The 2014 Toyota Corolla introduced Thursday evening in Santa Monica, California, is intended to bolster the nameplate's relevance in the ever-more-competitive compact car segment. The new Corolla promises to be sportier and more efficient, but away from the driving experience the big story is its styling, which adopts the heavy-breather look we know from the Avalon. This is interesting, and a big departure for the Corolla, which had been outdone in the visual interest department by disposable razors.
The 11th-generation Corolla has a scowling, jut-jawed appearance and hawkeyed lamp clusters that feature standard LED headlights, the first compact sedan so equipped. This dramatic face, with cheeks creased sharply for airflow management, leads the way to a remarkably slippery coefficient of drag. Rated at 0.28, the Corolla rivals the Prius for aerodynamic efficiency and is among industry leaders.
The sculpted styling eschews bodyside indents, fender grilles, or any other gratuitous adornment. A character line originates at the front wheel lip and extends across the door handles to the curved rear corner. An accent line rises from the bottom of the doors and touches the rear fender. And that's it for flourishes. Otherwise, the design work is all about careful integration of functional parts (hood, doors, trunklid) with forms that reflect the single-minded adherence to aero-efficiency. Even the underside is flattened and shrouded as much as possible, helping to reduce drag and possibly surpass the 40-mpg target for highway driving.
The '14 Corolla grows to 182.6 inches in length, and the entire 3.9-inch increase is incorporated in the longer wheelbase, which now extends to 106.3 inches. The resulting additional rear-seat legroom makes the car more practical than ever.
There are four trim levels: L, LE, S, and LE Eco. Besides the LED headlamps, standard equipment includes Bluetooth connectivity, air conditioning, power locks and windows, and eight airbags. Available features include heated front seats, a multifunction information display, pushbutton start, leather-wrapped steering wheel with paddle shifters and audio controls, and navigation. Prices will be announced before the car goes on sale in the fall. All trim levels benefit from a classier, quieter interior. Premium is the goal, and to that end the decor is improved by touches of glossy black, various metallic accents, and ornamental stitching. The L, LE and LE Eco have a very stylish three-gauge instrument cluster while the two dials in the S are separated by a 2.5-inch black-and-white information display. The upper trim levels offer "detailed" fabric upholstery or SofTex synthetic leather. The S combines the two, with fabric on the cushions and the attractive SofTex cloaking the bolsters.
Of the four trim levels, the S and the LE Eco are the most interesting. Besides the special instrument panel and interior trim, the S comes with unique suspension tuning and four-wheel disc brakes with ABS. The available 17-inch alloy wheels look great in a trendy silver-on-black design, and they carry performance tires.
The LE Eco has available 16-inch alloy wheels patterned after windmill blades, but what's most noteworthy is the powertrain. Rather than the 1.8-liter DOHC four-cylinder with VVT-i that all other models share, the LE Eco is the first Toyota sold in North America with the 1.8-liter DOHC Valvematic four. Toyota says it improves on the other four's variable-valve timing by "offer[ing] a broader range of continuously variable-valve timing (lift and phasing) to provide optimal intake valve (not on exhaust side) operation relative to engine demands." (Try reading that line aloud!) The result of this fancy-schmancy valvetrain and freer-breathing cylinder head is an estimated five-percent improvement in fuel economy, although final figures are still to be determined. Output increases from 132 to 140 hp, but torque drops from 128 lb-ft to 126 lb-ft.
The LE Eco's Valvematic engine mates to a new continuously variable transmission. Called CVTi-S for its purported intelligent shifting, this transmission emulates the operation of a seven-speed automatic. There are virtual upshifts and downshifts in all driving conditions. And the driver can manually select shift points, either by using the shift lever or the paddle shifters that are included in the S. If the CVT works nearly as well as that in the Subaru XV Crosstrek, which employs a similar artificial six-speed shift-point strategy, we will have positive things to say when we finally drive the new Corolla.
While the styling breaks no new ground -- and in fact, the front reminds us of the Dodge Dart -- designers can be commended for a workmanlike job that definitely adds interest where none previously was. That scowling face may seem to say, "I've eaten too many catfish sandwiches," but we think we will grow to like it. Meanwhile, with the four trim levels covering a wide base of shopping intent, and with just the right level of feature content, the 2014 Toyota Corolla seems well positioned to gain sales in the compact class.
Engine: 1.8-liter DOHC four-cylinder with VVT-I
Power: 132 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque: 128 lb-ft @ 4400 rpm
Engine: 1.8-liter DOHC four-cylinder with Valvematic
Power: 140 hp @ 6100 rpm
Torque: 126 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm
Transmission: Six-speed manual, four-speed automatic, or continuously variable
Steering: Electrically assisted rack-and-pinion
Suspension, Front: Macpherson strut, coil springs
Suspension, Rear: Torsion beam, coil springs
Brakes: Front disc/rear drum, ABS, or four-wheel disc, ABS
Tires: 195/65R-15; 205/55R-16; 215/45R-17
L x W x H: 182.6 x 69.9 x 57.3 in
Wheelbase: 106.3 in
Track (F/R): N/A
Cargo volume: N/A
0-60 MPH: N/A
Fuel economy: N/A