San Diego, California - Ask anyone, and they'll tell you that the best used car on the planet is probably the Toyota Corolla. It weathers as the years pass, yet it never fails to delivery the utility for which the nameplate has become famous through ten generations and the production of 40 million cars globally. In many American families, a Toyota Corolla is a valued hand-me-down, passed along from one driver to the next over hundreds of thousands of miles.
But if you're the kind of person who is obsessed with the place on the great big chart of transportation where cost and value intersect, a brand-new example of the 2014 Toyota Corolla might not be such a commanding proposition.
Although the all-new eleventh-generation car is different in almost every way from the model it replaces, this Corolla hasn't really changed. It does the same things -- which is good -- but doesn't do them any better than the competition, which is unsettling to say the least. The 2014 Toyota Corolla has improved, but its competition has improved more.
The stretch-model Corolla
The most useful difference in the all-new Toyota Corolla is an expansion of interior space. This is the kind of thing that should appeal to all buyers of compact-size cars, as they look for the comfort and convenience of a Toyota Camry-size car in a more affordable package.
Stretched over a new platform, the Corolla's wheelbase now measures 106.3 inches, 3.9 inches longer than before. When combined with new, slim front seats, this translates to 0.4 inch more front-seat legroom and 5.1 inches more rear-seat leg room.
A 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine motivates this front-wheel-drive car, and as we drove through the streets of the snappy part of downtown San Diego and into the rolling country beyond the city limits, the Corolla did a fine job of moving us about. A continuously variable transmission (CVT) mediates the power delivery for the LE and S models, and the powertrain is unobtrusive as long as you keep from mashing the gas pedal in an unseemly fashion. Pick the right configuration of the 2014 Corolla LE Eco (smallest 15-inch wheels) and you're promised 42 mpg EPA highway, which is an impressive figure.
Beyond the point-and-click proposition
If you're the kind of person who likes to simply point and click while you're car shopping, you should probably stop right here. You can browse the Internet and check to see if anyone has ever said mean things about the Corolla (it's been called, rightly, boring and not fun to drive), and then choose the model you can afford: $16,800 Corolla L, $18,300 Corolla LE, $18,700 Corolla LE Eco (this is the best one, we think), or $19,000 Corolla S. You'll be pleased no matter which one you select.
But if you're not the kind of person that points and clicks your choices, and instead you like that whole experience of the modern shopping mall with its water fountains, 20-screen cinema, five restaurants, fitness club, and 140 stores that promise the opportunity to select something that's uniquely you, then the 2014 Toyota Corolla is less likely to hold your attention.
For one, the Corolla doesn't look too good in the mall parking lot. While it has been reshaped into a form that disguises the customary three-box sedan silhouette, the overall effect is stale and dowdy, despite the respectable 0.29 Cd aero (0.28 Cd with the smallest 15-inch wheels). The interior no longer looks vacuum-formed from plastic, yet even soft-touch materials can't compensate for mundane architecture and an unimpressive selection of color and materials. Moreover, the dimensions of the seating positions for the passengers have not improved except in legroom.
Apparently the Corolla is from a place where the Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra, and Mazda 3 are unknown, and even the Chevrolet Cruze, Dodge Dart, and Honda Civic are unappreciated.
Making the magic performance number
Perhaps it's no wonder that the Corolla delivers fine fuel economy, since the 1.8-liter four-cylinder gives you just 132 hp @ 6000 rpm and 128 lb-ft of torque at 4400 rpm for a bottom line of 29/38/32 mpg city/highway/combined with the LE grade's CVT (a four-speed automatic, best avoided, and a six-speed manual are also offered). The LE Eco has a slightly more high-tech version of this engine that makes 140 hp @ 6000 rpm and 128 lb-ft at 4400 rpm accompanied by 30/40/34 mpg city/highway/combined.
The Corolla's longer wheelbase helps it go down the road with a surer sense of direction than before (although the previous car set a pretty weak standard in this regard), and it behaves well when you pick up the pace. Even so, the Corolla S with its 132-hp engine isn't going to pin back your ears. Plus the Corolla comes with rear drum brakes unless you get the biggest 17-inch wheels with their harsh-riding 45-series tires, and the drums make the brake action uneven at low speed while the pedal itself feels wooden.
Meanwhile, the array of active safety features that we've recently seen introduced for the Mazda 3 and which clearly represent the next wave of technology in compact sedans simply isn't available here. You don't get a hybrid-style stop/start engine mechanism for better fuel economy, either.
What's the message here?
You can see where the 2014 Toyota Corolla wants to go when you take a look at its electronic entertainment system. Just as you'd hope in a Corolla, you get a nice amount of Toyota imagineering with a simple interface and a decent amount of standard features.
The Corolla L comes with standard Bluetooth and iPod connectivity, voice command when paired with a smart phone, and even a USB port that will charge two devices at a time. Step up to the two grades of Entune and you get a 6.1-inch touchscreen display and a useful suite of applications (and there's no subscription fee, either).
Altogether, the electronics represent an effort to increase the Corolla's value proposition, which seems to us to be the signature of the Toyota way of doing things. Of course, the presentation looks so cheap that it's hard to say if anyone will notice.
The Young Frankenstein event
As Toyota tells us so often, its corporate DNA is QDR -- quality, durability, and reliability. These values might not sound sexy to you, but we think they represent breathtaking insight into the nature of personal mobility. They are values that are more relevant now than ever, and indeed 300,000 people buy Corollas every year based on this social contract.
Sadly, if the 2014 Toyota Corolla is speaking this message, we're thus far unable to hear it.
Sometimes it seems to us that the failed collaboration in the production of the Corolla between Toyota and General Motors at the old NUMMI assembly plant in Fremont, California, must have resulted in some kind of unintended personality switch, as in the classic Mel Brooks comedy, Young Frankenstein. Chevrolet got all the good parts of Toyota's personality, while Toyota seems to have come away with all the aspects of Chevrolet's personality from the dark years of GM in the 1980s. Toyota chief executive Akio Toyoda is trying to do something about it these days, and we're on his side.
For the moment, we still think that the best Toyota Corolla is a used one. It makes no false promises of cultural zippiness and just delivers on basic transportation. The Japanese venerate things that get old because they are reduced to their essence, and so do we.
2014 Toyota Corolla
|Base Price:||$18,700 plus $810 transportation (LE Eco)|
|Fuel Economy:||30 mpg city/40 mpg highway|