2014 Toyota Corolla

MINNEAPOLIS — Two years after launching in Japan as a 1966 model, the Corolla joined Toyota’s U.S. lineup where it has stayed for the past 45 years. In that time, Toyota has sold more than 40 million Corolla’s worldwide, including 10 million in the U.S. Last year, despite being an old design in a sea of new releases, the Corolla was the second best selling Toyota in the U.S, and number two in the compact segment overall. That should tell you something.

One thing it should tell you is that this is a very important car to Toyota. The second thing is that Toyota’s reputation for quality, durability and reliability is the dominant selling point for most buyers.

They desire reliability (and fuel economy) above more esoteric items like driving dynamics, good looks and excitement. On that, the Corolla has consistently delivered. Third, a high value quotient is extremely important to this buyer. They want a lot for their money.

However, even mighty Toyota could not swim against the tides in the compact segment. The ninth generation Honda Civic (2006-2011) set the stage for the design revolution both here and abroad. The North American market received a long, low coupe and sedan that challenged the segment norms, while European market got a close-cropped hatchback with youthful and aggressive styling.

Both were about as far from the Corolla’s milquetoast design roots as they could be, and they soon would be joined by stylish, capable competition. Everything from the Ford Focus to the Hyundai Elantra and Kia Forte pushed the styling envelope, while cars like the Chevy Cruze, Ford Focus and VW Jetta added features, interior items and chassis dynamics the Corolla couldn’t. It was time for Toyota to rethink the Corolla formula.

For 2014, the Corolla is more stylish, has much more rear seat leg room, and offers a lot of stuff for the money. With pricing close to that of the outgoing car ($16,800 for the L, $18,300 for the LE, $18,700 for the new LE Eco, and $19,000 for the S), the 2014 Toyota Corolla is neither the least expensive nor the most prolific compact out there. Only the compact sedans from Kia, Hyundai and Ford have fewer models, while those from Chevy, Dodge, Nissan and VW have more.

This “not too much, not too little” strategy has served the Corolla well throughout its lifetime, and makes the car easy to pick, price and purchase. Any extras not found on the factory pricing sheet are added by the dealer, making it a much less daunting choice than the six model, multiple powertrain, massive option list Dodge Dart. In a segment where the customer often is a first-time buyer, that simplicity is appreciated. Buying a car can be a daunting experience, and Toyota’s image for quality, coupled with a simple order sheet, not only makes for a near fool-proof process, it gives the buyer a good feeling about the brand. This is where future Toyota buyers come from.

Certainly they haven’t come from the Corolla’s exciting exterior/interior styling, driving dynamics or cabin space. That’s because, up until now, the Corolla has lagged well behind the competition. About as exciting as a glass of warm milk, the Corolla never stood out in a crowd. It didn’t have to. People in search of a sure thing flocked to buy the small sedan. Yet Toyota CEO and Toyoda family scion Akio Toyoda has decreed that Toyota needs to raise its game in terms of styling, vehicular personality and dynamics. But, in the case of the Corolla, has it succeeded?

Certainly the 2014 model is larger, more stylish, better equipped and better to drive than its immediate predecessor. The 3.9-in. increase in wheelbase resulted in a 5.0-in. increase in rear leg room. Coupled with the cheerier, more upscale fabrics and materials, this means opening the rear door is no longer akin to opening the door to a Turkish prison cell. The interior is clean, fresh, modern, logically arranged and surprisingly roomy.

The instrument panel is topped by soft-touch material with molded-in stitching along its leading edge, and a pad of the same substance is used directly in front of the front seat passenger. A metalized plastic trim strip separates the upper and lower sections on most models (accented by a red insert on the Corolla S), and the horizontal expanse uses its height to carry all of the control interfaces. This keeps the panel from flowing in toward the front seat passengers where it would affect both perceived and actual cabin room.

Order the Corolla S, and you get a two-slot, four gauge cluster with a 3.5-in. thin-film display between the two main dials. All other versions come with a three-gauge instrument cluster with an information display located in the lower right corner of the speedometer. All cars come with a fat, grippy steering wheel, though S models add a nice, smooth leather cover.

Both the front and rear seats are comfortable, and the increase in leg room is immediately noticeable. As our own Al Vinikour has said, you don’t have to be Lt. Dan to use the back seat. Speaking of the back seat, it folds forward, increasing the amount of cargo you can carry. The trunk is regularly shaped and commodious, but the sloping rear roofline limits the size of the opening by reducing the trunk lid’s depth. Even though they would fit in the available space, some larger items may not easily fit through this portal.

With styling such an subjective subject, I’ll leave any critiques of the design up to the reader. However, the Corolla’s styling is much crisper, modern and more integrated than before. The Corolla S has a unique trapezoidal front opening with a honeycomb grille and piano black bumper bar trim. But what is most amazing is that every 2014 Corolla comes with LED low beam headlights, a first for any vehicle with a sticker price below $35,000. The lights are smaller, lighter and run cooler than either halogen or high-intensity discharge (HID) headlamps, while giving a whiter light.

The LE Eco’s second generation Valvematic system is the first appearance of this technology in the U.S. It reduces engine pumping losses by controlling air flow into the cylinder through the intake valves, not the throttle body. By altering valve lift via the Valvematic controller, engineers were able to keep the throttle plate open, and reduce the vacuum against which the engine had to work. It’s the reason the LE Eco has 8 more horsepower and 2 lb-ft less torque than the 132 hp/128 lb-ft of the other models.

The choice of transmissions ranges from a four-speed automatic for the L, to a six-speed manual gearbox (L and S) and CVT (LE, LE Eco, S). The vast majority of Corollas will come equipped with the CVT, which offers the option of both Eco and Sport modes.

In a nutshell, the former shifts up earlier while the latter holds a higher rpm level before shifting. S models add steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters, as well as a manual gate that lets the driver run through the CVT’s seven pre-programmed “gear” steps using the shift lever. There’s also a “B” setting that increases engine braking on hills and inclines.

Personally, the paddle shifters probably won’t be used much, but the manual gate for the gear lever will be used even less often. If the idea of the manual gate is to replicate the motions used with a manual transmission for the terminally shiftless, Toyota needn’t have bothered. Flipping the “+” or “-“ paddle does the job better.

Built on a modified (longer and oh-so-slightly wider) carry-over platform, the 2014 Corolla retains its MacPherson strut front and torsion beam rear suspension. The only major change — other than revised spring, damper and bushing rates — is the redesign of the torsion beam’s rear attachment points. Apparently, the previous design’s straight mounting points allowed an increase in rear toe-out in hard cornering, making the rear unstable and susceptible to oversteer. Switching to angled mounts lessened this tendency markedly, and increased rear grip. Fine tuning the layout kept the understeer added from overpowering the chassis setup.

Lean the Corolla into a bend, and it begins to understeer; though shooting for a later apex and carrying your braking into the corner will help lessen its effect. However, the handling isn’t helped by an electric power steering system that is well weighted but numb. The car goes pretty much where you want. You’re just not sure how it got there. If this isn’t enough, the combination of bushings, springs and dampers gives the Corolla a very comfortable low-speed ride, but impact harshness, especially over expansion strips, increases with speed.

Move to the Corolla S with its 45-series 17-in. tires and unique spring, bushing and suspension tuning, and this effect increases. Yet, at freeway speeds on all versions, the tail begins to get a bit floaty, and comes down abruptly over bumps. It needs to be tied down better if it’s to compete with more dynamically balanced competitors.

Nevertheless, this is a pretty darned competent chassis, but the devil is in the details and the details are lacking. Toyota would be well-served by retaining the services of former Lotus handling guru Roger Becker; the same man who made the W10 (1984-1989 MR2 and Mark II (1982-1986) and Mark III (1986-1993) Supras handle so well. (As can be seen here, Lotus, I suspect, also is behind the basic setup of the current Scion FR-S.) This would move the car from “adequate” to “exceptional” and increase the distance between the Corolla and its competition.

That said, the Corolla is a quiet cruiser on smooth roads; the equilibrium disturbed only by the rush of air over the large side mirrors. However, this quietness, coupled with the CVT’s insistence on holding engine revs low under all but the most insistent acceleration, makes the 2014 Corolla seem slow. It’s not a drag car, but many were the times when I and my co-driver on the launch event thought the car was traveling at speeds 10-15 less than indicated. Plus, the average fuel economy on the standard trip computer never dipped much below 35 mpg. Both are positive attributes.

Toyota expects sales for the Corolla to increase from 300,000/year to 330,000, with many of those new sales conquests. With young buyers delaying their first new car purchase (Toyota Motor Sales V.P. Paul Holdridge suggests they are about 3 years behind previous generations of car buyers), there is a large pool of new buyers for Toyota to tap, and Toyota’s reputation for durability, quality and reliability will sway those for whom this purchase is the first and most daunting.

As for the conquests, we’ll wait and see.

— Christopher A. Sawyer (The Virtual Driver)