2014 Toyota Corolla: First Drive

August 27, 2013

The 2014 Toyota Corolla is an all-new model, but for better or worse it has quite the birthright.

For the kind of person who doesn't like surprises—the kind who lays out their car-buying possibilities in a nice, neat array; considers cost of ownership and depreciation; and keeps a new car for many, many years—the Toyota Corolla has always added up to be one of the best new-car choices by the numbers.

Like ordering the patty melt at lunch, or throwing on “Rock Lobster” at a wedding reception, the Corolla amounted to a sort of safe, least-common-denominator pick for generations of those bean-counter types. It didn't set your heart aflutter like those other cars, but it delivered on its promise and thankfully it didn't leave you on the side of the road at 2 a.m.

The 2014 Corolla still saves those precious bucks. But now it's more of a frugalista. Younger car shoppers still care about such things, but they also care about connectivity; they want more expressive styling; and they're less likely to compromise comfort, other convenience features, and safety in a small car. To paraphrase an executive in the industry: Small cars increasingly need to be luxury cars inside, look sporty on the outside, and offer just a tease of sports-car attitude from behind the wheel. These 20- and 30-somethings, at which this Corolla is increasingly aimed, sure are a demanding lot.

Two models in the 2014 Corolla lineup truly do that, making this aged nameplate a little more interesting, however—and we think it's the kind of interest that's going to expand the Corolla's appeal far beyond its traditional spoil-sports.

One of those is the Corolla S, which has a suspension that feels so much more buttoned-down than those of Corollas past—even a step better than the outgoing Corolla S or XRS. With stiffer springs and dampers, yet a new canted-bushing layout for its basic torsion-beam rear setup, there’s no noticeable squat and lift, and this is a car that while not a full-fledged sport sedan, feels positively agile and nimble; it’s begging for 50 more horsepower.

Corolla S: A simulated seven-speed

Instead of those extra horsepower, what it gets is...interesting. The Corolla S has what feels like, essentially, a seven-speed automatic transmission—a CVT that acts at all times like it has seven separate cogs. You might even mistake it for a seven-speed—one with especially slurred shifts, perhaps. Steering-wheel paddle-shifters and a separate sport mode let you command those shifts, which are delivered with surprising promptness and coordination.

Over to the right of the driver's seat, in a nondescript button on the center console, is a Sport mode button. Press it and you get not only the silly-quick accelerator calibration that we've come to expect the past several years from sporty econo-compacts, but something more meaningful: an alternate, firmer calibration for the electric power steering.

Altogether these tweaks go a long way toward convincing you that the Corolla S is something with a greater, fussier pedigree. We headed up into the tight turns of a road heading up into desert hills and the Corolla S seemed to transcend its humble roots, with well-bolstered sport seats, 17-inch alloy wheels, four-wheel disc brakes, and the paddle-shift setup.

You can also get a manual gearbox on the S. The shift-it-yourself models feel the quickest in the lineup, and that’s mainly because of the CVT’s weakness: a launch from a standing start that feels barely adequate at times. Slamming the accelerator to the floor in a CVT car, with two aboard, at a traffic light while pointing up a relatively modest uphill grade resulted in a lackluster takeoff that surrounding vehicles were meeting with ease. A lower starting ratio would go a long way here.

A CVT that's at ease

Except for the base L model, all 2014 Corolla models offer a CVT, and in non-S models (LE and LE Eco), it operates unobtrusively, varying the ratio constantly in order to achieve what feels like a linear response. Only when you really dip in with your right foot do you approach the kind of drone that can make these belt-and-pulley arrangements less appealing; it's one of the best setups in a compact car yet, and it makes this vehicle feel perky and at ease on the highway otherwise.

The other model that serves to expand the appeal of the 2014 Corolla is the LE Eco. It's the only model in the lineup to get Valvematic, a system that can vary intake-valve lift as well as valve timing. The Corolla here makes 140 horsepower (eight more than with the base engine), while making 2 lb-ft less of torque (126 lb-ft at 4,000 rpm rather than 4,400 rpm). Toyota representatives said however that the torque is available through a wider rev range.

What Valvematic doesn’t do for torque (or for any difference that can really be felt from the driver's seat), it likely does pull off in fuel economy. We took a Corolla LE and then an LE Eco each on a 15-mile loop, trying to drive in nearly the same way, and averaged nearly 31 mpg in the LE but nearly 34 mpg in the LE Eco (EPA ratings for the LE Eco surge to 30 mpg city, 42 highway). Toyota engineers admitted that Valvematic knocks just a tenth of a second off the dash to 62 mph. The CVT, on the other hand, improves that acceleration time by 0.9 seconds.

LE Eco makes top efficiency a premium thing

Toyota is essentially offering this as part of a premium model. The LE Eco model includes all the extras from the popular LE model, like cruise control, automatic climate control, a backup camera system, and Toyota's Entune connectivity system, with navigation and App Suite compatibility. Using your smartphone's data connection, it now includes Yelp and Facebook Places in addition to existing apps like Pandora and iHeartRadio (streaming music), OpenTable (restaurant reservations), and Bing search.

No matter which model you opt for, the Corolla has a cabin that feels far more spacious than the model that preceded it. With an interior design that pushes out at the corners in front, plus nearly four more inches of wheelbase and a back-seat H-point (where your hip joint fits) that's pushed three inches farther back than before, the Corolla feels almost mid-sized—that is, until you realize how tight headroom is in back. For anyone under six feet, it's entirely doable; but disappointing for taller folks, given the abundance of legroom.

The Corolla isn't without a few odd equipment choices. For example, it might be one of the first models to combine LED headlamps with drum brakes, steel wheels, and hubcaps. And as much of a leap as the Corolla is design-wise, considering its conservative outgoing iteration, we wish Toyota would have been willing to incorporate a few more styling cues from its stunning Furia concept from this past year's show circuit.

Those are the anomalies. By and large, the 2014 Corolla, which will be assembled in Mississippi for the U.S., does what it's always done well: add up to something very sensible.

The Corolla has one of the strongest, most longstanding reputations in the industry for reliability, frugality, and low running costs. We see no sign that Toyota has stepped away from that, and pricing is as competitive as ever, ranging from $17,610 for the base L up to $22,110 for the S Plus; but while the Corolla has long been regarded as a rather dull car—more an appliance than anything to get excited about—based on what we saw on a first drive, this one shakes it off and takes a step in the right direction.

See our full review pages on the 2014 Toyota Corolla for more information, including pricing, specs, and extended picture galleries.

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(c) 2013, High Gear Media.

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