the cube carrying to 13, respectable for the class but below the Sentra’s large booty. If bag carrying is your thing, you should know that the Sentra can swallow four 24-inch roller bags in a vertical orientation, and four more horizontally. I can’t even think of a modern full-sized sedan that can do that.
Infotainment and Gadgets
The new Corolla gets Toyota’s latest infotainment software package and this represents a new direction. Previously there were two separate navigation/infotainment operating systems, a low cost unit found in cars like the Prius C, and the totally different (and expensive) one found as an option in vehicles like the Avalon and the Lexus line. Toyota shifting to common software running on different hardware depending on the model. Cheaper cars get smaller screens, Toyotas stick to touchscreens while Lexuses (Lexi?) get the joystick.
Representing the Corolla’s place at the bottom of the Toyota food chain, you’ll find an 6.1 inch touchscreen standard on all models except for the L. (The L is expected to represent less than 10% of sales.) While I find this software one of the worst in the luxury class, my negative impression is entirely down to the Lexus joystick. In the Corolla the system is fast and responsive and the graphics are all perfectly suited to the 6.1 inch touchscreen. Toyota tosses in weather and traffic updates on certain models without having to add navigation which is a handy feature. USB and iDevice integration is excellent and easily the equal of Ford’s SYNC in terms of voice control and tops the segment in touch-screen ease of use. The standard Bluetooth speakerphone worked well and had excellent sound quality. Depending on the trim you can also add smartphone app integration to Pandora, OpenTable, etc. Like the rest of the Corolla, the Entune system doesn’t break any new ground, but it is easy to live with.
On the gadget front the Corolla covers all the basics with those LED headlamps, a standard cabin air filter, air conditioning and power door locks and windows. LE and higher models (again, 90% of sales) gain automatic climate control, six speakers, a backup camera, cruise control and keyless entry. If you want any whiz-bang features like self parking, heads up displays, blind spot monitoring, power folding whatnots or dynamic cruise control, you’re barking up the wrong tree.
The engine under the hood of 90% of Corollas is carried over from last year. The 1.8L four-cylinder engine is good for a class middling 132 horsepower and 128 lb-ft of torque. A new six-speed manual replaces the old 5-speed as the base transmission and delivers 28/37 MPG (city/highway) when so equipped. If you’re one of the incredibly few that plan on getting an L with an automatic, be warned that this is the same old four-speed automatic as last year’s Corolla.
All other Corollas, even the supposedly “sport” S model, get Toyota’s new continuously variable transmission. I can already hear the groans, but if you’re groaning about finding a CVT under the hood, then I’m going to generalize and say you’re not the target demographic. For the rest of you, you should know this CVT is one of the best I’ve ever driven and is a close second to the Honda CVT in the new Accord. Somehow Toyota and Honda have managed to exorcise the rubber band demon from the CVT in a way that Nissan has been unable. Ratio changes are quick and fuel economy is an impressive 29/38 MPG. S models get paddle shifters and all models will imitate a seven-speed automatic when floored. The impersonation is passable, but I fail to see the point.
If you want to break the 40 MPG barrier, than the 30/42 MPG LE ECO model is the one to get. In order to get there, Toyota swaps new heads onto the 1.8L engine which incorporates their new ValveMatic variable valve lift, timing and duration system. Like BMW’s Valvetronic and Fiat’s MultiAir, this system acts as the throttle body under most circumstances to increase efficiency. When so equipped, power rises to 140 HP and torque drops to 126 lb-ft. It was hard to tell if the system delivered any real-world benefit because of the limited time I had in the Corolla but I can tell you that the extra 8HP didn’t make the ECO model any faster to 60.
Why does the Corolla sell so well? It has more to do with brand loyalty and a reputation for reliability than road manners. Everything about driving the Corolla can be summed up in one word: average. From steering feel to suspension dynamics and road holding the Corolla is neither class leading nor class trailing. After a day and 140 miles, it reminded me of my flight to Seattle to see the Corolla in the first place. I flew in one of Southwest’s new 737-900 planes and the experience was entirely ordinary. The plane got me from point A to point B, it was as comfortable as I expected and the looks didn’t offend.
This middle-of-the-road mentality explains why Toyota jammed their new CVT into the Corolla. They aren’t the first to the CVT party and they won’t be the last. The CVT lags a hair behind Honda’s new Earth Dreams CVT but is more refined than Nissan’s Sentra. The combination of 132 ponies and a CVT make mountain climbing easier in the Corolla than the Civic with ye olde 5-speed, but not as nice as the large engine equipped Forte or Mazda3. Repeat Corolla buyers will find the Corolla peppier than before thanks to the CVT, since the old 4-speed automatic seemed to never have the right ratio for the situation.
Cabin noise measured in higher than average at 74 db at 50 MPH. 74db is a bit disappointing since even Honda made the latest Civic considerably quieter. Fuel economy was, yet again, middle of the road at 29 MPG over all after a day of city driving and stop-and-go traffic.
Even the Corolla’s recent “marginal” IIHS small offset crash score is class middling with the Civic snatching “good,” the Focus and Elantra “acceptable” and the Forte and Sentra slotting in below the Corolla at “poor.” While I can think of good reasons to buy something other than the Corolla, I honestly have troubles finding any reason to not buy one. When I tallied up my personal score card I was shocked to find I had ranked the Corolla 3rd behind the new Mazda3 and the Kia Forte. That ranking is based on the easy to use infotainment system, enormous back seat, large trunk, attractive interior and (of course) the reliability reputation the Corolla has maintained over the years. Yes, even I can be tempted (at least a little bit) by the logic of the driving appliance.
Perhaps that is what the bulk of the automotive press finds so vexing: The Corolla is probably the only car on the market that is deliberately designed to be average and Toyota nailed it.When I talked to a few Corolla owners about their purchase, none of them considered another model or brand before signing on the dotted line.
Toyota provided airfare, accommodations and meals for this event.
Specifications as tested
0-30: 3.93 Seconds
0-60: 9.7 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 17.61 Seconds @ 81.8 MPH
Average Observed Fuel Economy: 29 MPG
Cabin Noise at 50 MPH: 74db