The Toyota Corolla, the fifth best-selling nameplate in the United States, is a larger, roomier sedan for 2014 with improved ride and better gasoline mileage than its predecessor.
But it doesn't look like a Corolla. The conservative character is gone, replaced by contemporary styling outside and an intriguing, almost retro, dashboard design inside.
Plus, there's so much legroom now — 42.3 inches in the front seats and 41.4 inches in back — that car buyers looking for a family sedan might want to consider the new Corolla. In fact, while Toyota press materials refer to the 2014 Corolla as a compact, the car now is listed by the federal government as a mid-size four door.
Best of all, the 2014 Corolla earned overall five-out-of-five stars in government crash tests and is a recommended buy of Consumer Reports magazine, where predicted reliability is above average.
Base pricing has gone up a bit, though.
Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, is $17,610 for a base, 2014 Corolla L with a six-speed manual and $18,210 with an automatic. This base model, with carryover 132-horsepower four cylinder from last year, does not include a rearview camera, cruise control or steering wheel-mounted radio controls.
But the base, 2014 Corolla has eight standard air bags, air conditioning, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, fabric-covered seats, hands-free phone capability, AM/FM radio with CD player, USB 2.0 port with iPod connectivity plus Bluetooth music streaming and four speakers.
Standard low-beam headlights on the Corolla are even light-emitting diodes this year — a feature not usually found on sedans in this class.
Note the automatic on the base Corolla L is a traditional, four-speed auto that, while rating a commendable 27/36-mpg in fuel economy from the federal government, ranks lowest among the 2014 Corolla models.
Buyers wanting to maximize gasoline savings can move up to higher-priced models with more fuel-saving equipment.
The lowest-priced of these, the Corolla LE, has a starting retail price of $19,110 and comes with a continuously variable transmission (CVT) that works to optimize fuel economy. The result: An LE government rating of 29/38 mpg.
And, Toyota offers other 2014 Corolla models with "Eco" in their names that rate a bit better.
Shoppers have many choices in the Corolla's affordable sedan segment.
They include America's third best-selling car, the Honda Civic, which has a starting MSRP, including destination charge, of $19,180 for a 2014 Civic four door with five-speed manual and $19,980 with automatic.
This base 2014 Civic LX sedan comes with a 143-horsepower four cylinder, six air bags, standard rearview camera, cruise control, air conditioning, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, hands-free phone capability, AM/FM radio with CD player and four speakers, USB audio interface, Bluetooth music streaming and steering wheel-mounted audio controls.
Note that the Corolla and Civic are front-wheel drive cars.
But, another competitor, the 2014 Subaru Impreza, comes standard with all-wheel drive and has a starting retail price of $19,190 with five-speed manual and $20,190 with automatic. The base Impreza 2.0i has a standard 148-horsepower, four-cylinder engine.
With bolder front styling and designed side "creases" in the metal, the new Corolla seeks young buyers. But the tester, in bright Blue Crush paint and with 17-inch, dark alloy wheels, did not get second looks.
Inside the test car, the black, plastic dashboard was well-arranged but surprised with its tall and upright design that seemed inspired by 1960s cars.
With the base four cylinder developing a maximum torque of 128 foot-pounds at 4,400 rpm and power coming through a CVT, the test Corolla droned into high revs frequently.
Power was acceptable in most city driving situations, but there was little fast acceleration. That is, until sport drive mode, activated by a button, was turned on. It improved response by allowing the transmission to eschew its more fuel-saving habits.
Even with a mix of economy and aggressive driving, the tester averaged 32.1 mpg, which was on par with the government rating of 32 mpg.
From bumper to bumper, the new Corolla is 3 inches longer than its predecessor. Wheelbase, which is the distance from the middle of one wheel on one side to the middle of the other wheel on the same side of the car, has grown even more — by 3.9 inches. This helps account for the newfound legroom and larger trunk.
In comparison, the Civic sedan offers 42 inches in the front seats and only 36.2 inches of rear-seat legroom.
The test Corolla's shaped front seats provided good support with cushioning. But back-seat cushions were short and supported only to mid-thigh.
The Corolla's 37.1 inches of rear-seat headroom is the same as that in the Civic and can affect the comfort of tall passengers.
Everyone in the new Corolla sits a bit lower to the pavement than in the previous Corolla. But it was still comfortable getting into and out of the test car. Just watch the wheel wells that impinge on rear-door openings.
Rear seatbacks are split one-third and two-thirds and fold down to expand the trunk's already commendable 13 cubic feet of space. But the pull-up knobs to unlatch the seatbacks are placed inward, not at the outward-most top of the seatbacks. These knobs also are close to the seatbelt attachments, making it clumsy and awkward to pull the knobs up.
Drivers familiar with older Corollas will notice the more structurally rigid feel of the new Corolla. With a longer wheelbase and suspension improvements, the ride is smoother, and the test S Premium model traveled comfortably. Steering was responsive while retaining a mainstream feel. There was some road noise, but not as much as expected.
In October, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported one safety recall for the 2014 Corolla.
The windshield wiper assembly might short circuit, leaving the wipers inoperable and potentially reducing driver visibility.