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Published: 10/14/2013 - by Mark Takahashi, Automotive Editor
Few people proudly proclaim vanilla as their favorite ice cream flavor, yet it's the most popular by a sizable margin. We also don't know anyone who sings the virtues of the Toyota Corolla, yet it's the best-selling car of all time. Coincidence? We think not.
Like vanilla, the Corolla embodies the word "basic." Both are free of polarizing personality, artful flourishes and excitement. They're the safe choice, the one you might blurt out under the pressure to make a quick decision.
In an era where carmakers throw around buzzwords like "sporty," "cutting-edge," "transformative" and "evocative," the 2014 Toyota Corolla sticks to the core principles that make it a sales juggernaut. With descriptors like practical, affordable and dependable, the Corolla expertly taps the vein of car shoppers who simply want basic transportation.
Tried and True Still Works
During the last 40-plus years, the Toyota Corolla has evolved and adapted to changing tastes. It hasn't made a splash, forcing rivals to play catch-up, nor has it pretended to be anything but an affordable car that will faithfully execute its duties for more than 100,000 miles. This latest 11th-generation Corolla is no different.
For 2014 the Toyota Corolla brings an all-new look, replacing the outgoing model's generic styling with a slightly less mundane makeover. From the outside, this Corolla is still far from inspiring. Our Corolla LE Eco tester, with plastic plates covering its steel wheels and vast expanses of unadorned sheet metal, is unlikely to turn even its owner's head. And from the outside, it's not a love-it or hate-it proposition. It's simply acceptable and inoffensive.
The 2014 Corolla's interior is equally average. There are no organic shapes, no waterfall center stack or split-level digital readouts. There's a traditional horizontal dashboard from door to door with vents and a cluster of familiar gauges. The dash is dressed up with a glossy black surface surrounding the 6.1-inch touchscreen (standard on LE trims and above). Even the digital clock from generations past remains, making it look dated relative to most of its competitors.
Whether the Corolla's aesthetics agree with you, living with one may present mixed results. The front seats provide good comfort and space for average-size adults. There is a lack of lumbar support, though, and taller drivers may bemoan the lack of telescoping steering wheel travel. At the same time, the dashboard's upright face may seem rather tall to shorter folk. Controls are simple and easy to operate with large buttons, and the infotainment touchscreen is quick to respond to inputs.
With a wheelbase measuring 3.9 inches longer than before, the rear seats provide a wealth of legroom, measuring at least 5 inches more than most other sedans in this class. This allows for easy mounting of rear-facing child seats without intruding on front-seat comfort. Rear-seat passengers taller than 5 feet 8 inches might still find headroom a challenge, and filling all three seats (as in most compacts) will yield a tight fit.
Throughout the cabin, there is an abundance of hard plastics, but they don't look cheap. Usual elbow touch points offer just enough padding to head off complaints, and there's an acceptable amount of interior storage. Cargo capacity is just about average for the class, too, with 13 cubic feet of trunk space.
Under the Hood, Under the Radar
Under the 2014 Toyota Corolla's surface, it's pretty much business as usual, too. Base models get the same 132-horsepower 1.8-liter inline four-cylinder engine driving the front wheels through an antiquated four-speed automatic transmission. Should you choose a manual transmission there's a new six-speed to replace last year's five-speed.
Our LE Eco-trimmed test vehicle, however, receives a new Valvematic system with variable intake valve lift and timing. This increases horsepower to 140, but reduces torque from 128 to 126 pound-feet.
The big change under the hood is the addition of a continuously variable transmission (CVT) that is available on all but the base L trim. With the CVT and the Valvematic engine, the Corolla's EPA-estimated fuel economy is increased to 35 mpg combined (30 city/42 highway). That's an increase of 3-4 combined mpg over the non-Eco models. In its time with us, we managed an overall average of 30.5 mpg and bested the highway estimate with 42.7 mpg in one highway-heavy driving session.
Good MPG Means Marginal Acceleration
With such favorable fuel economy numbers, we expected performance to suffer, and track testing confirmed our suspicions. Acceleration is leisurely, requiring 9.2 seconds to reach 60 mph (8.9 seconds with a 1-foot rollout as on a drag strip). Compared to the Ford Focus and new 2014 Mazda 3, which both reach the milestone in 8.3 seconds, the Corolla feels noticeably slower. Its CVT does it no favors, with slow response and typical CVT drone.
In braking tests our Corolla required 130 feet to stop from 60 mph, which is shorter than the Focus and Mazda 3 at 131 and 133 feet, respectively. The Honda Civic stops shortest of the group at 124 feet. Like the others, the Corolla was well behaved in panic stops. The brake pedal remained moderately firm, distances were consistent after several passes and the car held its line.
Take the Good With the Bad
Despite unimpressive acceleration, the Corolla acquits itself well where you'd expect: daily commuting. On surface streets the Prius-like acceleration is adequate. And though the CVT might bother an enthusiast, we doubt the Corolla loyal will notice.
The lack of engine braking in Drive means you'll be riding the brakes more than you would with a conventional transmission. Multiple transmission modes (Sport and Braking) solve this problem but will decrease fuel economy when accelerating or cruising.
Despite the slow standing-start acceleration, the Corolla overtakes dawdlers with relative ease. Though the CVT's behavior steals some confidence, you won't find yourself hung out when passing a tractor-trailer.
At freeway speeds the twist-beam rear suspension felt busy over the concrete seams common on Southern California freeways. Rain grooves, too, made the Corolla wander more than we'd like. As a result we were busier behind the wheel than we should be. Even so, the interior remains acceptably free of wind and road noises.
With handling numbers that trail its rivals, the Corolla is truly out of its element on winding roads. Body roll is abundant and there's little feedback through the steering wheel to clue you into what the front tires are doing. The CVT, which prefers to keep revs high, doesn't respond quickly to rapid changes in throttle position. But let's be honest: The Corolla has no sporting intentions whatsoever, so these deficiencies matter little.
40 Million Owners Can't Be Wrong. Or Can They?
In all of its basic-ness, the 2014 Toyota Corolla LE Eco will likely excel at being a dependable, unchallenging mode of transportation. With the base trim ringing in at only $16,800 and an as-tested price of $19,735, it's a sensible choice for those who need a long-term commitment that fits into a tight budget.
But those who expect more will do well to look at the Corolla's competition: in particular, the 2013 Honda Civic, which has its own reputation for dependability and longevity. For essentially the same price, a Civic delivers more personality, better styling and the feeling that you got a little more for your money. Mazda's sleek, new Mazda 3 is definitely worth investigating for its more engaging driving dynamics, which makes few sacrifices elsewhere. Rounding out the group is the Ford Focus, which remains one of our top picks in the segment for its all-around excellence.
Despite the fact that the 2014 Toyota Corolla looks and behaves like it's already trailing its contemporaries by a few years, we're confident it'll sell on its reputation alone. That peace of mind, as vanilla as it may be, is the ultimate attraction for pragmatic buyers. We just happen to think there's more to driving than strict sensibility.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.