After years of marketing the Corolla as a safe, sensible and reliable choice, Toyota has changed course and now bills its compact sedan as a more exciting ride that appeals to the heart as well as the head. In truth, it still won't raise pulse rates, but the eleventh-gen model does offer a larger, more modern interior while retaining the traditional Corolla virtues of comfort, reliability, and efficiency.
Toyota is celebrating the Corolla nameplate's 50th birthday by giving the model a minor facelift and more standard features. Buyers can also drive home in the Corolla 50th Anniversary Special Edition for a limited time only.
To set it apart from stodgy Corollas of years past, the sedan boasts a prominent trapezoidal grille, standard LED lowbeam headlights and pronounced wheel arches. Sharply canted C-pillars and sculpted taillights give the rear a dash of flair, and a range of attractive 15-, 16- and 17-inch wheel designs are available.
Inside, the Corolla takes a page from Lexus' latest interior design language with a contemporary-looking, horizontally-oriented dashboard. With the exception of a few noticeably cheap trim elements, material quality is class-competitive, and secondary controls are logically arranged and easy to use.
With a lengthened wheelbase that translates directly into increased cabin space, the Corolla possesses sufficient space for four adults (five in a pinch) to sit in reasonable comfort, although rear headroom is limited.
Buyers can spec a 6.1-inch touchscreen display with Toyota's Entune infotainment system, which includes apps like Bing, Facebook Places and Pandora. Other notable options include "SofTex" leatherette upholstery, navigation, heated seats and a proximity key.
Underneath its fresh sheetmetal, the Corolla shares many mechanical components with the last-generation model. These proven underpinnings should ensure that the Corolla's stellar track record of reliability continues, though they also entail less power and lower handling limits than many competitors.
Five different trim levels are on offer - L, LE, LE Eco, S, and SE - with all but the LE Eco coming standard with Toyota's familiar 1.8-liter four-cylinder. Although the mill produces just 132 horsepower and 128 lb-ft of torque, it's capable of returning up to 29 mpg in the city and 38 mpg on the highway when fitted with an optional CVT. To do away with the "rubber band" power delivery that such transmissions usually entail, Toyota programmed the CVT with seven virtual "gears" to provide the familiar experience of a torque-converter automatic.
The CVT is available on all trim levels except the entry-level L, which gets a prehistoric four-speed automatic as the two-pedal transmission choice. It lowers mileage to 27/36 mpg. For traditionalists, L and S models come standard with a six-speed manual that helps the sedan earn a 28/37 mpg rating.
The efficiency-focused LE Eco makes use of an uprated version of the standard 1.8-liter with variable valve-lift. Available exclusively with the CVT, it's good for 140 horsepower, 126 lb-ft of twist and, most significantly, an especially thrifty 30/42 mpg.
All Corolla variants ride on a suspension composed of MacPherson struts up front and a torsion beam at the rear, although the sport-focused S boasts tauter coils, dampers, and bushings. Though they don't quite elevate its handling to sports car levels, these changes help to S to have a more planted feel than the somewhat relaxed handling of other Corolla trims.
The S also benefits from a host of other upgrades like sports seats, an aggressive grille treatment, and a unique instrument cluster with a 3.5-inch TFT information screen.
Trim Level Breakdown
The Corolla L comes standard with a six-speed manual transmission, A/C, power windows, Bluetooth connectivity, LED headlights, a rear-view camera, a four-speaker AM/FM/CD audio system with AUX and USB inputs, and 15-inch steel wheels with hubcaps.
The LE brings the CVT in addition to automatic climate control, Entune with 6.1-inch touchscreen and two extra stereo speakers, a backup camera, power locks, cruise control, metallic interior trim, variable intermittent windshield wipers, a piano black center console, keyless entry and 16-inch steel wheels with hubcaps.
The LE Eco adds the 42-mpg four-cylinder, 15-inch steel wheels and a rear spoiler.
The S builds on the LE's content with sportier suspension tuning, a unique grille design, a special instrument cluster with 3.5-inch TFT screen, sports seats, chrome-tipped exhaust, a leather-trimmed steering wheel and power heated exterior mirrors.
The LE, LE Eco and S are available with a choice of two sub-trim levels. The Plus includes 16-inch alloy wheels and fog lights, and the Premium builds on those features with SofTex leatherette upholstery, heated, power-adjustable front seats and a power/tilt sunroof (LE Premium and S Premium only).
Plus and Premium models can be optioned with a sunroof and the Driver Confidence Package, which includes voice-activated navigation, premium Entune audio with App Suite, a proximity key, push-button start, HD Radio, HD Traffic, HD Weather, Bluetooth audio streaming and SiriusXM satellite radio.
The Special Edition (SE) model bundles unique, 17" wheels, black interior with red contrast stitching, red door and dash accents, Smart Key access, and unique floor mats and exterior badges boasting the Special Edition logo. It's available exclusively in black, red and white.
All Corolla models are fitted as standard with dual front, front side and full-length side curtains airbags. Also included is a driver's knee airbag and passenger's seat cushion airbag as well as traction and stability control systems.
Finally, the Corolla boasts Toyota's Safety Sense-P (TSS-P) technology, which bundles Pre-Collision System with Pedestrian Detection, Lane Departure Alert with Steering Assist, Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, and Automatic High Beams.
Before putting a new Corolla in the driveway, shoppers should also check out the slew of other accomplished compact sedans on the market. These include the fine-handling, European-flavored Ford Focus; the stylish, sporty and tech-packed Mazda Mazda3; the sleek and value-laden Kia Forte; and the spacious, Alfa Romeo-derived Dodge Dart