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car review

2014 Toyota Corolla

The 2014 Toyota Corolla, the 11th remake of a nameplate that goes back almost 50 years, is a bundle of surprises and it certainly answers the critics.

Critics? John Voelcker, guest blogger for The Christian Science Monitor, suggested that the cabin of the outgoing 2013 Corolla "might charitably be called grim." Jim Travers, in Consumer Reports, placed the old Corolla among a group of "somewhat boring compact sedans."

George Peterson, president of the consulting firm AutoPacific, in USA Today said Toyota has "rightfully been accused of making the Corolla one of the most boring cars out there." And Ronald Ahrens, of Automobile magazine, suggested that the 10th-generation Corolla "had been outdone in the visual interest department by disposable razors."

Yet for all that, the Corolla has remained a strong seller – currently Canada's third-most popular car and No. 2 among compacts in the United States. As auto analyst Jim Hall, of 2953 Analytics, told Automotive News, "Toyota has shown you can be conservative in a segment and still be successful. The details don't make or break a car. It's how it works as a whole; that is why the Corolla has been successful."

Here we are with the 2014 version and the whole Corolla, details and all, has been reworked. There is a new chassis that delivers more cabin room and new styling that is racier on the outside and unique inside.

The same fearsome critics who have scolded Toyota for dullness are now praising the 11th-gen Corolla for an attention to saving weight (to help fuel economy and ride dynamics) and an "aggressive" design. "The interior has been considerably spiffed up, with more upscale design and better-quality materials," notes Voelcker.

Ahrens says, "The 11th-generation Corolla has a scowling, jut-jawed appearance and hawkeyed lamp clusters that feature standard LED headlights, the first compact sedan so equipped." Peterson sums up the latest Corolla this way: "Finally, they have come up with style that is contemporary and a style [that drivers won't feel] sentenced to drive. ... They (Toyota) are checking all the right boxes."

All at a starting price of less than $16,000. For that you get power door locks, power windows, an audio system with Bluetooth capability, USB audio input and steering-wheel-mounted audio controls and a "comprehensive" active and passive safety system, including eight airbags.

You may or may not like the flat face of the dashboard, a styling cue reminiscent of cars of the 1960s, not 2013, but it's hard to argue with the total package – and the sterling reliability history that brings back tens of thousands of Corolla buyers each year. Canadians have bought more than 1.3 million Corollas over the decades. Toyota Canada also is wont to point out that every Corolla sold in Canada is built in Cambridge, Ont.

Certainly the exterior sheetmetal has a contemporary design. Not startling or ground-breaking, but modern enough. Toyota toned down the look we saw in the Corolla Furia concept shown earlier this year at the Detroit auto show and that was a good idea. The Corolla cognoscenti will love it. Moreover, the car is 99 mm longer, so it has more presence on the road.

Inside, the longer wheelbase (up more than 100 mm) creates space for passengers and driver. I wonder how potential owners will view the "horizontally oriented dash structure," though Toyota says it creates a sense of spaciousness and enhances the functionality of the controls. Perhaps. No one will argue that this latest Corolla has a richer interior. The cabin no longer feels cheap; instead, it looks chic.

Rear-seat passengers now have amazing room, too. The added wheelbase is a major factor, but so is a slimmer front seat back and clever re-routing of the exhaust pipes to enhance middle-seat foot room.

Noise? This is a quiet car thanks to more insulation, a more aerodynamic design and an acoustic glass windshield. The front seats are adequately supportive, but if you want to feel the best among compacts, drive a Ford Focus or a Volkswagen Golf. The blue-ish illumination of the gauge cluster is pleasing.

What seems to have changed least are the engine choices – both four-cylinders, one rated at 132 horsepower, the other at 140. Those numbers are a long way from best in class. That said, Toyota is offering a new Corolla ECO model that, among other things, includes low-rolling-resistance tires and a continuously variable transmission to enhance fuel economy.

In general terms, this latest Corolla is no slug, but it's not particularly racy, either. The looks of the car are, in fact, sportier than the actual performance. For the record, you can also get the Corolla with a four-speed automatic transmission or a six-speed manual. Four-speed autobox? How wonderfully retro.

As a package, however, this latest Corolla answers its critics and then some. It is more comfortable to live with and it's visually interesting, too. Nearly 40 million Corollas have been sold to date – and, with this version, you can keep counting.

Tech specs

2014 Toyota Corolla LE CVT with Tech Package

Type: Compact sedan

Base price: $19,500 (destination charge $1,520); as tested, $23,400

Engine: 1.8-litre, four-cylinder

Horsepower/torque: 132 hp/128 lb-ft

Transmission: CVT

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 6.8 city/4.9 highway; regular gas

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