When we first saw photos of the 11th-generation Toyota Corolla, it got us thinking about the AE86. To drifters and import hot-rodders, the twin-cam, rear-drive AE86 Corollas of the 1980s are venerated icons. Given the aggressive (for Toyota) styling of the new Corolla we felt a twinge of hope because when the Corolla went front-drive in the late 1980s, it also went to sleep. There’s nothing wrong with a good afternoon nap, of course, and the 39-plus-million Corollas sold thus far have provided countless reliable miles to their owners. But few have been fun.
Three trim levels (L, LE, and S) carry over from last year’s model, and Toyota adds a new high-mileage variant, dubbed LE Eco. There’s no denying the new Corolla is a visual step up from the current version that blends into the background so quickly as to be darn near invisible. With design cues shared with the recent Furia concept, the face has more character, aided by sculpted LED headlamps that are now standard on all Corollas. There are token fender flares and the rear design seems rather upmarket for the compact segment, if a bit generic. Wind-tunnel work yielded a flatter underbody, the S and LE Eco getting closeout panels underneath for better aero-efficiency.
The Old Smooth and Stretch
In the process of crafting the new Corolla’s sheetmetal, Toyota stretched it as well. Although width and height remain within an inch of the last-gen model’s, both the wheelbase and overall length are up by 3.9 inches, and that’s a big plus for rear-seat space. Toyota shifted the rear seat hip point back nearly three inches. Slimming the front seatbacks added more legroom for those in the second row, while Toyota claims denser pads and foam inserts in the rear seats add comfort. The rear seatbacks fold and are split 60/40.
The longer, sleeker shape looks best, of course, on the S version with its 17-inch aluminum wheels that give the car a proper stance, not the running-on-tiptoes demeanor of the base model with 15-inch steel wheels and hubcaps.
There is no stripper model per se, with even the base trim offering standard air conditioning, power windows, power door locks, eight airbags and today’s requisite Bluetooth connectivity. Just as expected are the options, from an info/nav screen to heated seats to various sound systems and SofTex faux leather on the seats.
Where the current Corolla has an instrument pod and vertical center stack for controls, the redesign creates a more horizontal form. There are two gauge packages: the S models have two dials flanking a digital 3.5-inch readout panel, while the other models get three gauges, with the central speedometer featuring a small readout. The new horizontal one-knob-and-five-button control panel for the climate-control system doesn’t look as handy as the old three-knob layout, but it thankfully avoids the multiple menus of more elaborate setups in pricier cars. The center stack is decked out with high-gloss piano-black surfaces, which look quite nice when just cleaned, but not so long after. Toyota apparently spent considerable time quieting the new-gen Corolla’s interior. Noise-attenuation measures include an acoustic glass windscreen, a seal between the cowl and windscreen, better floor-carpet insulation, fender sound insulators, and a silencer pad on the inner dash.
For all the newness in the 2014 Corolla, there are holdovers, like the 2ZR-FE twin-cam four cylinder, still checking in with 1798 cc of displacement, 132 horsepower, and 128 lb-ft of torque. A familiar workhorse of an engine, it is used in the Corolla L, LE, and S models—and many other Toyotas. The LE Eco gets the next-generation of that powerplant, the 2ZR-FAE, also displacing 1798 cc, but with a higher, 10.6:1 compression ratio and Valvematic instead of the FE’s more basic variable valve timing. The difference is the new valve system’s ability to vary intake-valve timing over a wider range than VVT. With it comes about a five percent improvement in fuel economy and eight more horsepower, but two fewer lb-ft of torque, says Toyota.
Taking the CVT Plunge
Go for the base Corolla L and you can choose between a four-speed automatic transmission—no, it hasn’t been taken out back and put down yet—or a six-speed manual, the latter box up a cog from 2013. Cheers for the S model, which can also be ordered with the manual, but do we hear groans over the adaptation of a CVT for the S, LE, and LE Eco? So did Toyota, apparently, which claims to have gone to great pains to, “help create a driving sensation more similar to a traditional hydraulic automatic transmission.” The official name is CVTi-S, the i for intelligent, S for Shift, and it’s the latter we’re curious to test. Several automakers are “stepping” their CVTs to mimic the feeling of a traditional automatic and minimize the annoying motorboating as the engine moans like a constipated toddler. Toyota has programmed seven “gears” into the CVT’s operation. The dual-pulley CVT also has an Eco mode, but only in the appropriately named LE Eco model. In Eco mode, the accelerator is lazier through the first 50 percent of its travel, and A/C compressor use is dialed back. A likewise aptly designated Sport mode in the S model gives the driver manual control of the seven “gears” via steering-wheel-mounted shift paddles. This mode also reduces boost for the electric power steering to make it feel more sporty.
Using more high-strength steel and added bracing, Toyota claims to have made the Corolla’s body stiffer and yet kept the curb weight of all versions under 2900 pounds, a small increase from the 2013 base model’s claimed 2734 pounds considering the car’s big, almost-four-inch stretch. There’s a MacPherson strut suspension up front and a torsion beam at the back with the S version getting firmer springs, shocks, and bushings if you order it with the 17-inch wheels.
No word on pricing yet, but the current range is $17,025–$21,345 nationally. The only fuel-mileage hint was an expected 40 mpg highway for the LE Eco, but with the aero work and introduction of the CVT we suspect the final numbers for all models will top today’s 27 mpg city/34 mpg highway. Will the new Corolla’s performance match its more aggressive style? We know it won’t be an AE86 successor—that’d be the10Best-winning Scion FR-S—and suspect very few Corolla intenders could care less, but hope springs eternal, doesn’t it?