First Drive: The Almost ‘All-New’ 2014 Toyota Corolla

2014 Toyota Corolla S 027 640x426 First Drive: The Almost All New 2014 Toyota Corolla

Last week, I had an opportunity to be one of the first and privileged few to check out the “all new” 2014 Toyota Corolla in beautiful, sunny San Diego. When you think of historic redesigns, the Toyota Corolla may not immediately come to mind, but perhaps it should. This is a car with 47 years under its belt (or hood) and over 4 million units sold. In fact, the Toyota Corolla is the best selling car in the world and, with the 2014 model, Toyota is looking to liberate over 300,000+ vehicles a year.

Toyota served up an extraordinary event for the press to see what the 11th generation Corolla is all about; and despite having some reservations that a fuel efficient, entry-level sedan could provide anything like ‘excitement,’ I actually walked away more than a little impressed.

2014 Toyota Corolla S 008 640x426 First Drive: The Almost All New 2014 Toyota Corolla

By all accounts, Toyota is a pretty conservative car manufacturer known mostly for creating long-lasting, safe, dependable and affordable products that don’t necessarily increase your heart rate. The Company’s lineup of vehicles typically exudes a stalwart practicality with styling which errs on the side of nondescript. The all new Corolla doesn’t exactly break that mold but it does inch one step closer to an aesthetic personality with an appealing design that, though still muted, has some real chutzpah.

The new Corolla is bigger (3.9 inch longer wheelbase), lower, wider and badder with more aggressive styling to appeal to a younger demographic. It comes in 4 distinct flavors featuring different transmission, engine and standard equipment options:

2014 Toyota Corolla L 007 640x426 First Drive: The Almost All New 2014 Toyota Corolla

The L is the base model ($17,400) with a 4 speed automatic transmission, 15 inch steel wheels, power windows and locks, LED lighting, Bluetooth and USB/Aux ports. The driver knee airbag and front passenger seat cushion airbag is a nice touch as is the ECO driving indicator.

2014 Toyota Corolla LE ECO 002 640x426 First Drive: The Almost All New 2014 Toyota Corolla

The LE model ($18,300) comes with the new Continuously Variable Transmission (CVTi-S), 16 inch steel wheels, intermittent windshield wipers, keyless entry, automatic climate controls, cruise control, backup camera and the new Entune Audio system featuring a 6.1-inch touch screen.

2014 Toyota Corolla LE ECO 026 640x426 First Drive: The Almost All New 2014 Toyota Corolla

The LE Eco grade ($18,700) gets downgraded to the 15 inch steel wheels but serves up an impressive 42 mpg on the highway thanks to new valvematic engine technology. It also– surprisingly– boasts the most powerful trim with 140hp. And of course it benefits from a rear spoiler to provide downforce during aggressive hypermiling (sure, I jest).

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And then we come to the S grade ($19,000). This is the most visually appealing model with a sporty front fascia with a honeycomb upper grill, black gloss lower grill, revised rear fascia, rear spoiler, fog lamps, 16 steel inch wheels, a Sport drive mode, paddle shifters (on the CVT model) and two-tone sport seats in front. The S is also available with a 6-speed slushbox which is arguably the most enjoyable to drive. The suspension system is stiffened to offer sportier driving capabilities for the S.

Plus and Premium trim levels are available with a host of upgrades but all Corollas come standard with LED headlights/LED daytime running lights, a 60/40 split rear seat, power doors and windows, air conditioning with pollen filter, Bluetooth connectivity and eight airbags.

2014 Toyota Corolla LE ECO 072 640x426 First Drive: The Almost All New 2014 Toyota Corolla

Two types of 1.8-liter, aluminum 4 cylinder engines are offered in the new Corolla. The base engine (available on the L, LE and S models) is carried over from the last gen and still pumps out an anemic 132 hp. The LE Eco trim adds Valvematic technology to the 1.8 liter engine, boosting giddyup to 140 hp. The 5% increase in fuel economy and output is provided by the continuously variable valve timing which affords optimal intake. It is somewhat perplexing that the Eco model is the most powerful of the bunch. That said, I couldn’t tell much difference in power between any of the engine options. They all felt capable if underwhelming on the streets and highways around San Diego.

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I’ve not typically been a fan of driving older CVT vehicles, with that strange slipping feeling and occasional whiny noise. Obviously this is a concern for many folks as Toyota has done their best to find a workaround. The CVT found in the Corolla is butter smooth and designed to mimic the feel of a traditional automatic transmission. Toyota added stepped “gears” or shift points into the acceleration and deceleration curves to mimic traditional transmissions. In fact, the Corolla S features 7 of these points which are ticked up or down by way of the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters.

Overall, Toyota’s focus is on QDR (Quality, Durability and Reliability) and not necessarily driving dynamics. As such, the Corolla may well not be the perfect car for the enthusiast who loves canyon carving on the weekends. But for the rest of the driving population, the well-balanced steering, sturdy suspension and solid brake feel are undeniably appealing.

2014 Toyota Corolla LE ECO 069 640x426 First Drive: The Almost All New 2014 Toyota Corolla

The huge win here is really the interior cabin. The 2014 Corolla finally feels like it belongs in the 21st century. Upgraded  materials, piano-black gloss trim and metallic accents make a huge and welcome difference. Ornamental stitching along the dash further enhances the allure. The cabin is open, inviting and extremely approachable. The front seats are especially comfortable with additional side bolstering. Rear occupants benefit from almost 3 inches of additional legroom making the cabin the most spacious in its class. The new Entune Premium audio system serves up a pleasing 6.1-inch touch-screen display with navigation and access to apps (with connected smartphone) including Pandora, OpenTable, Yelp and Facebook Places.

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One overlooked nicety is the fact that the Corolla has been given extensive sound dampening: an acoustic glass windscreen; more floor carpet insulation; fender insulation; and additional sealing around the instrument panel and dash. All of this goes a long way for cruising around town, although at higher freeway speeds there is still a fair bit of road and wind noise.

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But, in the end, despite its numerous upgrades, the 2014 Toyota Corolla still feels somewhat dated despite being heralded as “all-new”. For a car that needs to take Toyota out another 6 years, the underpinnings seem lackluster. With 5 speed transmissions the bare minimum in this day and age, it is disappointing that Toyota is still offering a 4 speed in the base model. Extending the life of the old 1.8-liter engine, the Corolla also feels underpowered compared to the competition, and fuel economy is not significantly better.

The LE Eco offers the best performance and fuel economy, yet its Valvetronic technology is not available across the product lineup. Instead of standard disc brakes in the rear, Toyota has opted for ‘old school’ drums. And in favor of a 4 wheel independent suspension system, a torsion beam setup is still used in the rear. The suspension feels solid and has benefited from extensive tuning but is still based on aging technology which limits maximum handling.

Other cars up for possible consideration in the compact economy class have to include the Honda Civic, Mazda 3, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Rio, Chevy Cruze and Dodge Dart. The Mazda3 and Ford Focus definitely get the nod in the performance department. The Rio and the Civic are aesthetically challenged but still viable options. And the Hyundai Elantra is definitely a serious contender, having recently been named North American Car of the Year for 2012.

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To bring things full circle, the ‘all-new’ Toyota Corolla isn’t completely new with many carryovers from the past. With the sheer volume of Corollas sold worldwide (in 154 different countries) and its focus on QDR, we understand why Toyota doesn’t have the motivation to make too many drastic changes all at once. That said, the new Corolla has enough going for it with its edgier styling, upgraded cabin, modern infotainment system and additional roominess to keep it on a path for success. The 2014 Corolla has to be a part of any conversation when considering economy sedans; and for those that value legendary reliability above all else, it’s a no brainer.

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