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car review

2014 Toyota Corolla

The 2014 Toyota Corolla Eco is, and I quote, "Canada's most fuel-efficient gas-powered compact." According to Toyota, anyway.

This isn't strictly true. A Honda Civic Hybrid beats it, hands-down, both in town and out. So does the Ford Focus Hybrid. Not to mention the VW Jetta Hybrid. Yes, the Corolla Eco is a non-hybrid car, but all of these vehicles require gasoline to function, right? Now, if Toyota said something like, oh, "the Corolla Eco is an extremely fuel-efficient sedan," or "tops its non-hybrid rivals," that would work, but it is not the most fuel-efficient four-door sedan sold in Canada. You could argue that we're splitting hairs here, but so is Toyota, all things considered.

Still, this is an extremely thrifty car. Hybrid or non-hybrid, these are good numbers. And it's not at the expense of performance. The Corolla Eco actually has more horsepower than its non-eco stablemates – if a titch less torque.

How is this accomplished? According to Toyota, the engine has a new computer-controlled variable valve timing feature that essentially adjusts itself continuously for maximum air flow. Valve lift and duration are controlled more rigorously and the result is optimal fuel to air mix at all times. As well, the Eco engine is mated to a new generation CVT transmission that monitors engine performance more closely. Manufacturers claim that CVTs are lighter, with fewer moving parts, and the result is superior fuel economy. Often, the price paid for this is sloppy performance, but the Corolla Eco has one of the more responsive CVT drivetrains I've experienced recently.

Low-rolling resistance tires are also part of the fuel economy package. In a nutshell, these feature a less aggressive tread pattern and a rubber compound that generates less friction than conventional tires. Over the long haul, this can result in up to 15 per cent better fuel economy and low rolling resistance tires have been utilized on hybrid cars and elsewhere for years. On the other hand, maintaining correct air pressure is crucial and this breed of tire is lousy in snow and on ice. My tester had full-zoot winter tires on all four corners and this definitely affects fuel economy.

Power for the Corolla Eco is supplied by a 1.8-litre four cylinder. By way of comparison, the Honda Civic also has a 1.8-litre engine and, in this configuration, horsepower and torque outputs are virtually identical. With fuel consumption figures of 7.1 litres/100 km and 5.0, the Civic is thirstier, but if I had to choose between these two engines, I couldn't – under two-litre four cylinders simply don't come any better.

Behind the wheel, the Corolla Eco feels like a larger car – something Honda has managed to instill in its Civic for years. It also handles better than its predecessors and features a firmer ride and a nicer sense of balance than before. Better than the Civic? Too close to call. Road noise, meanwhile, is more subdued than it used to be – winter tires notwithstanding – and a smidgeon better than that of the Civic. Ditto with trunk room; the Civic boasts 353 litres, while the Corolla is slightly bigger. I felt less confined in the Corolla than the Civic – better headroom, but, again, if I had to choose, I couldn't.

No problem making up my mind with the exterior, however. Despite having received a body makeover, this generation of the Corolla is still a staid looking automobile. It has zero panache and definitely won't raise pulses. The Civic, on the other hand, may be the best looking compact sedan out there, with the Hyundai Elantra coming in a close second.

How about pricing? A regular Corolla CE starts at less than $16,000, while my option-less tester, with a base price of more than $22,000, came in at almost $24,000, after taxes, levies, freight and PDI. The fuel consumption of a CE is higher than that of the Eco: 7.4 litres/100 km city and 5.4 highway for the four-speed automatic version. A base Civic (2013), on the other hand, starts at $15,440 before extras – somewhere in the mid-$17,000 range after the dust settles, while a Hyundai Elantra starts at $15,950.

Tech Specs

2014 Toyota Corolla Eco

Base Price: $22,200; as tested: $23,854.45

Engine: 1.8-litre four cylinder

Horsepower/torque: 140 hp @ 6100 rpm; 126 ft. lb. @ 4000 rpm

Transmission: CVT

Drive: FWD

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 6.5 city; 4.6 highway using regular fuel

Alternatives: Honda Civic, Nissan Sentra, Hyundai Elantra, Mazda3, Ford Focus, Chevrolet Cruze, Kia Forte, Volkswagen Jetta.

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