– Acceleration and economy
– Cabin space and ambience
– Ride and handling
– Outdated gearbox and tech
– Steering too light
– Could be quieter
The amount of sales and goodwill that the Toyota Corolla has garnered over the past four decades is astounding, to say the least. But the best-selling car in the world is having to battle it out with the likes of all sorts of upstart rivals nowadays, taking the game to a whole new level in terms of features and driveability. Has the all-new 2014 Corolla evolved enough to take them on?
Stylistically, it’s off to a good start. The lines are clearly edgier than before, although overall it still comes off as aggressive detailing on a predefined conservative profile. The huge wheel-well gaps don’t do it any favours, but we don’t mind the looks at all.
You’ll either love or hate the airy interior, but it’s not a bad effort at being unique. The upright dash has a huge chunk of hard plastic running across it, but it’s a pleasant beige texture that continues onto the doors. Thankfully, there’s black soft-touch surfaces on the dash-top and door sills, even the rear ones, as well as padded armrests, so the dual-tone ambience is pretty nice actually. Even in the top model, the upholstery is fabric.
Some may think the new Taiwan-built Corolla is just a facelift, but it’s actually undergone a substantial stretch in its wheelbase, and it shows in the cabin space. With moderately-bolstered front seats and a rear bench setup, legroom and headroom are darn good, even in the back, almost negating the need to upgrade to a midsizer. Even the boot is big, with good space despite the goose-neck hinges and a full-size spare wheel under the floor. There are abundant cubbies, pockets, cup-holders and bottle-holders. And the rear seats split-fold to open up to the boot, although the seat-belts weirdly stay in the place, stretching across the opening.
Tech features are kept simple. Our top-spec Limited tester had an average CD/MP3 stereo with USB/AUX ports but no Bluetooth, a good single-zone auto a/c but no rear vents, smart keyless entry with a sensor on only the driver’s door, two front airbags but not side ones, mirror-mounted indicators but no parking sensors, and about ten blank spaces where buttons are supposed to be for features that are not offered here. We did appreciate the blue gauge lighting, starter button, sunroof, foglamps, cruise control, electric mirrors, power windows and what looks like auto-levelling HIDs in those LED-garnished headlights.
Aside from a 121 hp 1.6-litre base motor, there’s the 2.0-litre option that also powers our Limited. The latter makes 143 hp at 6200 rpm and 187 Nm of torque at a respectable 3600 rpm. Mated to a rudimentary 4-speed automatic driving the front wheels, the specs seem pathetic at first. But the Corolla weighs in at only 1350 kg, and combining a willing transmission with tight gear ratios as well as good low-end torque, acceleration is surprisingly among the best in its class. We got a 0-100 kph time of 9.7 seconds, in cool January weather, mind you. Highway-overtaking manoeuvres get completed quicker than you’d expect, as the revs are always close to the meaty torque band.
But kicking around with a 4-speed has its repercussions, as we garnered a fuel-burning rate of 9.0 litres/100 km, which is still good relative to all its Korean-built rivals, but worse compared to a few such as the Honda Civic, the Ford Focus and the Nissan Sentra. Still, for a car that revs at a high 3000 rpm while cruising at 120 kph, that’s remarkably good.
That also means the cabin as not as quiet as it could’ve been. The engine is always slightly audible when cruising, and the general road/wind noise isolation is average so it isn’t as quiet as the aforementioned Focus and Sentra. The ride quality is pretty good though, as smooth as the other two over most road surfaces.
The real suspension-tuning surprise comes in the handling department. Armed with 205/55 rubbers on 16-inch alloys, it hangs on to corners very well, up to a point of course. Body roll isn’t overly excessive, and grip is more than enough. We pushed it moderately, swinging it lightly as we entered curves, fully expecting to hear tyre squeals that never came. Pushing it harder results in clean understeer, and the tail never steps out of line in emergency lane-changes. Even the brakes are fine, with linear pedal feel and straight stops. It won’t keep up with the fancier Focus, but the Corolla still does pretty good with just torsion-beam suspension in the rear.
If we had a complaint, it’s the electric steering. It’s so light and vague that even simply driving in a straight line requires constant little corrections. It even made uncouth winding noises when turned at idle. Oddly enough, we could still prominently feel the texture of the road through the leatherette-wrapped wheel, so it’s not all bad.
And that’s the ridiculous bit — as car enthusiasts, we actually enjoyed driving the new Corolla, much to our own astonishment. Previous iterations of the Corolla in the past decade have been horrendous handlers, but the tighter suspenders and responsive controls make this car much safer to drive harder, while being practical, comfortable and fuel-efficient at the same time. It’s a car most typical buyers would be happy with. If it came with a more modern transmission, preferably one that didn’t have “CVT” in its name, if it were a bit quieter, and if the tech options list were slightly longer, it would’ve been at the top of our recommended list for compact cars. Almost there, but not quite.
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