The Corolla model has been around so long that it's easy to take for granted, and Toyota's slow, five-year product cycling means you might have even forgotten the company was still making this compact sedan. But the 2014 Toyota Corolla comes out with some nice styling, new cabin electronics, and a push toward 40 mpg fuel efficiency.
Because of the model's ubiquity, I wasn't looking forward to getting behind the wheel, but when this 2014 Corolla showed up at CNET's garage, I was immediately won over by its exterior design. Echoing the styling of the latest Camry generation, the new Corolla has sharp lines up front and a nicely geometrical roofline.
It is an impressive leap forward from all the curved surfaces in automotive design that dominated in the past decade. Looking at the new Corolla, I thought that it looked like what the latest Honda Civic should have been.
My appreciation of the styling became even more acute when I looked inside the car. Instead of a molded plastic dashboard curving up from the control surfaces toward the base of the windshield, Toyota built a cliff. The top of the dashboard comes straight back, then drops off abruptly, showing a vertical plane to the front passengers.
In CNET's LE Eco-trim Corolla, white stitching accented the fake leather seating surfaces, and a thin, dark-blue accent ran around the beltline. The transmission tunnel only protrudes lightly into the rear, allowing a flat floor for rear-seat passengers, which creates a feeling of spaciousness.
Trims and choice
The available Eco trim is a little odd, as it is practically a different car from the standard model. The Corolla can be had in L, LE, or S trim levels, or LE Eco. That last comes with a completely different engine and underbody panels for better aerodynamics. It also has a continuously variable transmission (CVT), a transmission available in non-Eco trim, as well.
The LE Eco trim looks like Toyota's attempt to hit the magic 40 mpg fuel economy number, a specification that has become de rigueur for automakers lately. For the 2014 Toyota Corolla LE Eco, that means fuel economy of 30 mpg city and 42 mpg highway, or 40 mpg highway with the 16-inch wheel option, as our car was equipped. The best fuel economy from the non-Eco Corolla is 29 mpg city and 38 mpg highway.
This added complexity seems a little silly as an effort to hit 40 mpg, especially when average fuel economy will be less. The non-Eco models can be had with a choice of three transmissions, a six-speed manual, a four-speed automatic, or the CVT. At the same time, the non-Eco Corolla's engine is a 1.8-liter four-cylinder using variable valve timing on intake and exhaust, Toyota's VVT-i technology. The LE Eco model's 1.8-liter engine uses Toyota's Valvematic technology, which performs continuous timing adjustment on the intake valves, but not on the exhaust.
This sort of trim complexity is reminiscent of the work of American automakers in the 1980s.
The fact that the Valvematic engine produces 140 horsepower and 126 pound-feet of torque, while the VVT-i engine makes 132 horsepower and 128 pound-feet, only complicates matters further. I kind of wish Toyota had just chosen a single engine with just the manual or CVT, dropping the four-speed automatic entirely. Then again, I'm not a Toyota accountant, a person to whom all this probably makes sense.
Although 140 horsepower should be ample for a 2,800-pound car, I found myself flooring it anytime I wanted a reasonable amount of acceleration. In fact, during my first experience with the car, ascending a typical San Francisco hill, I frantically tried to figure out how to turn off the Eco mode, signified by a green-lit logo on the tachometer. When the panic of trying to keep up with traffic was over, I noticed the Eco button on the console, behind the shifter.
Turning off Eco mode did not exactly unleash a beast. In fact, I could feel only a slight difference between standard and Eco drive modes, just a slight detuning of power from the accelerator. I'm not a fan of Eco modes in general, as they don't usually do anything a driver can't learn to do, and I find myself just pressing the gas pedal all that much harder when I want acceleration. Even outside of Eco mode, it felt like Toyota had somewhat limited the available acceleration so as to help the Corolla meet its EPA numbers. The non-Eco trim Corollas may have a different acceleration feel.
In the opposite direction of Eco, the CVT shifter had a sport notch in the gate, along with a notch marked B, for engine braking. Given how the acceleration felt, I thought the sport mode for the transmission was a joke, which it turned out to be. While putting the CVT in sport kept the engine revs a little higher, the Corolla's acceleration response merely upgraded to what I would consider normal, rather than anemic.
Of course, the CVT's gearless nature gave the Corolla very smooth acceleration, with no power dips. But acceleration was accompanied by a symphony of grinding noises, the tortured sounds of an engine not well insulated from the cabin.
The ride quality was unremarkable, about what I would expect from an economy-oriented compact sedan. The Corolla uses a pretty standard configuration for economy cars of MacPherson struts up front and a torsion bar across the rear. Over smooth roads, the ride was fine, but I felt potholes acutely and found it tedious driving over miles of roughly paved roads.