2014 Toyota Corolla Ride and Review By Thom Cannell

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By Thom Cannell
Senior Editor
Michigan Bureau
The Auto Channel

We have met the 2014 Toyota Corolla and it is a worthy car, one with an interior that will be willingly compared to Audi’s trend setting works, an exterior that can no longer be called bland, and powertrain news that will excite some and disappoint a few.

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Toyota sells Corollas like Nathan sells hot dogs; aplenty in a market filled with Ford’s Focus, Hyundai’s Elantra, and Chevy’s Cruze, VW Jetta, Mazda3 to name a few competitors. Corolla’s reputation as durable, robust, and thrifty make it a family staple. It is a sedan that, at its most extravagant, will cost a few hundred over $20,000 with a starting point just under $17,000.

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The newest, the eleventh generation Corolla features LED headlamps in every car including the Corolla L, its most modest model. That car, priced at $17,400 with automatic, shares a 1.8-liter four cylinder engine with every other iteration. This value leader comes with either a new 6-speed manual or aging 4-speed automatic to reduce production costs. All the others, with a lone exception, now feature a CVT or constant velocity transmission. While not a novelty any longer, only Nissan has embraced these powertrain maximizers with passion. Note that Toyota does not do theirs the old fashioned way with just two variable pulleys and a belt, no, theirs is designed to emulate the feel of a 7-speed automatic. Some, like the top-of-the-line S model, also have a Sport mode that with the push of a button drives the “shift” points to a more discernible perception. That said, they are still CVTs and have some of the familiar whine about them, though a raspy exhaust note often wins the race for audible presence.

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CVTs emerged as useful devices in recent decades, but were not popular. The reason was simple, they don’t sound like automobiles we’ve driven in the past. Instead, their competence in running the engine up to its most efficient operating speed and “changing gears” constantly just sounds wrong. Other manufacturers have made them acceptable by emulating the feel of geared transmissions as well: Toyota is not the first and call theirs CVT-i or intelligent for its built-in shift points and they say it makes the car sporty. If sporty is your true desire, the base L and top S models have genuine steel gear sets with six row-it-yourself gears. Choices, yes, choices.

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There is no choice in engines, all are 1.8-liter double overhead cam motors making 132 horsepower and 128 pounds feet of torque. There is one variant as the LE Eco has a device attached to the cylinder head that squeezes out 8 more horsepower through adjustable valve lift. Hmmm, that reminds us of BMW, where adjustable valves overcome pumping losses and improve fuel economy and lower emissions. Toyota’s black box does the same. Toyota promises more availability “soon” but is currently capacity constrained even though it began fitting those engines for Europe and Asia in 2008. LE Eco squeezes out an additional 4-6 miles per gallon, its price but can rise to over $20,000 if you equip it with fog lamps, chrome, and Softex (Toyota’s trademark imitation leather) seats.

Interiors are the modern battle ground, perhaps more than graceful and exciting exteriors. Toyota has done an elegant and thoughtful job of creating a useful appliance. Don’t laugh at that, for many buyers a car is more appliance than object of passion for speed and handling. But the target market, ever more youthful in manufacturer aspirations and now aimed at 35+, are generations that grew up with iDesign as well as Bauhaus legacies. Toyota did its due diligence.

Entering, you will notice the door as an elegant thing with thin colored band (they are keyed to interior colors) abutting a wider metallic surfaced trim, itself joined to a leather-look padded surface. Even the arm rest is tastefully covered in a tight hopsack fabric. That’s just the door. That bright line tracing goes across the now-horizontal instrument panel like a streak of neon.

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On the panel a clear brightwork line separates up from down. Up includes most of the air ducts, a clock, and instrument binnacle in front of the driver. Below are the passenger’s airbag cover panel, audio head end with the HVAC below, and below that (on most models) 12-V and AUX/USB plugins plus the shifter and its console. Steering wheel controls resemble familiar shapes, unlike those in their new trucks, which we applaud. Note that some instrument panels house three gauges, others two. The two-gauge S has an information display between, the others put the gas gauge at the right and leave abundant blankness in that circle for check lights. Overall, instruments are very legible.

Together with seat fabrics and colors most buyers will be interested in the new Entune audio systems, now without subscription fees. Available on all but L models, which offer Tech radios with BlueTooth calling and limited voice control, the two Entune systems will have voice recognition and BT calling, and have apps available (Yelp, Bing, Pandora, etc) that will require downloading an Entune app for your iPhone/Android to make it all work. Why would you want apps for Pandora or iHeart Radio? Wouldn’t you rather use the steering wheel volume and change controls than, unsafely, referring to your phone?

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We played with the nav system on the road and it was difficult. Later, using the traditional keyboard when stopped, it was much easier to enter a destination. Voice entry was also more readily accomplished. The difficulty was that using voice input for a destination required speaking the correct address entirely, as in house number, street name, city, and state instead of telling iPhone’s Siri “route me to Commons Hotel”. It will take a few weeks to get used to.

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The eleventh generation Corolla is not sheet metal alone, no, it is longer (~2.9”), lower, has a longer wheelbase (+3.9”) for more stability, and is a bit wider and shorter. Where you can’t see it the underside is better braced, the body structure more rigid. Suspension is slightly revised with new tuning for the MacPherson front struts and redesigned rear torsion beam that delivers more lateral control.

We would be remiss to say Corolla is a sports sedan, it is however more fun to drive than its predecessors, delivering very competent road manners and excellent quietness at highway speeds. Our notebook has several important comments starting in the front seat: “wow, it’s an Audi, all slick, faux-aluminum, laser lines and Mercedes piano black surfaces”, two notes from the back seat where a 6’1” passenger found plenty of leg room—Toyota says there’s now over 41” of leg room—and that was with a 5’8 passenger ahead. Another passenger described the back seat as shaped into buckets for outboard seats, overall “roomy but not necessarily comfortable”, possibly due to the new safety cross beam below that seat. We also noted a lack of any power outlets (did we overlook something?) in the rear, odd when Toyota says the Corolla will appeal to Entrepreneurs, which we find amusingly faulty logic.

Safety has been a key selling point for Toyota and they continue their STAR safety system with antilock brakes, electronic brake distribution of braking force, brake assist to minimize emergency braking distance, smart stop which reduces engine power if throttle, then brakes are applied together over 5 mph, traction control, vehicle stability control, and a VSC Off switch which you’d need if stuck in mud or snow to allow wheel spin. Notably, in the recent IIHS small overlap test the compact Corolla received a "marginal" score. The test is said to emulate hitting a phone pole or guard rail straight on just at the headlight. Child seat anchors, passenger occupant detection (kids) for the passenger seat, seat belt pretensioner, 8 dual-stage airbags and new driver knee air bags are all standard.

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What’s our take? A far, far better car, one that needed to be built, one that may outclass some rivals in interior refinement. Power and powertrains put it solidly in the mix, as do fuel economy and the eye catching all-new sheet metal. Viewed along side outgoing models, all you’ll think is Whoa! Purchased with family needs in mind, or daily for commutes where the Entune system shines, or as a second or third car to back up your EV, Corolla is prepared to sustain its reputation for economy, durability, and innovation and sell another 22 million.

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