Rating: 7.7
Bottom Line:
In the face of stiff competition, Toyota has added a bit of emotion to the Corolla with a more aggressive look. The car also gets more space, greater connectivity and improved mileage, but it doesn't match the sportiest or most refined cars in the compact class.
Pros:
  • Toyota reliability
  • Lots of rear legroom
  • Good fuel economy
Cons:
  • Wants for power
  • Uninspired driving dynamics
  • Budget interior

Two years ago, Toyota was facing increasingly stiff competition for its midsize car, the Camry. The Japanese giant responded with an improved Camry, but nothing that sent the upstarts back to their design departments. Today, Toyota's hot-selling Corolla faces even stiffer competition from a variety of compact rivals. Competitors such as the Ford Focus, Chevrolet Cruze and Hyundai Elantra have set new standards for sportiness, refinement and value in the class. So now it's time for Toyota to respond with a new compact of its own. We drove the 2014 Corolla in San Diego and witnessed history repeating itself. While the new Corolla is certainly better, it's nothing the competition should fear.

Model lineup
The 2014 Toyota Corolla is offered in four trim levels: L, LE, LE Eco and S. The LE, LE Eco and S also have Plus and Premium treatments. Standard equipment on the $16,800 L includes LED headlights and daytime running lights, Bluetooth connectivity, eight airbags (including driver knee airbag and front passenger seat cushion airbag), cloth upholstery, air conditioning, power windows and door locks, USB port, AM/FM/CD audio system, and 15-inch steel wheels with wheel covers.

The $18,300 LE adds remote keyless entry, automatic climate control, cruise control, a rearview camera, Entune audio/infotainment system with 6.1-inch touch screen, and 16-inch steel wheels with wheel covers, while the $18,700 LE Eco gets a more powerful and efficient engine and a rear spoiler.

The sportier $19,000 S comes with stiffer springs, a unique front fascia, a rear spoiler, paddle shifters and a transmission Sport mode, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, TFT instrument panel display, sport bucket seats, fog lamps, and 17-inch wheels.

The LE Plus trim level adds alloy wheels and fog lights, while the LE Premium gets those features plus vinyl seats. The LE Eco Plus and Eco Premium come with the same features as the LE Plus and LE Premium, plus a chrome beltline and an Eco Drive Mode. The S Plus gets 17-inch alloy wheels and rear disc brakes, and the S Premium also adds vinyl seats.

Options are minimal. They include a sunroof and a Driver's Convenience package with Entune Premium Audio that adds a navigation system, an app suite, HD radio and satellite radio.

Under the hood
The base engine in the 2014 Toyota Corolla is a carryover 1.8-liter 4-cylinder that squeezes out 132 horsepower and 128 lb-ft of torque. This dual-overhead-cam engine features variable-valve timing, and it comes in all but one trim. LE Eco buyers get a version that adds Valvematic variable lift for the intake valves, which aids both horsepower and fuel economy. It produces 140 horsepower and 126 lb-ft of torque. The base transmission is a 6-speed manual. The L is also offered with an antiquated 4-speed automatic. A new continuously variable automatic transmission is offered for LE and S variants, and is standard for the LE and LE Eco.

Environmental Protection Agency fuel economy ratings are 28 mpg city/37 mpg highway for Corollas with the manual transmission, 27/36 mpg for the L with the 4-speed automatic, 29/38 mpg for the LE, 29/37 mpg for the S with the CVT, 30/40 mpg for the LE Eco with 16-inch wheels and 30/42 mpg for the LE Eco with the 15-inche wheels.

Inner space
Interior refinement and connectivity have advanced considerably since the Corolla was last redesigned for the 2008 model year. While Toyota has upgraded the Corolla's interior, it's not enough to compete with the best in the class. The dash has a new horizontal layout that creates a sense of space, while keeping the controls close and easy to access. The dash top is made of a soft-touch material that feels substantial, but the door panels are all plastic except for some lightly padded bits where occupants might rest their elbows. The Dodge Dart, Ford Focus and especially the Chevrolet Cruze offer far better interior quality.

The Corolla does compete when it comes to connectivity. Bluetooth and a USB port are standard, and buyers can opt for the Entune infotainment system with a 6.1-inch touch screen. Various levels are offered, but tech-oriented buyers will want the top system, which comes with a navigation system and provides access to apps through owners' smartphones. Seven apps are available, including Bing local search, Facebook Places, Pandora, and Yelp, and HD radio also provides stock quotes, sports scores, fuel prices, and traffic and weather information. Satellite radio is also offered, as is limited text-to-speech capability. Several rivals offer similar systems, and Entune is among the easier systems to operate.

The Corolla is also competitive in terms of comfort and space. The new seats are more supportive, but some might find the upright seating position less than their personal ideal. Still, front-seat passengers have plenty of space. A new longer wheelbase contributes to 5.1 inches of added rear legroom, which is best in the class, but a high rear seating position means rear headroom is tight for anyone over 6 feet. Those rear seats fold down to increase the trunk's competitive 13-cubic-foot trunk.

On the road
The 2014 Toyota Corolla rides a stretched version of the outgoing car's platform. It is 2.5 inches longer and 0.3 inch wider, and the wheelbase is stretched 3.9 inches. Toyota has made precious few changes to effect ride and handling, citing a change to the rear torsion beam suspension's bushings, the addition of tunnel and rear floor braces, and tweaks to the front suspension tuning. The steering is also now electric assist instead of hydraulic.

The result is a car with uninspired dynamics. The steering has a bit too much play, and it offers precious little feel or quickness. The feel is a bit better with the S trim's stiffer springs and larger tires. Handling is rather flaccid, with some notable lean in turns. The car is rather small, so it's easy to maneuver in small spaces, but compared to the fun and sophisticated character of the Ford Focus and Mazda3, the Corolla feels more like an appliance than a driving machine.

Engine performance is about par for the class, which has increasingly moved toward fuel economy rather than power. The 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine will keep up with traffic, but zero-to-60 mph is likely to land in the 10-to-11-second range, which is awfully slow nowadays. The LE Eco offers a bit more power thanks to Valvematic variable lift, but we noticed no difference in performance.

Toyota's transmission strategy is both good and bad. The L's available 4-speed automatic is a relic from a bygone era and it delivers worse fuel economy than the other choices. The 6-speed manual isn't exactly sporty, but it will appeal to those who want to save some money and shift their own gears.

The biggest news is the new continuously variable transmission. This type of transmission offers inherently better fuel economy, but the tradeoff is often a gruff character and an odd feel. Toyota has minimized these issues by giving the transmission seven stepped gear ratios chosen by a Sport mode in the S variant. These ratios, which the driver can control via steering-wheel-mounted paddles, create the stepped, linear feel of a conventional automatic.

Usually, when a driver gets hard on the throttle, a CVT winds the engine up to the highest rpm and keeps it there until the driver lets off. This causes a lot of racket and feels odd to American drivers. The stepped gear ratios are offered only in the S, but we didn't find the CVT to be too annoying in the other trims, either. That must mean that Toyota has given the Corolla enough sound deadener to limit the engine noise at high rpm.

Right for you?
Compact cars have traditionally been econoboxes that served as appliances to get drivers from point A to point B. A revolution in the class has seen several rivals add sportiness and refinement, but the Corolla remains an appliance. It will still likely sell well thanks to sheer momentum and Toyota's reputation for dependability, but there are several more engaging and polished rivals in its class.

(As part of a sponsored press event, the automaker provided MSN with travel and accommodations to facilitate this report.)

Kirk Bell has served as the associate publisher for Consumer Guide Automotive and editor of Scale Auto Enthusiast magazine. A Midwest native, Bell brings 18 years of automotive journalism experience to MSN, and currently contributes to JDPower.com and Kelley Blue Book's kbb.com.