2014 Toyota Corolla LE Eco Plus First Drive

The 2014 Toyota Corolla won't blow you away, but it will sell like crazy.

What It Is
The Corolla is nothing less than compact sedan benchmark.
Best Thing
Sharper styling, modern interior, roomy back seat.
Worst Thing
If you're looking for a driver's car, keep looking.
Snap Judgment
The 2014 Toyota Corolla expands its appeal, without abandoning its base.


Northbound rush-hour traffic on Interstate 5 leaving San Diego is, in a word, crappy. Several freeways merge with "The 5" in rapid succession, dumping their contents onto the overworked concrete, and creating a flood of multicolored automotive sheetmetal every Monday through Friday, and most weekends, too.

Even the famed San Diego Zoo couldn't come up with a better habitat for the 2014 Toyota Corolla LE Eco Plus I drove. The Corolla is a fixture on urban freeways, designed as an entry-level compact car for city-dwelling masses. As an experiment--and to pass the time--I started counting Corollas as we crawled along. After about 20 minutes and 15 Corollas of various vintage, I gave up, unsure that I wasn't double-counting, but confident my initial thesis of, "Man, these things are everywhere," still held true.

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It's not just confirmation bias talking, either. At the press conference introducing the 2014 Toyota Corolla earlier that day in San Diego, we were peppered with fun facts about the Corolla's popularity. For example, since it was introduced in 1968, 38 percent of all Toyotas sold in the U.S. have been Corollas. Toyota has sold more than 40 million Corollas worldwide since its introduction, making it the best-selling passenger car nameplate of all time. Just last year in the U.S., it was the second best-selling car in its segment, despite being older than any competitor.

So it's no surprise that the 2014 Toyota Corolla holds few surprises. It's bigger, much roomier, and has newer technology, like an upgraded Entune entertainment system, and LED headlights standard on all models. Automatic-equipped Corollas get a new continuously variable automatic transmission that's specifically programmed not to annoy the driver, and LE Eco models get a new engine with an advanced valvetrain, giving it more power and better fuel economy. Overall, it's a solid package.

But if you're thinking the Corolla is now a direct competitor to sporty compact cars like the Mazda3 or the Ford Focus, think again. Despite the sportier styling, Toyota makes no promises about the Corolla being a sporty sedan, and it doesn't deliver one, either. Instead, the Corolla sticks with its core values of being an easy to use, easy to drive, and easy to live-with compact. That won't please enthusiasts, but then again, they weren't going to buy one anyhow. However, the added tech, new styling, and Toyota's impermeable reliability record could sway a few Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, and Chevy Cruze buyers toward the Toyota store once again.

Walkaround

Our first impressions of the new 2014 Toyota Corolla from its official introduction back in June still hold true: this is a good-looking car. Toyota has shucked virtually all the styling cues of the old Corolla. It's no longer dowdy and dopey looking, but smart and--dare we say--sleek. The new grille treatment, especially on the S models, looks aggressive, but not so much that it'll offend anybody. The sides are smooth and virtually unadorned, and the rear end's taillights sorta, kinda recall the treatment we've been seeing on the luxury brand Lexus lately. From any angle though, it's still recognizable as a Toyota, cleaving between the new Camry's styling and the new big-mouth grille of the larger Avalon.

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But there are interesting details. For example, the tiny headlight cluster is courtesy the new-for-'14 LED headlights. These are standard on all Corolla models, including the fleet-intender L models, the only 2014 Corolla to still feature the antiquated four-speed automatic transmission. The S model features a different, more aggressive grille design that looks very similar to what you'll find on the bigger Toyota Avalon. It's definitely the most in-your-face part of the whole car's design, and it looks a bit heavy on the little sedan; at least some on staff think the standard Corolla's front end looks better.

Sitting Down

Any woman who has worn high heels can tell you that the price of style is practicality. Yet the 2014 Toyota Corolla manages to deliver a much more stylish interior without inducing back pains. The dash, for example, takes some styling cues from the new Toyota RAV4 crossover, a trucklet with a great interior treatment. Like the RAV, the black upper and lower parts of the dash are separated by a colored pad, breaking up what would otherwise be a somber black panel. The top of the dash and that colored panel are soft-ish, and the parts that are hard plastic feel high quality. The gauges are nicely designed, and there are two possible displays. Corolla L, LE, and LE Eco models all get the same display, with a small LCD screen at the bottom that displays fuel economy, miles driven, average speed, and so on. The S models get a sporty looking dual-gauge display, and between them is a larger TFT screen with the same basic functions in a more modern setting.

There are two key points about the new Corolla's interior that deserve special mention. First is the rear seat. It's huge. Toyota brags about best-in-class legroom thanks to lengthening the Corolla, but numerical dimensions don't always translate to the real world. The reality is that this 6-foot 2-inch adult American male can adjust the driver's seat to his liking, and then sit behind that seat with virtually no problem. Until now the Honda Civic has been the rear-seat champ, but it's quite possible the Corolla has stolen the crown.

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Then there's the upgraded Entune. Voice recognition aside--it's as bad as anything else out there--Entune has been upgraded to provide a more iPad-like interface, complete with a swipeable touchscreen and rearrangeable icons. It's not as elegant as an iPad of course, but it's pretty easy to use, and definitely a step up from systems like MyFord Touch. It even has a distinct speed advantage over Cadillac's CUE system. We were particularly impressed by the app selection. Once you sync your phone, you can provide your location via Facebook, listen to Pandora or I Heart Radio, and several other phone-connected apps. Of course, whether this is a good idea is hotly debated, as the NHTSA, AAA and others are recommending fewer distractions, rather than more. But until that's settled, Toyota's app integration is pretty sweet, especially for a system available on a car costing about $20,000.

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Other tech tidbits on the 2014 Toyota Corolla include eight air bags, including new knee-level airbags designed to reduce lower-leg injuries. Also standard are stability control, backup monitors and automatic climate control on all models except L, and Bluetooth across the board.

Driving

The best and worst thing we can say about driving the 2014 Toyota Corolla is that it meets expectations. It's comfortable, relatively quiet for the class, has acceptable but not exceptional power, and turns, stops, etc. just fine. If you've driven a Corolla before and been happy with it, you'll feel right at home. On the other hand, if you've driven Corollas before and been turned off by the experience, well, keep shopping. To nobody's surprise the Corolla's no sport sedan, even when you consider the S model with its optional manual transmission or paddle-shifted CVT. The steering is numb but well weighted; the suspension is firm enough to prevent carsickness but no firmer; the engine response is strong enough to move about in traffic, but not induce grins. And, no, the LE Eco's 8-hp advantage doesn't translate into discernibly quicker acceleration.

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However, the 2014 Toyota Corolla is a comfortable cruiser, as my 120-mile trip from San Diego to Los Angeles proved. The Corolla's continuously variable automatic transmission is one of the better examples of the breed thanks to a clever programming trick. One of the complaints against CVTs is the drone you get from the engine when accelerating: the engine revs up to its best power point, and then hangs there with a loud BWAAAAAAAAAAH until you let off the gas. It's irritating, regardless of the engine. However, the Corolla's programmed to let the engine speed rise and fall as if it were shifting gears in a more conventional way. Not only does it eliminate the BWAAAAAH, but it also gives you an audible cue of acceleration that's missing from a constant drone. When you're off the gas, the 1.8-liter four-cylinder quiets down, and returns solid fuel economy. The EPA estimates 30 mpg city and 40 mpg highway; the traffic-riddled drive back from San Diego netted an average of 36.4 mpg, a little better than the EPA's 34 mpg combined estimate.

At highway speeds there was some wind noise around the mirrors, and the Corolla was especially sensitive to road surface conditions, but it's still quieter on the road than most of its competitors, except the Chevrolet Cruze. The audio system in our test car was the best Entune system available, and sound quality is definitely near the top of the class. The touch-screen was responsive and overall the system was speedy. However, there are still too many steps to access certain functions--for example, the navigation system is an app instead of a standalone button--and the 6.1-inch screen makes it too easy to accidentally tap the wrong thing. Still, the Corolla's hardly unique in that, and Entune still manages many other functions better than competitors.

One of the key technical features of the 2014 Toyota Corolla is the LED headlights. LEDs are the next-generation of lighting technology, and until now they've been limited to high-end luxury cars, not $17,000 compacts. But these LEDs don't turn night into day like they do on an Acura RLX. Instead, the amount of light is about what you'd expect from a regular HID bulb, but from a much smaller headlight assembly. The extremely low power usage of an LED means the car doesn't have to work as hard to power the headlights. No downside and plenty of upside make it a win in our book.

Summary

With the exception of a couple technologies like the LED headlights, the 2014 Toyota Corolla breaks virtually no new ground. Its engine is still low-tech by today's standards, it's not very fast, and it's certainly no sport sedan. But it does build on the strengths that have made the Corolla a sales leader for decades: it's solid, comfortable, reliable, just-stylish-enough transportation for the masses. Rather than chase after the swoopy design of the Hyundai Elantra, or the sharp handling of the Mazda3, Toyota simply stuck with what it does best: it built a really good Corolla, and it's going to sell a ton of them.

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Basic Specs

1.8-liter four-cylinder, continuously variable automatic transmission, front-wheel drive, 140-hp, $21,760, 30 mpg city/40 mpg hwy

Notebook Quotes

"The interior is a huge improvement over the last one. The infotainment system works flawlessly and it's easy to hook up smartphones through Bluetooth or various audio and USB inputs. Having one phone on Bluetooth for calls and another hooked up via USB was awesome, something I wish was that easy in all cars we drive today. One thing I wasn't crazy about though inside was the seats. They started to feel flat on the few remaining minutes on my ride to Julian. Same again with about 25 minutes to go on the ride home." - Trevor Dorchies, Associate Editor

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