It may not be much of a driver's car, but the new Corolla looks good both inside and out, gets high fuel economy, and features Toyota's Entune connected tech system.
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.
I wouldn't enjoy driving the Corolla just for the sake of driving, but it fits the bill for economical transportation. Getting mid-30s fuel economy during my time with the car proved easy.
From the driving experience, I was most impressed with the electric power steering. This technology is relatively new, and automakers have struggled to make it feel natural. But Toyota seems to have conquered that particular hurdle in the Corolla. The steering wheel had a good feeling of heft, and lacked any electric motor sounds, even when turning while stopped.
With five years since the last update, one area I was eager to see in the new Corolla was the cabin tech, which had a lot of catching up to do considering the pace of consumer electronics. And I wasn't disappointed, as Toyota made some interesting choices with the Corolla's optional navigation head unit, which integrated the relatively new Entune connected features.
Not terribly surprising for an economy car, the touch-screen LCD is only 6.1 inches. To either side of the LCD sit hard buttons, but Toyota made some interesting choices here. Down the left side there were buttons labeled Audio, Apps, and Home. Home brought up a configurable screen capable of showing the map, stereo, and speed dial numbers for the phone system. Audio was a direct route to the stereo screens, while Apps brought up a menu with all the car functions, from navigation to audio to fuel prices.
Toyota may have stolen the Apps interface idea from smartphone makers, but it works as an excellent paradigm for the car, putting all the functions in one easily accessible bucket. The Apps screen also lets Toyota easily add functions, as there are multiple menu pages.
The navigation system runs off an SD card and includes live traffic, which I found helpful on a number of occasions. But this system is also a bit primitive. First off, the maps only display in plan view, with no perspective format. They look a little washed-out and are not easily read on the small screen.
Route guidance was also weak, as turn graphics were jammed onto the small screen and voice prompts did not call out street names. Worse, the system did not say which side of the street my destination was on.
Entune's connected features integrate with this navigation system, which can be a great help. For example, I called up Yelp on the car's screen, found a recommended restaurant, and with a few touch-screen actions set the address as my destination. Similarly, Entune includes Bing search, helpful for finding local destinations based on a keyword search. Unlike a static points-of-interest database, Bing's results are likely to be up-to-date.
For Bing, I could also initiate searches using the voice command button on the steering wheel, the system doing an excellent job of recognizing the keywords I spoke.
In fact, voice command for the Corolla's head unit was generally excellent. Not only could I perform online searches, I could also enter addresses as a single string, or request music by artist, album, or song title.
The touch screen was reasonably responsive, showing little lag between when I pressed a button and when I got a result. However, voice commands took a little longer to parse.
Entune added online audio sources to the stereo, with Pandora and iHeartRadio. Besides those, it had the usual digital collection, such as Bluetooth streaming, a USB port for USB drives and iOS devices, and satellite radio.
The Corolla's six-speaker audio system left a lot to be desired. It clearly lacked much in the way of power, as the speakers produced hollow-sounding audio. The different frequencies came out all mashed together, making it hard to distinguish individual instruments or get any sort of separation from a singer's voice and the musical background. Unfortunately, there is no upgrade path, at least not from Toyota. This system is as good as it gets in the Corolla.
Corolla or Prius?
Toyota's push for high fuel economy in the 2014 Corolla LE Eco left me wondering, why would someone buy this car when they could get a Prius for about the same price, averaging anywhere from 7 to 15 mpg better depending on the variant? There may be a few people who, despite 15 years on the market, still distrust hybrids. The Corolla's real reason for existing seems to reside in Americans' preference for sedans, as the Prius only comes in hatchback form.
Although I wasn't terribly impressed with the driving dynamics of the new Corolla, I have to give Toyota credit for some nice design tweaks. The exterior incorporates some sharp features that follow the company's design language, and the interior is outright bold.
As part of the $2,360 Convenience package, the navigation head unit brings in some nice features. The navigation itself is a bit lacking and will probably get you lost more than once, but Entune is very compelling. I like the audio sources, voice command, and Bluetooth phone system as well. However, the audio system needs improvement; possibly a subwoofer from the aftermarket might give it a little depth.
|Model||2014 Toyota Corolla|
|Trim||LE Eco Premium|
|Powertrain||1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine, continuously variable transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||30 mpg city/40 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||34.2 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional flash memory-based system with live traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Digital audio sources||Internet-based apps, Bluetooth streaming, iOS integration, USB drive, satellite radio|
|Audio system||6-speaker system|
|Driver aids||Backup camera|
|Price as tested||$23,270|