Americans love winners, and Toyota Corolla is undeniably one of these, having been the world's most popular compact for a very long time. Starting out in 1966 as a go-kart-sized compact, 47 years later, it is starting into its 11th generation following the first redesign since 2008. Toyota Corolla has evolved into a highly practical small sedan adequate for starter families.
The 2014 Toyota Corolla continues this line's inch-by-inch growth streak, fulfilling every carmaker's fond dream of being longer, lower, and wider. Compared to the previous model, the 2014 Corolla is 2.6 inches longer, with a noticeably increased wheelbase of 3.9 inches. It is almost half an inch wider and 0.4-inch lower.
This 11th-generation Toyota Corolla definitely looks new. The 2014 Corolla is more stylish than last year's model, and more attractive.
Inside are practical improvements in interior space and comfort. Rear-seat legroom has been increased by five inches over last year's model and the back seats are exemplary, making the Corolla a comfortable sedan for four adults. The front seats are excellent, comfortable and supportive. The instruments are first rate, though we were put off by the massive black dash. There's more trunk space than before.
There are also useful improvements in over-the-road handling and stability.
Despite carrying over unchanged (with one new and interesting exception) the same line of 1.8-liter inline-4 engines as used in the 2013 models, the 2014 Corolla line achieves an incremental improvement, albeit small, in EPA fuel mileage figures across its entire line. Also, the Corolla LE Eco model, with its new Valvematic system, achieves an EPA-certified 42-mpg Highway rating, highest among gas-powered compacts using an automatic transmission.
But every improvement, large or small, is crucial to maintaining a lead position in the red-hot compact-car marketplace. With intense competition coming from Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Subaru, and the new compacts from Detroit, Toyota will rely heavily on its longstanding reputation for building compact cars that are affordable, of good quality, and above all, extremely reliable. Since its introduction, Toyota has sold 40 million Corollas worldwide, with sales showing no signs of slowing. The mother company has rarely shown any sign of being flashy or trendy, choosing instead the road of reliability and dependability. The 11th-generation Corolla faithfully follows that formula, providing few surprises, and just as surely, exceedingly few annoyances, an important consideration in an affordable commuter and errand runner.
The new-generation Toyota Corolla definitely looks new. Whether it's the gaping mouth of the Corolla LE and L or the Lexus-like Charlie Chaplin low mustache grille of the look-at-me Corolla Sport, the Corolla has set aside the appliance look that characterized its precursor. While Toyota is not renowned for taking aggressive styling steps, this eleventh-generation Corolla wants to be seen and admired. On those terms, its outward appearance is a charismatic, dynamic success.
While the Corolla is still a compact car, its exterior proportions have changed in some subtle but important ways, improving both its appearance and usability. It looks larger and more accommodating for the best of reasons: it is both. Compared to the previous model, the 2014 Corolla is 2.6 inches longer, with a noticeably increased wheelbase of 3.9 inches. It is almost half an inch wider and 0.4-inch lower, as well. These changes result in an impression of greater sleekness in addition to greater cabin roominess.
Apart from the distinctive Corolla frontal styling, this new model is a clean exercise in well-rounded contemporary small-car design. The standard headlights are LED units, and the body's clean lines produce extremely low coefficient-of-drag figures of 0.30 with 17-inch wheels, 0.29 Cd with 16-inch wheels, and just 0.28 Cd in the Corolla LE Eco with 15-inch wheels. At highway speeds, these technicalities translate to considerable fuel mileage savings. The LE Eco with 15-inch wheels delivers Corolla's EPA Highway mileage figure of 42 mpg.
Speaking of wheels, the Corolla is supplied with a fairly broad variety of really attractive sport wheels that give it an excitingly up-market look.
The increased overall length of the 2014 Corolla allows a considerable increase in cabin space and a genuinely impressive increase in rear seat legroom. The rear seat hip point is moved rearward a full three inches, producing up to 5.1-inches more rear legroom. As never before, the rear of the Corolla is a fully accommodating adult seating space.
Increased overall vehicle length has also allowed an improved driving position, with the steering column angle reduced from 24 degrees to 22 degrees. Front seat adjustment range has also increased by over half an inch. Small as these changes sound, in the tight confines of a compact car, every increase in useable occupant space is hard-won.
The first impression climbing into the new Corolla's driver's seat is disconcerting, however. The materials and switchgear are of high quality, with nice soft-touch controls and coverings applied throughout. But the front seat feels oddly crowded and claustrophobic, as if you need to move your seat further back, except your seat is already back as far as it should properly be.
The problem is the great, black rectangular mass of the dashboard itself. It is a jutting, heavy-looking form that seems to take far more cabin space than it should, and its straight lines and hard angles have none of the fluidity and grace that enriches the rest of the new Corolla. To be frank, it is old-fashioned and out of harmony. And the shiny piano-black center-stack trim that Toyota is very proud of, while it is indeed elegant, only contributes to the dashboard's massive feel.
The big black dash is unfortunate because the gauges and instruments are first-rate, fully legible, and well placed to be read in dark or direct sun. Two instrument layouts are provided. Corolla L and Corolla LE use a three-gauge layout that includes the speedometer, tachometer, and tertiary instruments. Corolla S, intended to be sportier for more enthusiastic younger buyers, features a more traditional sports-car arrangement, with two main instruments, the speedometer and tachometer, dominating the display, and all other information given minor attention.
One of the Corolla's strongest suits is its seats. The front seats are absolutely superb, with firm, well-fitted side bolsters and proper lumbar support. These seats would be perfectly at home in a high-quality sports car. Even the rear seating is exemplary. Given its size, the Corolla makes no pretence of intending to seat three; instead, it provides two stationary, excellently formed bucket rear seats that will give steerage class the kind of comfort and support it deserves. Well done.
The new Corolla's rear seat also provides slightly more shoulder room, to go with its generously increased legroom. The available fabric and Softex upgrade upholstery are attractive, and the mixed-media combination of Sport seats in the Corolla S is particularly good looking.
Toyota's latest Entune connectivity suite adds to the standard AM/FM/CD system with MP3, AUX, and USB 2.0 ports, phone book access, advanced voice recognition and Bluetooth wireless technology. The Premium system adds a touchscreen display with three-way screen-split, navigation, and customizable multiple app functions. The screens are swipe-able, for easy selection of your most-used apps. And if you have to take an incoming call while listening to something you like on the radio, the system automatically records the last 20 minutes of all broadcasting. Very nice, provided you believe that talking on the phone, hands-free or not, is a safe practice while driving.
Automatic climate control is as expected. Excellent. The rearview camera had very useful tracking guides. Cruise control is the standard Toyota system and excellent.
Thanks to Corolla's greater length, trunk space has grown to 13 cubic feet, and the 60/40 split rear seats invite stowing skis and other long cargo.
The new 2014 Corolla exceeded our expectations. It delivers a dramatically improved driving experience over the previous model. Normally, the drivetrain would be the primary factor in defining a new Corolla's driving character, but since, with the exception of the new 140-hp LE Eco Valvematic engine, the 2014 engines are carry-over from 2013, that is not possible. The continuing 1.8-liter 132-hp inline four-cylinder used in all other Corollas is an efficient, smooth, tough engine that will provide adequate performance for many years. It's nicely balanced, but at open throttle, its loud moan of ambition doesn't quite match its performance. It's not bad; it's just compact-car average.
Decidedly on the positive side, though, this Corolla package is hardy and completely at ease cruising at 80 mph, the predominant Interstate speed where we tested it. It's a full-service contemporary commuter, as its multitudes of buyers demand. And its improved EPA fuel ratings for 2014 are similarly satisfactory. Corolla LE Eco's EPA rating of 42 mpg Highway is tops among gas-powered compacts with an automatic transmission, but every one of the other models has improved its mileage over 2013.
The 2014 Corolla offers three transmissions: a 6-speed manual, a 4-speed automatic, and a CVT continuously variable transmission introduced for 2013. The 4-speed automatic was straightforward and excellent, but the CVT with Sport Mode is particularly interesting. Available on LE, LE Eco, and S models, its paddle-shifter offers seven ratios, though by definition, a continuously variable transmission contains no ears. When you downshift the CVT, it arbitrarily raises the drive ratio to mimic the effects of selecting a lower gear. For instance, driving at 70 miles per hour in seventh gear at roughly 2000 rpm, when we downshifted to sixth, the engine's rpm immediately rose to 3000 rpm, allowing either engine braking or more rapid acceleration, just downshifting with mechanical gears would. An immediate downshift from sixth to fifth raised the engine speed another 1000 rpm, with more intense effect, and so on. It's an imitation of real gears, but the effect is the same, while the package also allows the advantage of greater efficiency and improved mileage.
According to Toyota, the 2014 Corolla's ride and handling benefited from advanced chassis tuning in Europe. It shows. Though the Corolla produced a fair amount of tire noise on coarse surfaces, the ride was particularly smooth and well controlled. Shock damping was firm but without the least hint of harshness. Cornering, the chassis's roll control, too, was excellent, minimizing sudden movements that could be a distraction to the driver. Its tracking and general stability were superb as well.
The new Corolla has electric power steering, which would normally signal an automatic opportunity for road-testers to start complaining. Not at all. The Corolla's steering was sensitive, with good feel and responsiveness. Its steering effort was correctly firm, and its feedback had an active on-center presence, directly engaging the driver's attention through its live-wire immediacy.
The Corolla brakes, too, despite being drums at the rear, were adequately powerful and easily modulated. Though the car showed a very pronounced degree of dive under heavy braking, typical for economy cars, its stopping was straight, short and true.
Ride and handling exceeded our expectations, an area in which this Corolla excelled. Clearly, this is no sports sedan, yet its engaging nature and alive, athletic driving feel approached the standards we associate with much pricier European small sedans.
Unseemly as it may sound given past Corollas, the 2014 Corolla is truly fun to drive. With some of the higher-level packages available, such as the interesting paddle-shifter continuously variable transmission and the LE Eco's more powerful yet more efficient 140-hp engine, a 2014 Corolla has sufficient style and mechanical enticements to attract the thrifty younger enthusiast. But its core compact-sedan values, combined with its much-improved over-the-road personality, will be even more attractive to traditional, value-minded mainline Corolla buyers.
For 2014, the 11th generation Corolla has grown incrementally larger and more inviting, adding new levels of comfort and practicality. And with dramatic improvements in ride and handling, it has stepped well away from bare-minimum transportation. While maintaining an attractive price point, its quality, efficiency and reliability will continue to position it as one of the world's most popular compact cars for years to come.
Veteran automotive journalist Ted West filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report after his test drive of the Corolla near San Diego.