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Published: 08/27/2013 - by John Pearley Huffman, Contributor
In Jakarta, Indonesia, there are more than 24,000 cabs, and most of them are Toyotas. And most of those are Corollas. The city is always hot and, most of the year, subject to monsoons. The roads are usually somewhat passable when they're not flooded. And traffic? It's virtually unregulated. Forget America; the new 2014 Toyota Corolla is built tough enough to survive as a Jakarta "taksi" cab.
So the Corolla should do just fine in the U.S. with its paved roads, traffic lights and thick supply of buyers craving an affordable sedan that gets good mileage. That's been the Corolla's mission for going on 48 years, but occasionally Toyota still has to tweak it a bit. Of course the 11th-generation Corolla is better than the 10th. But is it enough better to take on everything from traditional competitors like the Nissan Sentra to the impressively reincarnated Ford Focus and driver-oriented Mazda 3?
The Basic Basics
While other parts of the world get various wagon, three-door, five-door and two-door versions of the Corolla, the U.S. continues with just one: a front-wheel-drive, four-door sedan. It wears all-new sheet metal on the outside and features many familiar chassis and mechanical bits on the inside.
Literally the biggest difference with this redesign is the Corolla's new lengthier size. It now rides on a 106.3-inch wheelbase, up 3.9 inches from 2013 and only 3 inches shorter than the wheelbase of both Toyota's own Camry sedan and Honda's Accord four-door. Overall length has grown 2.6 inches to 182.6 inches: 6.6 inches shorter than the Camry.
Despite the additional length, plus an additional half-inch of width (mostly, that seems, in the side mirrors), the proportions of the new Corolla are about the same as the old car. The cowl is relatively tall, the rump rides high and the nose is blunt. In other words, it's still very much a Corolla.
Reruns With Bonus Footage
Not much changes under the hood, as the Corolla continues to use the same 132-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder that's been part of the American Corolla package since 2009. At the upper end of the lineup, there's now an "LE Eco" trim level that uses an upgraded version of the same engine that develops 140 hp and delivers slightly better fuel mileage: up to an EPA rated 42 mpg on the highway. Peak torque, however, drops slightly with the Eco engine, so there's no perceptible difference in acceleration.
Transmission options vary according to trim level. Base model Corollas come standard with an archaic four-speed automatic, while anything better than that gets a new continuously variable transmission (CVT) for improved mileage. A six-speed manual is also offered on the base L and "sporty" S models.
The MacPherson strut front suspension is virtually unchanged from before, while the rear torsion-beam setup has been slightly tweaked with revised and splayed forward link mounts. The steering is, once again, an electrically assisted rack-and-pinion setup, while an antilock system squeezes down on the front disc brakes (the rear drum brakes are swapped for discs when 17-inch wheels are ordered).
Between the carryover engines and suspension setup, it should come as no surprise that the new Corolla drives much like the previous-generation Corolla. It's not exciting, but it's solid and comfortable, and the durability can be felt almost humming through the car's unibody structure.
The new CVT works well by the standards of CVTs. There's some drone during acceleration, but it's not particularly irritating. The fake gears in the shiftable version used in the S engage softly so you won't be fooled into believing you're driving a manual.
Ultimately, the latest Corolla drives much like every previous one, since the sedan moved over to front drive back for 1984. That means the steering is precise if numb, the suspension is comfortable though short of luxurious or coddling, and the engine tries hard but is limited in its ability to pull for very long. What's best is that it never feels as if it's straining to keep up with traffic or unable to deal with the unexpected. In place of inspiring performance, what it offers is a stalwart automotive companion: a reliability and unpretentiousness that expresses itself as character.
This isn't a racecar; it's an urban tool. The sort of car that will do 99 percent of what 90 percent of buyers need to do 90 percent of the time at a price 90 percent of them can afford.
Four Eggs, One Shell
Four different models inhabit that the Corolla's singular body style. The $17,610 base "L" model comes with standard power windows and door locks, LED headlights with LED daytime running lights, Bluetooth connectivity and two USB outlets to plumb into the adequate sound system. On the skimpy side, the wheels are steel 15-inchers behind plastic covers.
The $19,110 mainstream LE grade includes things like cruise control, remote keyless entry and a back-up camera. It displays on a standard 6.1-inch touchscreen at the center of the dash that also includes Toyota's Entune connectivity system. There's an effective and simple automatic climate control system aboard and the standard steel wheels grow to 16 inches in diameter.
The sport-themed "S" model starts at $19,810 and has dressed up its front fascia with foglights, a spoiler on its tail, a nicely trimmed two-tone interior and a pair of paddle shifters that can click through simulated gears on the standard CVT. Spend extra and the 16-inch steel wheels can be swapped over for a set of Cuisinart-look 17-inch alloys.
Finally there's the fourth Corolla, a new $19,510 "LE Eco" that, when matched with the CVT and skinny 195/65R15 tires on 15-inch steel wheels pays off with an EPA-rated 42 mpg on the highway and 30 mpg in the city.
The Stretch Compact
The most significant advance with this latest Corolla is the improvement in interior room and quality. The additional wheelbase, combined with a redesigned rear seat and front seats that are noticeably thinner than before, results in 5.1 inches more rear legroom according to Toyota. It's enough space so that a 6-footer can adjust the driver seat to his comfort and then get in back and find he's pretty happy back there, too. In fact, according to Toyota's own specifications, there's now 2.5 inches more legroom in the back of a Corolla than there is in the larger, more expensive Camry.
Beyond that, the new Corolla's cabin is a nice place to be. Toyota interior quality has suffered recently, but this seems to mark a return to form, with higher-quality plastics and fabrics, well-considered and straightforward design, and simple controls.
Interestingly, the S model's instrumentation orbits around two circular main gauges: a tachometer and speedometer. Meanwhile, the L and LE models use three main gauges with the central speedometer flanked by a tach to the left and a humongous fuel gauge to the right. So if you're the type of person who lives in dread of running out of gas, the new Corolla's tangerine-size fuel gauge will either calm your nerves or amplify your anxiety. Consult your therapist.
Most of the new Corollas sold in the United States will come from Toyota's still-newish plant in Blue Springs, Mississippi, with the rest migrating down from Toyota's plant in Cambridge, Ontario. So the Corollas here aren't likely to be identical to the cabs in Jakarta. But those hard-core cab virtues are there. And that matters.
It's not sporty like a Mazda 3. And it's not surprisingly good like the Focus. It's a Corolla that will likely deliver on its promises of toughness alongside a new, higher level of comfort.
Every new Corolla has the big advantage of the reputation every previous Corolla has earned for the name. This new Corolla doesn't represent a reinvention of the brand, but another careful step along in its quiet, relentless evolution. For a lot of Jakarta taxi drivers that's going to be more than enough to keep them relying on Corollas for their livelihood. And what's comfortable, affordable and rugged enough for a Jakarta taxi driver is more than enough for a lot of Americans.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.