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January 21, 2014

Corolla gets a makeover

Popular Toyota compact car more efficient, enjoyable for 2014

For decades now, the Toyota Corolla has been the default choice for millions of people who want a dependable little car.

In fact, the Corolla’s long-term reputation for reliability is a big reason people think of Toyota as a quality brand. It’s a foundational car for Toyota, one that sells in huge volume in the United States and around the world, which sets the tone for the entire global company.

And that’s what makes this car, the all-new 2014 Corolla, incredibly important.

This year marks the start of a new generation of Corolla, and this fresh version feels dramatically different from the old one when you get behind the steering wheel.

For one thing, it addresses the outgoing Corolla’s only two weaknesses in my mind — fuel economy and driving enjoyment — while also getting a fresh look inside and out.

The fuel economy issue may come as a surprise to many buyers who think of the Corolla as an efficient, economical car, but it had actually fallen behind its competitors by the end of the previous generation’s lifespan. Last year’s Corolla was rated for 34 mpg on the highway, which was unimpressive when many of its competitors could brag about ratings of 40+ mpg.

That changes with this next-generation design. The new Corolla is available in a special Eco version that is rated for 42 mpg on the highway, and even the non-Eco Corolla gets a 38 highway/29 city rating — a nice jump over the outgoing model.

For me, though, the bigger news is that Toyota has actually managed to fix one of my longstanding, picky complaints about the Corolla: its dull driving feel.

My test car — an S model that comes with a firmer, sportier suspension than the base version — is more fun to drive than I can ever remember a Corolla being. Its suspension has an almost Honda-like tautness, providing the kind of precise, dynamic feedback to the driver that make small cars enjoyable on winding roads.

And if you prefer the previous Corolla’s soft, compliant ride, the ordinary suspension is still tuned for comfort and smoothness. Basically, you can choose whether you want your Corolla softly or firmly sprung.

Another thing I like about the new design is that Toyota’s engineers paid close attention to tuning their new continuously variable transmission (CVT).

CVTs are good for improving gas mileage on small cars like the Corolla, so they’re getting more popular these days. They come with a downside, though: an often-criticized “rubber band” driving feel that can drain any sense of fun from the driving experience.

The Corolla’s CVT is better than most because the designers built it to emulate shift points like traditional transmissions. It offers a better sense of acceleration and control as a result.

An all-new cabin and prettier sheetmetal make the Corolla more attractive than before. I love the material choices and overall design, with refined surfaces and careful use of accent colors in the cabin, but I miss the solid, heavy, carved-from-granite feeling in the old Corolla. The new version is considerably lighter to save on gas, and you can feel it.

Overall, though, the new Corolla is a great match for today’s drivers. The new S model’s serious sportiness is a pleasant surprise, and the improved fuel economy is a good fit for the times.

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