You have to hand it to Toyota: The Corolla is a true icon, one of the most popular cars ever produced by any automaker with more than 40 million sold. But even more remarkable is the reason why.
Unlike most automotive superstars, the Corolla doesn’t offer tiptop performance, bleeding-edge technology, or innovative styling. In fact, the compact car exhibits none of these attributes. Instead, it has reached rock star status by offering reliability and better than average value, something affordable to purchase and keep on the road. As Toyota's top U.S. sales exec recently said: "No one ever bought a Corolla because they thought they looked good driving one.”
And as Toyota executives were fond of saying during the unveiling of an “all-new” 11th-generation Corolla last week in San Diego: “Forty million people can’t be wrong.” Or can they?
The answer to that question depends on your perspective. The latest generation is an improvement over a model grown stale and outflanked by more attractive alternatives. But do you want to own an awe-inspiring automobile, something fun that sets you apart, or would you rather drive a sedate, rather workaday sedan that blends into any background like a chameleon? The Corolla still leans far more toward the latter than the prior.
Toyota knew that the Corolla needed a redesign to keep up with the competition, especially the Honda Civic and Ford Focus, which sport updated engines, fresh in-vehicle technology and alluring designs. Behind them ranks the Hyundai Elantra, Chevy Cruze and Kia Rio — all competitive choices, all newer than what Toyota had to sell.
Fact is, Toyota had gotten complacent with the Corolla. Aside from a few styling cues here and there, the Corolla has changed little since 2008, and even then its reputation for being the most vanilla of flavors in the dealership icebox was never at question. And since sales remained steady, Toyota didn't seem to mind.
Consequently, we were hoping to see a radical exterior redesign for 2014. What Toyota did instead was a remix; it's wider, longer and lower, with better proportions, LED taillights and a bigger interior. But those looking for sex appeal will still be asked "Why did you buy a Corolla?"
Inside, the changes are more dramatic. The dashboard arrives covered in soft-touch material with faux and real stitching depending on trim, while pinstriped accents are strewn about the cabin. All models have a new three-dial gauge cluster with chrome trim except the S model, which features a two-gauge gauge cluster containing a 3.5-inch black-and-white display with trip computer functions.
On the plus side, the dash boasts a clean and easy to navigate layout. On the minus side, some of the dash panels reflect too much, and it direct sunlight can nearly blind the driver. Same goes for the environmental controls, which are located underneath the radio in the center console and in some angles can't be seen.
But there is a surprisingly large amount of head and leg room with far better seats. The front seats have a more supportive lower cushion with new bolster design that will make journeys longer than a typical commute less punishing, as will sound-insulating measures (seals, insulation, glass). And after years of lagging, Toyota brings the Corolla out of the electronic dark ages with the availability of Toyota's latest Entune entertainment system and standard Bluetooth connections. But once again, Toyota didn't go all the way; the Corolla lacks features like blind-spot monitoring, a rearview camera and parking sensors that other affordable small cars offer.
Under the hood, Toyota left the Corolla’s drivetrain pretty much alone; why mess with the primary reason the Corolla has remained so reliable for some many years? Consequently, the 2014 Corolla will come with two versions of a 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine, neither of which delivers serious thrust. The 132-hp carryover version will power the Corolla L, LE, and S. Only the LE Eco gets a more modern version of the 1.8 engine with 140 hp. The suspension and other handling bits and pieces are largely the same as before with struts up front and a cost-saving rear torsion beam.
And yet, on the road, the 2014 Corolla feels changed.
Like the out-going model, the 2014 is underpowered, struggling with passing, merging and climbing hills — generally any situation where you want more grunt. However, it’s also livelier, peppier somehow, than the outgoing model, which doesn’t make sense because it is actually heavier and not significantly more powerful.
Props for the improvements should go to the updated transmission options: a continuously variable automatic, which offers a “stepped seven-speed” function in S models, and a fresh six-speed manual. Clutch-pedal availability is limited strictly to the base L or loaded S models, and the bargain-basement L trim also comes with a miserly 4-speed automatic. The electronically managed CVT emulates the feel of a traditional automatic while being more efficient, quieter, and offering a better range of ratios. It’s one of the most impressive we driven to date, and better at keeping the engine in its power band than the other choices.
Such was the story with ride and handling; a few steps forward, but no transformation. The Corolla has notably improved is steering — accurate, quick but still a bit numb. Due to the car's lower stance, it no longer feels like you're straddling a milk crate when you’re in the driver’s seat. You feel more connected to the road, less wonky. Even so, the car handled the twists and turns no better that the outgoing model, and certainly not better than some of its competition. And the brakes take longer to stop than we'd like.
Prices start at $17,610 for a manual L trim and run up just above $21,000 for fully loaded models.
The 2014 Corolla is a better car than its predecessor. Yet the market has moved so fast, and Toyota has so limited its ambitions outside of interior upgrades, that the Corolla's back to where it began as reliable, basic transportation. Forty million people aren't wrong — they simply can afford to drive and own this car. If you’re looking for more excitement in your choice of wheels, look elsewhere.