SANTA MONICA, CA – Toyota hopes to return to, or even surpass, the high volumes it has enjoyed with the Corolla in the U.S. in the past, as it unveils the 11th-generation model for the first time tonight in Los Angeles.

The top-selling Toyota model in the world, and the second-best-seller for the auto maker in the U.S. behind the Camry midsize sedan, has underperformed rival Honda's Civic model in recent years, WardsAuto data shows.

The Civic has been the No.1 compact in the U.S. for seven of the past 10 years, if Toyota Matrix sales are excluded from the Corolla’s tally. Toyota combines those two cars in its monthly sales reports, but the Matrix will be discontinued at the end of the ’13 model year.

Even without the Matrix, the auto maker believes it can blow past Corolla's U.S. sales record of 335,119 units (not including 52,269 Matrix models) set in 2006, says Bill Fay, group vice president-Toyota Div. for Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A.

The new '14 model combines more progressive exterior styling, improved interior materials and what the auto maker says is better ride and handling with near-segment-leading fuel economy.

Speaking to WardsAuto here, Fay says the auto maker expects to surpass 300,000 sales next year, possibly hitting 350,000. A volume of 290,000 is predicted for 2013, as most sales this year will be of the current-generation car.

Unlike the current-generation Corolla, which underwent a mild makeover from ninth to 10th generation in 2007, the new model is totally restyled.

“In developing this new 11th-generation Corolla, Toyota designers and engineers relied on exhaustive consumer feedback to help shape key elements of the product on a global scale,” the auto maker says in a statement. “Customers emphasized the overwhelming importance of vehicle design on product perception in the marketplace.”

The new Corolla carries over the “Iconic Dynamism” theme that debuted on the Furia concept compact unveiled at January's North American International Auto Show in Detroit, cues of which include a “chiseled, more expressive exterior.”

Like many models going for a sportier look, the Corolla's wheels have been pushed closer to the corners for ’14.

Although the car is nearly 4 ins. (10 cm) longer than the outgoing generation, front and rear tapering help give it a shorter appearance.

Corolla headlights now are light-emitting-diodes, enabling the deeply rounded corners designers sought. The auto maker says the Corolla is first-in-class to offer standard LEDs.

Changes to the car's profile include door handles integrated with the car's character line and a longer, sloping C-pillar.

The new Corolla's taillights are sharply sculpted in keeping with the rounded-corner look, and there is a subtle rear spoiler.

Inside, the '14 Corolla employs glossy piano-black trim with metallic accents to “convey an upscale yet sportier image.” Blue, amber or black pinstripes accent the interior, depending on the overall color scheme. The Corolla is available with either a cloth seat fabric or SofTex faux leather.

Stitching is standard on the dash pad and optional around the shifter.

An almost 4-in. increase in wheelbase improves passenger room. Slimmed-down front seatbacks further boost rear-seat legroom.

Rear seats boast denser urethane foam for improved comfort, Toyota says. A flatter rear floor, achieved by rerouting exhaust pipes, adds to comfort for passengers in the rear middle seat.

Front-seat cushions are longer and front-seat travel range is increased 0.6 ins. (1.5 cm).

An inner-dash silencer pad, fender sound insulator and acoustic windshield glass reduce cabin noise, Toyota says.

The Corolla is powered by the same 1.8L 4-cyl. engine as the current generation, but a variety of measures has improved performance and fuel economy, the auto maker says.

New for '14, and mimicking compact cars offered by Ford and Chevrolet, is an Eco grade that is available with the LE model.

Underbody covers, low-rolling resistance tires and Valvematic technology are included in the package that should result in fuel economy of more than 40 mpg (5.9 L/100 km) highway, Toyota says.

Valvematic is a first for a Toyota in North America, allowing continuously variable valve timing to operate over a broader range on the intake side. It is expected to increase fuel economy 5% and boost output to 140 hp from 132 hp in non-Eco L, LE and S models.

The S grade also gets underbody covers that stretch from engine to fuel tank to improve air flow. Overall, the entire Corolla lineup is more aerodynamic than before, with a 0.28 coefficient of drag, near the top of the class, Toyota says.

Except for the base L grade, which retains the current-generation's 4-speed automatic, the Corolla's automatic transmission now is a continuously variable type.

To mimic the gear changes associated with traditional step-gear transmissions, Toyota engineers have built in seven faux speeds, felt even with the CVT in Drive mode. Nissan CVTs also have shift points, but they are felt only when the transmission is controlled manually.

On the '14 Corolla S grade, shift changes can be forced via steering-wheel-mounted paddles or the shift lever.

Toyota promises a more “linear connection” between acceleration and pedal effort compared with existing CVTs from other manufacturers, which tend to feel wound-up.

While CVT hydraulic pumps typically are driven at the same rate as engine speed, harming transmission efficiency, Toyota engineers installed an oil pump with a coaxial 2-port design, reducing pump-drive torque up to 25% compared with other designs and cutting engine parasitic losses.

Toyota says it was able to improve CVT fuel efficiency by maximizing the difference in pulley sizes, without increasing the overall size of the transmission.

The Corolla CVT boasts both Eco and Sport modes. In the Eco setting, pedal response is managed for smoother acceleration from a standing start. Above 50% throttle, the accelerator pedal communication is the same as in Normal mode, Toyota notes.

On the Corolla S grade, Sport mode alters shift points to match the car's performance-minded character. Drivers can control the "gear changes" via paddles or the shifter, but the transmission will take over if engine speed becomes too high.

A 6-speed manual transmission is available on the L and S grades, Toyota says.

Application of high-strength steel is increased, making for a more rigid but lighter body. No grade of the new Corolla has a curb weight of more than 2,900 lbs. (1,315 kg), Toyota says.

A MacPherson-strut front suspension has been retained, but now has a more rigid control-arm design. The rear suspension remains a torsion-beam-type. But diagonal attachment points, rather than the straight attachment points on the current model, improve rear handling, grip and stability, the auto maker says.

Toyota promises a more natural weight with the car's new electric power steering, and a more direct feel thanks to an intermediate shaft with greater structural rigidity.

The '14 Corolla gets Toyota's Star Safety suite of technologies standard, including stability control and antilock braking.

Pricing will be announced closer to launch, but standard features include a 60/40 split fold-down rear seat, color-keyed exterior mirrors and door handles, eight airbags, Bluetooth and power windows.

The '14 Corolla goes on sale in September in the U.S.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com