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After decades of selling millions of workman-like Corollas -- bought more for their perceived high-reliability and resale value than sexy styling, state-of-the-art features or high performance -- Japan's Toyota is caving in to the pressures of the marketplace with the new 2014 version of its compact sedan.
During the Canadian debut of the 11th-generation Corolla, amid the steam-powered locomotives at the Canadian Museum of Science and Technology in our nation's capital, even the president of Toyota Canada, Seiji Ichii, made a joke about the Corolla's staid reputation, "The new Corolla will be available in a wide variety of exterior colours -- but no beige."
The humility from Toyota is warranted. While the Toyota compact sedan continues to be one of the bestselling vehicles on the planet, competition from fresher rivals has meant its sales in North America have been sliding. Last year marked the first time since 2002 the Corolla wasn't the bestselling compact car in the United States.
As recently as 2009, Toyota was selling almost 55,000 Corollas a year in Canada. Last year, however, only a little over 40,000 were moved, far behind the Hyundai Elantra (50,950) and Honda Civic (64,962).
Replacing a model that's been on sale since 2008, the most obvious change to the 2014 Corolla four-door is its exterior looks. Whereas the existing model wears anonymous threads, Toyota designers stretched the 2014 model's wheelbase, shortened its overhangs and gave its sheet metal more edges than a Ginsu knife store.
I had a chance to jump inside the red 2014 Corolla S prototype Toyota Canada had on hand at the museum. The cabin is a big jump up from the current Corolla's grim, rental car-spec interior. A horizontally themed dash design similar to that found in the new 2013 Toyota Avalon can be found in the new Corolla, as well as higher-quality materials and more rear legroom, gained from the longer wheelbase.
When the 2014 Corolla arrives in Canadian showrooms in late August (pricing to be announced closer to that date), it will be available in CE, LE, S, and the new ECO trims. Standard kit will include LED headlamps with class-exclusive LED daytime running lights, a glass-imprinted AM/FM antenna, colour-keyed door handles, colour-keyed outside mirrors, a 60/40 split fold-down rear seat, power door locks with automatic locking feature, power windows with driver-side one-touch up/down and eight airbags.
Unfortunately, what's underneath the new 2014 Corolla's sheet metal is less state-of-the-art. While Toyota is touting an available continuously variable automatic transmission on the Corolla LE and higher models (the first non-hybrid Toyota with a CVT), base CE editions can be had with a six-speed manual transmission or a carry-over four-speed (where most rivals offer six) automatic.
And where rivals offer smaller-displacement four-cylinder engines with direct-injection and turbocharging, Toyota is sticking with the same, 132-horsepower 1.8-litre four-cylinder from the 2013 Corolla for all models except the new Eco, which gets a version of the same mill but with Toyota's Valvematic valve-train technology (which offers a wider range of continuously variable valve-timing on the intake side). The result is a claimed five per cent improvement in fuel economy and a bump to 140 hp.
Toyota Canada managing director Stephen Beatty admitted, unlike recent Corollas, the 2014 model has been designed to be "fun to drive." But based on the specs for the 2014 Corolla S here on stage, Volkswagen GTI owners won't be trading in their rides any time soon.
Toyota says the 2014 Corolla S model's CVT will have paddle shifters with seven preset gears. Changes have been made to the new Corolla's suspension geometry and spring rate and bushing settings, but the new car keeps the old car's front MacPherson strut and rear torsion-beam suspension setup.
In comparison to the outgoing model, on paper, the new 2014 Corolla looks like an improvement in all areas. We'll have to wait for a test drive to confirm Toyota's courageous placement of "fun to drive" and "Corolla" in the same sentence, though.
The competition in this class since the last Corolla arrived in 2008 has only become fiercer. Japanese automakers are no longer kings of the compacts. Yes, the Civic is still a top seller, but compact rivals from Korea (the Hyundai Elantra and new-this-year Kia Forte), plus never before seen competition from the domestic brands (such as the Chevrolet Cruze and Ford Focus) means compact-car buyers have more choice than ever before.
Changing new Corolla's sheet metal was the easy part. Changing Toyota's perception with younger buyers will be harder.
-- Postmedia News