For the kind of person who doesn't like surprises—the kind who lays out their car-buying possibilities in a nice, neat array; considers cost of ownership and depreciation; and keeps a new car for many, many years—the Toyota Corolla has always added up to be one of the best new-car choices by the numbers.
Like ordering the patty melt at lunch, or throwing on “Rock Lobster” at a wedding reception, the Corolla amounted to a sort of safe, least-common-denominator pick for generations of those bean-counter types. It didn't set your heart aflutter like those other cars, but it delivered on its promise and thankfully it didn't leave you on the side of the road at 2 a.m.
The 2014 Corolla still saves those precious bucks. But now it's more of a frugalista. Younger car shoppers still care about such things, but they also care about connectivity; they want more expressive styling; and they're less likely to compromise comfort, other convenience features, and safety in a small car. To paraphrase an executive in the industry: Small cars increasingly need to be luxury cars inside, look sporty on the outside, and offer just a tease of sports-car attitude from behind the wheel. These 20- and 30-somethings, at which this Corolla is increasingly aimed, sure are a demanding lot.
Two models in the 2014 Corolla lineup truly do that, making this aged nameplate a little more interesting, however—and we think it's the kind of interest that's going to expand the Corolla's appeal far beyond its traditional spoil-sports.
One of those is the Corolla S, which has a suspension that feels so much more buttoned-down than those of Corollas past—even a step better than the outgoing Corolla S or XRS. With stiffer springs and dampers, yet a new canted-bushing layout for its basic torsion-beam rear setup, there’s no noticeable squat and lift, and this is a car that while not a full-fledged sport sedan, feels positively agile and nimble; it’s begging for 50 more horsepower.
Corolla S: A simulated seven-speed
Instead of those extra horsepower, what it gets is...interesting. The Corolla S has what feels like, essentially, a seven-speed automatic transmission—a CVT that acts at all times like it has seven separate cogs. You might even mistake it for a seven-speed—one with especially slurred shifts, perhaps. Steering-wheel paddle-shifters and a separate sport mode let you command those shifts, which are delivered with surprising promptness and coordination.
Over to the right of the driver's seat, in a nondescript button on the center console, is a Sport mode button. Press it and you get not only the silly-quick accelerator calibration that we've come to expect the past several years from sporty econo-compacts, but something more meaningful: an alternate, firmer calibration for the electric power steering.
Altogether these tweaks go a long way toward convincing you that the Corolla S is something with a greater, fussier pedigree. We headed up into the tight turns of a road heading up into desert hills and the Corolla S seemed to transcend its humble roots, with well-bolstered sport seats, 17-inch alloy wheels, four-wheel disc brakes, and the paddle-shift setup.
You can also get a manual gearbox on the S. The shift-it-yourself models feel the quickest in the lineup, and that’s mainly because of the CVT’s weakness: a launch from a standing start that feels barely adequate at times. Slamming the accelerator to the floor in a CVT car, with two aboard, at a traffic light while pointing up a relatively modest uphill grade resulted in a lackluster takeoff that surrounding vehicles were meeting with ease. A lower starting ratio would go a long way here.
A CVT that's at ease
Except for the base L model, all 2014 Corolla models offer a CVT, and in non-S models (LE and LE Eco), it operates unobtrusively, varying the ratio constantly in order to achieve what feels like a linear response. Only when you really dip in with your right foot do you approach the kind of drone that can make these belt-and-pulley arrangements less appealing; it's one of the best setups in a compact car yet, and it makes this vehicle feel perky and at ease on the highway otherwise.