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With a longer wheelbase, shorter overhangs and the new front end, the new Corolla looks more aggressive. (Toyota)
With a longer wheelbase, shorter overhangs and the new front end, the new Corolla looks more aggressive. (Toyota)

First Drive: 2014 Toyota Corolla

Want a new beige Corolla? Too bad Add to ...

Although the 10th-generation Corolla sells in numbers that are the envy of most competitors – holding down third place in the largest and most competitive category in the Canadian automotive market – Toyota is aiming for the top with the new 2014 Corolla.

With the introduction of the 11th generation model this month, Toyota goes from having the oldest car in the category to the newest.

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As further proof of its intent to claw its way to first place in the compact class where the Hyundai Elantra and Honda Civic rule, the new Corolla comes in a dizzying array of models and trim levels covering a spread from $16,000-$25,000.

The Corolla plays a huge role at Toyota, where it has been its best-selling vehicle for 18 straight years, accounting for 25 per cent of all Toyota sales annually. Canadians have bought more than 1.3 million Corollas since 1967 and the factory in Cambridge, Ont., is running at capacity to keep up with demand.

The Corolla competes in the compact segment, which accounts for 50 per cent of all passenger vehicles sold in the country. It has maintained that spot despite its age, thanks to what is known in the industry as QDR – Quality, Durability and Reliability. The emergence of an entirely new Corolla is thus laced with pressure, on the company and the people responsible for its development.

That team is headed by Shinici Yatsui, a 25-year Toyota veteran who has used his masters degree in mechanical engineering in various roles at the company, including planning the 10th- and 11th-generation models. As chief engineer of the new Corolla, he admits to a degree of pressure. “This car has been an important part of my life. My ‘child’ is ready to go out into the world,” he said in Quebec City during the introduction of the 2014 Corolla.

The previous evening, over dinner, he spoke of the unique engineering challenges in meeting the needs of so many different markets. “I have travelled the world talking to owners of the current Corolla and driving the competition,” he said.

The 2014 Corolla we will get here has a new emphasis on styling and will not be available in beige – in response to criticism of the current car’s lack of personality.

With a longer wheelbase, shorter overhangs and the new front end, it looks decidedly more aggressive. It comes in CE ($15,995), LE (19,500), S ($19,215) and LE Eco ($20,250) trim levels, each available with upgrade, premium and technology packages. All are front-wheel-drive and have a 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine – but the LE Eco model gets an uprated version, with a new variable intake valve system and eight additional horsepower.

The CE and S come with a six-speed manual transmission. Believe it or not in this day and age, the optional automatic in the CE is an antediluvian four-speed! The supplier must have made a heck of an offer. The others have a new CVT (continuously variable transmission) automatic.

Each trim level has a unique front end and wheels. In addition to more style, the new Corolla will have more content, including segment-first LED headlights, power windows and locks, Bluetooth and iPod connectivity, tilt and telescope steering wheel and heated power mirrors, on all models. The new headlights use less power, are brighter and last longer.

The new Corolla is 99 mm longer, 15 mm wider and 10 mm lower. The wheelbase is up 100 mm, helping to explain the new interior space, which Toyota claims is “class-leading.” There is more rear-seat knee room, upgraded – and comfortable – seats and highest-quality materials throughout, including plenty of soft-touch surfaces and contrasting trim, including piano black on the higher levels. The CE, LE and LE Eco get a trio of gauges with chrome rings while the S gets two gauges and a 3.5-inch monitor.

The first impression behind the wheel is that the 2014 Corolla has grown up. I drove the current model, which has been on the market since 2008, for a week last month and, despite the obvious quality, it felt old and outdated. The replacement shows more poise over rough surfaces without being too sloppy. The interior is quieter and the CVT is the best of the breed so far, coming close to behaving like a normal automatic.

With more grace, space and value, the 2014 Corolla is likely to fulfill the high expectations management has for it.

Tech specs

2014 Toyota Corolla

Type: Compact sedan

Price range: $15,995-$24,100

Engine: 1.8-litre four-cylinder (two versions)

Horsepower/torque: 132 hp/126 lb-ft; 140 hp/128 lb-ft

Transmission: Four-speed automatic/six-speed manual/CVT

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 7.1 city/5.2 highway (manual); 6.5 city/4.6 highway (CVT); regular gas

Alternatives: Chevrolet Cruze, Dodge Dart, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, Nissan Sentra, Volkswagen Golf

globedrive@globeandmail.com

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