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Our review of the 2014 Corolla highlights three improvements buyers will love

Details of the changes to the new 2014 Corolla. There are really three big changes that buyers will like most.

Toyota launched the new 2014 Corolla for the media on the campus of the University of Minnesota. An informal study revealed that 40 percent of U.M. coeds wear gladiator sandals now, and about 40 percent wear sneakers. About 40 percent of Corollas will ship with fantastic looking new alloy rims painted two-tone black and silver. About 40 percent will have steel wheels. That ratio cannot be a coincidence.

The 2014 Corolla will appeal to a new, wider buying group as it moves ahead in its 45th year, and 11th generation. Its class is no longer entry level. There are now arguably two classes of cars under it, those being compact cars like the high quality and very practical Honda Fit, and entry level high-style image cars like Hyundai Veloster. The job of battling those type of cars is that of Toyota’s Scion division. And Scion is losing the battle big time. Were it not for Corolla, Toyota would be going backwards in terms of future market share. After spending time with the Corolla we now understand why so many diverse types of people like it enough to buy it.

Toyota is pretty sure it has a good grasp on who has been buying Corollas, knows who it wants to buy Corollas, and knows exactly how to get them to do so. An over-simplified explanation of how to do this is to tailor the Corolla line so that it is classy and stylish enough to draw in a lot of the gladiator sandal chicks and still be seen as a quality, durable, and reliable car that the sneaker gals will feel comfortable in. Toyota has done that. In reality there are not two groups to market to. More like 20, and Toyota is all over it.

Toyota knows it is (and has long been) the number-one brand, and that Corolla is the number-one car, in its class in the largest ethnic demographic groups. During the launch, the Corolla team showed the journalists advertisements for the Corolla targeted at those markets. This is always uncomfortable. In the past, car company adverts that took aim at a certain race, age, or whatever seemed odd and poorly done. Particularly to those they were not aimed at. This was different. The Corolla advert targeting Hispanic buyers was similar in many ways to the Fiat Abarth advertisements with the hot girl speaking to a guy in Italian who doesn’t understand her words, but gets the meaning. The advert was great. Toyota would be crazy not to run it widely.

The 2014 Toyota Corolla line also has a price point for a wide variety of buyers as we detailed in our prior story. Starting at the top, the Corolla S with the Premium package will sell at just over $20K. Breaking that barrier means going after a buyer that is looking for content, not just a low price, and the car delivers. Bluetooth in every trim, back-up camera, great stereo, power heated seats, LED headlights, keyless entry, available Nav with the cool Apps you want, two-tone interiors with piano gloss finish, paddle shifters - stuff that when you heard about it 5 or 10 years ago in the Mercedes or Cadillac you thought sounded great. That stuff is great, and you can have it all now in a Corolla for about the same cost as your cable bill.

At the other end is a Corolla so bare bones the lease price will be staggeringly low. Lower than many buyers’ cell phone contracts. For those that want a “big” comfortable car with bullet-proof reliability who don’t want to spend a penny more than necessary, the L model Corolla will fit nicely. Hopefully, the dealer staff will do its job and the customer will see the value in the LE version and opt to part with just a smidge more money, because it adds a heck of a lot to the car, and it will all be coming back when the car is traded or resold later.

For the environmental shopper, and also the super-frugal shopper, there is a 2014 Corolla LE Eco that gets 42 MPG highway as tested by the EPA. Not a typo. We know that EPA makes estimates based on manufacturer’s actual tests. However, sometimes the EPA does opt to test the car themselves. They did test the Corolla. 42 MPG in this car is already the highest highway mileage of a gasoline, non-hybrid family car in America. It will also likely be the best fuel economy value of all liquid fuel cars, gas or diesel, when fuel cost is included in the definition of fuel “economy.” The new Corolla is equal to, or ahead of the Civic now across the model line in terms of fuel economy. There are actually two version of the Corolla Eco and both are almost 10% better in fuel economy than Civic. Can you say “Who moved my cheese?” For all its talk of “SkyActiv” fuel saving technology, both versions of the Corolla LE Eco beat every version of the all-new 2014 Mazda 3 in fuel economy as well. Toyota expects to sell about 10%, or 30,000, of its annual Corollas as LE Eco models.

Interestingly, Toyota also knows that 60 percent of Corolla sales are “conquest sales.” That means they came from another brand. Think of that and put it in perspective. Toyota knows that it cannot simply appeal to previous buyers of Corollas or it will start to lose ground. It needs to pull back the existing Toyota customers who expect to have the Corolla feel familiar to them, and it also needs to draw in more customers who in the past chose something else besides a Toyota. Having compared the 2013 Corolla S and the full 2014 line this week back to back it seems like the effort will succeed. Here is what we discovered after driving all the Corollas on two occasions and in all settings.

2014 Corolla Improvement 1 – Size Matters
The outgoing Corolla was not a small car in its class. Indeed, it was at least in the middle of its class. Now a midsize car, the Corolla is simply big. Toyota stretched the wheelbase 3.9 inches, which results in 5 more inches of legroom compared to the outgoing model. I’m 6 feet. After adjusting the front seat to my liking and then getting in back I had much more room than I needed and at least 3 inches between my knees and the front seat. I could cross my legs back there. Compared to the outgoing 2013 model parked next to the new 2014, the car is much easier to get in and out of in back as well. Your mom or dad will not need help getting in or out due to the size. I had to sort of bend and twist to get into the back of the 2013.

Up front the tilt and telescoping wheel in every 2014 Corolla makes it easy to get comfortable. Many Corollas will be bought with power driver’s seats. In those I was extremely cozy. The seating was perfect for a sedan. It is as good as any car in the market, at any price. What tall drivers will love most is that the dash is not in the way of your right knee. Sports cars put padding there. In the Corolla, much like in the RAV 4, the dash is up and out of the way and the center stack does not intrude on your needed leg space. This car is roomier than the Lexus IS 350 sedan. The left leg is also not crowded. Due to the dash being elevated and pushed back from the passengers the feeling of space is quite impressive. This is a big car inside. For less than $20K it is maybe the best sized car in the market.

Corolla Interior2014 Corolla Improvement 2 – Fuel Economy
The 2013 and older Corollas were not exactly fuel misers. The 2014 Corolla leads the segment now. However, there are options in the drivetrain that matter. Let’s first dispatch the base “L” model. That is a bare-bones car with the outgoing car’s 4 speed automatic. That is just so 1990. And it gets middling fuel economy by our current standards. However, only about 5 to 10% of all Corollas in 2014 will be L models and many will be sold to fleets like car rental companies. The L can also come with a 6 speed stick shift. If you care dying to buy a bare bones economy car with a stick shift – celebrate!

Next are the LE and S models. They are competitive in terms of fuel economy. Depending upon the setup they get 31 or 32 MPG combined. The new constantly variable transmission called CVTi-S, which we went into detail on recently, works well and delivers an improvement of 2.85 MPG according to Toyota. Comparing it to the 4 speed on we can see the evidence of that. All these cars are powered by the 1.8 liter four-cylinder engine from Toyota with 132 horsepower. We realize that sounds a bit low to those used to reading about sports cars and more expensive sedans, but it does the job. Around town and merging onto the highway the engine is fine. If fast is your first priority Toyota/Lexus/Scion have so many to offer you it boggles the mind, even at this price point.

The real star of the show in the 2014 Corolla line is the LE Eco. This car can achieve up to 42 MPG highway when configured with its stock wheels and tires. Combined fuel economy of 35 MPG beats even the diesel braggarts in the class. This level of combined MPG was the target for may hybrids just one generation ago. Of course the car uses regular unleaded, so the fuel economy is stellar. Our calculation is about 8 cents per mile. You will not beat that without paying for an electric drive to either augment your gas motor or replace it.

Interestingly, the LE Eco also has more horsepower. That is because Toyota is putting its fantastic Valvematic system in the LE Eco version of the Corolla – and only that one. All other models go without. The result is 140 horsepower. Oddly, you seem to actually feel it. Maybe it is mental. Regardless, count this as maybe the first ever car in which its most powerful engine is also its most frugal. Look for the special Valvematic system to trickle down as the model years tick past. Toyota makes no secret of the fact it cannot build the system fast enough, and that is why it is somewhat limited.

One word of caution. If you opt for the great-looking two-tone black and silver alloy rims your mileage will drop by 1 MPG combined to 34, and the highway mileage is going down to 40 MPG. That is because the color black absorbs energy and thus creates drag on the car. Kidding. It is because bigger, heavier wheels are harder to start and stop. We have never – ever, seen any car that had two MPG ratings due to wheels. It was always there, but the EPA looked away. Guess what? They are not looking away anymore. We say “bring it” because the standard wheels feel better on the car and if Toyota decides to it can make them look good. For now they are the sneakers and the alloys are the Roman strappy shoes.

2014 Corolla Change Number 3 – Style
Over at the car magazines the boy-racers are typing that the new 2014 Corolla style is boring. They haven’t looked at the car as a buyer would, and they only care about BMW M4s and Corvettes. Ignore that blather. The new 2014 Corolla is classy. Inside, its piano-black dash trim is sa-weet. The new Cadillacs have this and it looks damn fine. The available two-tone Softex (faux leather) trimmed seats are an effort to catch the Chevy Cruze. It doesn’t catch up all the way, but it is a huge improvement over past Corollas. Buyers will love it.

Outside, the black on silver alloys rock. We need to step back and remember that these can be had on a car with a sticker of about $20K. Not $35K. S models have a piano black front section on the bumper that really improves the look. Put all the style elements together and the Corolla S can be a car that a person on a date would be proud to be driving. Add in the power seats and Nav. and this is a great on-the-road business person’s car. Loaded, or bone stock, the Corolla is a great value.

Corolla Exterior

Toyota also removed the plastic lower side body cladding. That look worked for about a year or two about a decade ago, but it got old fast. The new cars all have classy sheet metal without the bolt-on sporty appliances.

The media has poked a bit of fun at Toyota for its most widely seen TV commercial in which Corolla dances through the ages appealing to everyone along the way. One scathing review of that commercial explained in detail why the advert was so far off base, calling it a lesson in how not to sell cars. Time will tell, but the reviewer in his column makes no mention that the advert is just a small part of the Corolla campaign. In fact, the main push isn’t even on TV, but rather on the internet, via social media in a wide range of ways, and also in much more targeted promotions. Whether that one TV commercial is a good one or bad one matters so little overall it seems that the reviewer missed the point.

Reviewers looking to pick nits will always find them. However, viewed in the context of its sub- $20K sell price the new Corolla is an awful lot of car for the dollar. It even comes with two years of free maintenance. If there is a better value in the family market today we can’t think of it. The 2014 Corolla is a car that will appeal so strongly to about 300,000 families in the coming year that they will buy one. Civic aside, most of the Corolla’s competitors have one less zero in their sales projections.

There is no harder marketing task at Toyota than keeping the Corolla number one in the eyes of so broad an audience. Early sales figures are now in, and the effort seems to have succeeded.

Photo of mural by John Goreham. Artwork by Antonio "Shades" Agee