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Review: 2014 Toyota Corolla LE Plus (sixth place)

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This review is part of an eleven-car comparison of compact sedans. The Corolla is ranked in sixth place of eleven.

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The Toyota Corolla has long had a reputation for quiet competence, scorned by driving enthusiasts but beloved by owners for providing affordable, economical, dependable transportation.

But in recent years, the best-selling Corolla was popular more on the strength of its reputation than on its merits. It wasn't simply that Toyota had made a choice to make the car comfortable and functional instead of sporty and luxurious – it just didn't deliver what it promised as well as a number of competitors. This reviewer put it in last place of 10 cars in a 2011 compact-sedan comparison, faulting its lack of suspension composure, shaky crash-test scores, relatively tight interior and trunk, and noisy acceleration.

The Corolla's 2014 redesign hasn't made the car perfect, but it's taken great strides. It will still be scorned by driving enthusiasts for its lack of excitement, sure. But the competitive comfort levels that loyalists always expected are now back in place. The Corolla now tracks straight on the highway without bobbling up and down at speed. Passenger and trunk space have improved. Safety ratings are now competitive with modern small cars, if not outstanding. Fuel economy has improved, and actually is a standout. The styling is less anonymous. Toyota also dressed up the cabin and added up-to-date tech features. And all the while, the price stayed competitive – the Corolla is one of the least expensive cars in this comparison.

Some issues remain, though. The Corolla is not a quiet car; the engine is smooth and peppy at low speeds and when driven gently but the engine can get raucous quickly when you push harder, and there's also a fair bit of highway-speed wind and road noise. Outward visibility and rear-seat headroom could stand to improve, as could performance in one admittedly demanding crash test. The rear end didn't get the same stylistic treatments as the front; it's still pretty dull back there. And even setting aside the lack of sportiness, the steering can feel unnatural at times.

If you're not very picky on those issues, the Corolla's value – both for its purchase price and its fuel efficiency – makes it a strong contender for you. And regardless, anyone who doesn't mind a car that's unapologetically unexciting to drive should at least be looking at this comfortable, generally pleasant compact sedan.

Almost fancy interior

Toyota worked hard to make the new Corolla's interior look and feel more upscale than a typical economy car. Dressy trim and high-end features are widely available, and the asymmetrical dashboard has contrasting materials and colors to boost visual interest. Some critics have said the look isn't necessarily cohesive and have slammed Toyota for not making the steering wheel rim nicer to the touch, but by the standards of the class the Toyota still doesn't look half bad.

Nearly every Corolla now has a touchscreen radio that also has handy redundant buttons and knobs for common functions. The screen – which also houses Toyota's Entune infotainment system – doesn't have the bright, crisp graphics of some other models, and some of the buttons on the screen could be bigger. But it's not a bad system overall, and buyers of lower-end Corollas will be especially grateful to get such a feature at all.

The Corolla's interior is comfortable, too. The wide front seats are nicely shaped, and the cloth trim feels nice. The rear sits high off the floor for good leg support and boasts excellent legroom for a compact car. There's also a nearly flat floor to aid three-abreast seating. Rear headroom lags, though; taller adults will need to bow their heads a bit to ride back there.

Toyota got away from the functionality that used to define its products, though, with the design of its dashboard. The controls are user-friendly, but in trying to fit a lot of stylistic touches onto the dashboard, designers ended up making it high and blocky. Had the effort instead been dedicated to expansive visibility, the dashboard would have been smaller and lower. Rear visibility could also be a little better.

Adequate driving dynamics

Saying the Corolla is “adequate” to drive may seem like an insult – but compared to the previous model, it's a major step forward. It's far from sporty, but gone is the disconcerting disconnected feel between the car, road, and driver.

Ride quality is now near the top of the class, with decent composure and outstanding bump absorption. Handling is less impressive, providing the basic agility that's almost inherent to a small, light sedan but not much more. You won't be inspired to hustle along a winding road, but nor will you grip the steering wheel in terror; the old Corolla, and a couple of contemporary competitors, don't necessarily promise the same.

Toyota tried to emulate the best steering racks by offering lightness at low speeds for convenient parking while dialing up the effort when you're driving faster, but the effect doesn't quite work. Rather, the Corolla can feel a little unresponsive in ordinary driving, and the steering can feel unnaturally heavy when you try to turn the wheel at higher speeds. It doesn't require the same constant steering corrections on the highway as the old Corolla, but it's still not at the level of a Chevrolet Cruze at effortlessly eating up miles.

The Corolla has a smaller engine than most competitors, and acceleration has a corresponding lack of zest. It's better than the Nissan Sentra – it's neither as lethargic nor as noisy – but most of the competition does better still on both fronts. Gas mileage is impressive, with EPA ratings of 32 mpg in mixed driving.

Great price

The Toyota name used to command a price premium. Now the Corolla promises a great reputation for the second-lowest price in this comparison. Comparably equipped to the competition – with an automatic transmission; power windows, locks and mirrors; alloy wheels; Bluetooth connectivity; and an infotainment screen, as well as a rearview camera – its estimated transaction price is $17,795. That price also includes automatic climate control, which costs extra on most competitors, and two years of free scheduled maintenance.

Know that the Corolla isn't perfect, even for the type of customer it targets, but especially for the money it's once more a worthy choice for straightforward transportation.

Overall grade: B

More from this comparison:
- Next review: 2014 Volkswagen Jetta SE (5th place)
- Previous review: 2014 Subaru Impreza 2.0i Premium (7th place)
- Rating the eleven compact sedans
- Ranking the eleven compact sedans
- Introduction to this comparison

More about the 2014 Toyota Corolla LE Plus:
- Photo gallery
- Report card -- how does it compare in different ways, such as comfort, performance, and fuel economy?
- Report card -- how does it stack up for different types of buyers?

Vehicle tested: 2014 Toyota Corolla
Vehicle base price (MSRP): $16,800
Version tested: LE Plus
Version base price (MSRP): $18,700
Vehicle price as tested (MSRP): $19,335
Vehicle price as comparable (MSRP): $19,510
Estimated transaction price as comparable: $17,795
Test vehicles provided by: 355 Toyota of Rockville, Md.; Antwerpen Toyota of Clarksville, Md.

Key specifications:
Length: 182.6 inches
Width: 69.9 inches
Height: 57.3 inches
Wheelbase: 106.3 inches
Weight: 2,855 pounds
Trunk volume: 13.0 cubic feet
Turning circle: 35.6 feet
Engine (as tested): 1.8-liter I4 with 132 horsepower
Transmission (as tested): CVT automatic
EPA city mileage: 29 miles per gallon
EPA highway mileage: 38 miles per gallon
EPA combined mileage: 32 miles per gallon
Assembly location: Canada
For more information: Toyota website

See also:
Review: 2013 Toyota RAV4 Limited
Review: 2013 Toyota Camry Limited
Review: 2012 Toyota Yaris LE
Review: 2011 Toyota Corolla S

* Prices as comparable reflect vehicles equipped with the same features, when possible: an automatic transmission; power windows, locks and mirrors; alloy wheels; Bluetooth connectivity; and an infotainment screen.
** Estimated transaction prices are based on data from Truecar.com and dealer quotes.

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