SAN DIEGO – At first blush, it seemed Toyota had stumbled with the 10th-generation Corolla in 2007, whose bland looks, poor handling and vague steering placed it behind its top rival, the Honda Civic, and led WardsAuto to dub the '08 Corolla a dud.

Yet, mainly thanks to the compact sedan's reputation for reliability, Americans purchased the 10th-gen model in droves. Sales raced from a low of 232,159 units in 2008 to 301,440 in 2011.

Toyota knows it can’t afford to stumble with the 11th-generation Corolla, officially on sale next week, as younger drivers, key buyers of compact vehicles in the U.S., are facing more and exciting choices than they did six years ago. They include the Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, Dodge Dart and Mazda3.

Toyota mostly answers the competition with the ’14 Corolla. While there is a carryover engine for the volume grades, the next-gen model does sport a snazzier exterior and a much-improved interior, plus some cool new features.

The L, LE and S grades still use the 132-hp 1.8L 4-cyl. from the outgoing model, although in LE and S grades the engine is mated to a new continuously variable transmission that replaces the L’s 4-speed automatic.

The CVT is impressive. Toyota engineers set a ratio range of 2.480 to 0.396 for cruising efficiency with a 4.761 final drive ratio to match engine speed. Because of this calibration, there is no typical wind-up and groaning found in many 4-cyl.-CVT combos used today.

The Corolla's cabin is impressively quiet during low- and mid-speed cruising. The low-revving engine doesn't get raucous until the tachometer hits 2,500-3,000 rpm, and even then it's not obnoxious.

The much-written-about seven fake gears in the Corolla's CVT, which Toyota added to mimic a step-gear automatic, are undetectable in our test drives here.

For the new LE Eco grade, Toyota installs for the first time in North America its Valvematic technology, which allows continuously variable valve timing to operate over a broader range on the intake side. It improves fuel economy to 42 mpg (5.6 L/100 km) but has the side effect of boosting horsepower to 140 hp.

We quickly pass an average of 30 mpg (7.8 L/100 km) in a brief jaunt in the LE Eco grade, although long traffic lights bring the final fuel economy down to a still-respectable 28.6 mpg (8.2 L/100 km) at an average speed of 16 mph (26 km/h).

The S-grade Corolla with the CVT provides the best result, hitting 36.7 mpg (6.4 L/100 km) at an average speed of 35 mph (56 km/h). The S with a 6-speed manual, also available on the base L, returned 30.8 mpg (7.7 km/h) at slightly lower speeds along the same route through Coronado Island.

The 6-speed manual is user-friendly, but in S models needs a stiffer clutch pedal and shorter shifter throws for a truly sporty experience. A higher-horsepower engine, such as the Focus ST's 2.0L turbo-4-cyl., would give the S some sport cred. At the same time, Toyota must be mindful to not step on Scion's toes.

The bread-and-butter LE model with CVT clocked a respectable 33.4 mpg (7.0 L/100 km) on a long route from suburban Chula Vista, CA, to downtown San Diego.

All grades of the '14 Corollas provided linear braking in our tests. All have 10.8-in. (27-cm) front ventilated discs, and all but the S with Plus and Premium packages use 9-in. (23-cm) rear drums. The S Plus and Premium receive standard solid disc brakes on models with 17-in. wheels.

The '14 Corolla has more direct, weighted steering than its predecessor, so drivers no longer can steer with their pinkies.

Toyota likes to call the car's exterior design, inspired by the Furia concept, as "chiseled." It does have more creases than before, although they are not entirely original. Still, anything is an improvement over the dowdy demeanor of the '13 model.

The 11th-generation sedan makes the biggest leap over its predecessor on the inside.

Toyota bids adieu to the furry headliner, replacing it with a circular-knit material. Seat fabric has undergone a similar transformation with the use of a woven nylon-like material, which in most Corolla grades is inset with a contrasting fabric that has eye-catching patterns. The fabric in the LE Eco tester here is golden brown mixed with black.

There's minimal soft-touch material, just one piece of trim on the upper dash, but hard-plastic trim on the door closely mimics the texture and matte finish of the single piece.

We would like to see less of the dust-catching piano-black trim on the center stack, but other interior elements, including a strip of colored plastic trim, blue or golden brown in some of the grades tested, are welcome touches.

Center-stack buttons are big and within easy reach of the driver. Radio knobs are on the small side, however, and difficult to grasp.

Seat comfort is bipolar: There's plenty of lower-back support but, as with so many Japanese vehicles, bottom cushions are too short to adequately support taller passengers' thighs.

Backseat legroom is OK, but head space is cramped, to say the least.

One odd interior feature is the placement of the rear-seatback releases next to the center headrest, requiring an extended reach around the outside headrests. Chief engineer Shinichi Yasui says corresponding centered latches lessen the odds the seatbacks will fling forward in the event of a crash.

The '14 Corolla starts at $16,800 for the L grade, $570 more than the '13 model, and tops out at $21,300 for a loaded S, up $3,070. All 11th-gen Corollas get standard light-emitting diode headlights and Bluetooth.

While the new Corolla lacks the design flair of the Elantra, or the European handling of the Focus, it doesn't have to try as hard to win buyers.

The reputation for reliability Toyota has built over the past 45 years with its compact sedan in the U.S. means the Corolla sells itself. The key will be keeping the car fresh as the competition continues to challenge.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com

 

 

'14 Toyota Corolla LE
Vehicle 5-passenger, 4-door FWD compact sedan
Engine 1.8L DOHC 4-cyl.; aluminum block/head
Power (SAE net) 132 hp @ 6,000 rpm
Torque 128 lb.-ft. (174 Nm) @ 4,400 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 81 X 88
Compression ratio 10.0:1
Transmission Continuously variable
Wheelbase 106.3 ins. (270 cm)
Overall length 182.6 ins. (464 cm)
Overall width 69.9 ins. (178 cm)
Overall height 57.3 ins. (146 cm)
Curb weight 2,855 lbs. (1,295 kg)
Base price $16,800 (LE $18,300, not incl. $810 destination fee)
Fuel economy 29/38 mpg city/hwy est. (8.1-6.2 L/100 km)
Competition Honda Civic, Chevy Cruze, Ford Focus, Dodge Dart, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, Mazda3, Volkswagen Jetta, Subaru Forester
Pros Cons
Fresh new look Not entirely original
Peak 140 hp Only in LE Eco grade
Much-improved interior Piano black overdone