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PERFORMANCE | 6 out of 10
The Corolla lineup has a long-established reputation for performance that’s adequate and fuel-efficient, though hardly inspired. That much hasn’t changed; but the 2014 Toyota Corolla makes some substantial steps ahead in powertrain technology that serve to make this compact sedan both more fuel-efficient and more responsive and fun-to-drive than before—if you choose the right model, that is.
From a performance standpoint, much of the lineup has performance that's satisfying for those modest expectations. But if you happen to choose the sporty Corolla S, you could end up with a model that feels sophisticated beyond its $19.870 entry price.
While the engine, steering, and fundamental layout of the 2014 Toyota Corolla hasn’t changed radically, the innovation that most Corolla buyers are going to encounter concerns the transmission. All but the base-model Corolla L can be equipped with a new continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). This ‘gearless’ transmission uses a belt-and-pulley system to infinitely vary the ratio (within a set span), effectively keeping the engine in its sweet spot during acceleration and making dashes up to speed a lot quicker than otherwise.
Those who want a manual gearbox aren’t left out either; both the base L and the sporty Corolla S model are offered with a six-speed manual (that’s one ratio more than last year). The throws are a little long and the linkage isn’t sport-sedan precise, but the clutch takeup is light and neat—making it easier than most to drive in stop-and-go traffic. And that base L is the only one that’s still saddled with an old-tech four-speed automatic transmission. It’s not bad, either—just a bit slow when you need a quick burst of passing power, because of the wide steps between its ratios.
Through much of the lineup the engine is essentially carry-over—a 132-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine, with dual independent variable valve timing. It's a smooth engine with a quiet idle. Altogether, it responds well with the CVT, with unobtrusive acceleration and little if any of the ‘drone’ that plagues CVTs in economical small cars.
Models with the CVT have much-improved highway passing response, and they feel perkier at speed in general compared to the automatic they replace (Toyota says it’s knocked nearly a second off the 0-60 mph time of the four-speed automatic). But they’re no improvement in standing-start performance, where this combination feels lackluster—especially when pointed slightly uphill or loaded with passengers—due to a rather tall starting ratio.
LE Eco models get a new Valvematic version of this same engine, which has a special system that continuously controls the lift, as well as the timing, of the intake valves—allowing them to ‘float’ when coasting and reduce drag when light on the throttle at higher speeds. At the same time, the system widens the torque curve—although peak torque is actually 2 lb-ft lower, at 126 lb-ft.
The sporty Corolla S model can be had with the manual gearbox (the base model is the only other model with it), but the S has a special take on the CVT. In this model, the CVT essentially pretends it’s a seven-speed automatic, with seven preset ratios that you can cycle through with paddle shifters. There’s also a Sport mode.
Corolla S models offer a relatively different driving experience. It's more buttoned-down and feels far more athletic on a curvy road. There's not nearly as much body motion, lift, and squat, either, which altogether add to the impression that you've driven an entirely different model. If you appreciate sportier tuning and are already looking at the LE, you might want to drive the S as well. All models get a revised torsion-beam rear suspension that mounts bushings at a slanted position, improving both NVH and rear-end behavior near the handling limit—and S models make the most of that.
Corolla S models get a slightly wider, leather-trimmed steering wheel, as well as shift paddles, which here are really extended buttons on the back of the steering wheel.
While much has changed, other things stay the same. Base and LE, and LE Eco models are expected to comprise the bulk of sales, and they’re sprung quite softly, with a ride that’s not only a little softer but also a bit busier (counterintuitively) than that of the S on jittery backroads.
On the other hand, on the LE Eco model, hitting the separate Eco button engages a softer throttle calibration and uses the A/C compressor more conservatively.
Corolla 'S Plus' and 'S Premium' models include rear disc brakes. Across the lineup, while stops are confident, our only consistent complaint is that brake-pedal feel is on the spongy side.
A new continuously variable automatic transmission promises better drivability and smoothness, although some might prefer the sporty S model and manual gearbox.