Miami, FL—At first glance this seemed liked an unusual city for Toyota to put its redesigned Corolla on display.
After all, Miami and Miami Beach are home to glitter and bling—an urban display case for exotic cars, designer sunglasses, and primo high-rise condos.
It’s a place where compact sedans generally park out of sight instead of being on display in front of a fancy hotel such as the Viceroy, where a fleet of Corollas held court for three days in September as luxury cars arrived at the front door.
The Corollas basked in the sunlight in Miami, an international environment where so many Spanish accents are heard that Hispanics visiting for the first time are taken by surprise.
It turns out that the Corolla is right at home here. It’s the No. 1 seller in the US Hispanic market overall, including in Miami where it has 33 percent of the compact sales.
The compact Toyotas, now starting their 11th generation, hablan espanol muy bien, and, over the past 47 years, have appealed to speakers of most every other language in the world. They are well on the way to becoming the world’s No. 1 selling model.
Toyota’s English ads say, “Let’s go places together,” a pitch that sounds better in the Spanish version: “Vayamos juntos.”
“We designed this new Corolla to be a car people want to buy instead of feeling it’s one they should buy,” says Toyota vice president Jim Colon.
With nearly 40 million Corollas sold since 1966, Toyota certainly knows how to market the model. For 2014, there’s the base L and then the two sales leaders, LE and S, each of which is projected to account for 40 percent of sales.
However, there’s a fourth member this time—the LE Eco. Toyota projects that it only will account for 10 percent of Corolla sales.
The feeling here is that those 10 percent of owners will be extremely happy. In fact, if we’d been in Hollywood—another place to be seen with bling—we’d be describing the LE Eco as “A Star Is Born.”
The LE Eco is that impressive. However, when you read the acronym Eco, if your mind works the way mine does, a neon “Econobox” sign starts flashing in your brain along with big miles-per-gallon numbers.
Credit Toyota’s Prius for imprinting that Eco-mpg connection in our automotive conscious.
However, the LE Eco is a bit of a different animal. It’s got a little more horsepower than the other three trim levels (140 versus 132), but also has a highway mpg rating of 42 (30 city, 35 combined).
What sets the Eco apart is a different version of the 1.8-liter engine, one that has Toyota’s first application of Valvematic technology that permits the engine to run at high speed with a low throttle setting by changing valve lift settings.
All the other ’14 Corollas have a traditional 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine. The L is mated with either a six-speed manual or four-speed automatic. The S can be had with the manual option. Everything else—the LE, LE Eco, and S—is equipped with a CVT-iS automatic that’s programmed to have seven shift points to give the feedback of a conventional automatic transmission.
It should be noted that the LE Eco’s mpg numbers fall slightly to 30/40/34 (city/highway/combined) when the Eco is bought in Plus or Premium trim. The Plus adds a moonroof, Eco setting button, and a driver’s convenience package of smart key, Entune premium audio, and navigation. The premium level adds heated Softex seats to that.
Fully option an LE Eco and you’ll have a MSRP of $20,910 (including $810 destination charge). Corolla MSRPs range from $17,610 for a base L with manual transmission to a max of $22,110 for the S model’s premium level. The LE Eco starts at $19,110 with destination.
We had the opportunity to drive all of the models in the Greater Miami area. On the road, all had enough zip, good steering feel, and refined suspension. The S with a manual transmission was sporty and fun to drive, but far from a performance car. We found the LE Eco best of the bunch both in performance and economy. Also, we found the CVT-iS to be a well-programmed automatic.
The Corollas’ restyled exterior features a narrow front air intake, large trapezoidal grille, and narrow LED headlights. The LED headlights add to the new design while using less power, providing brighter daylight-like coverage, and longer bulb life.
First impressions are that the new Corolla has a new level of refinement—that subjective evaluation that encompasses the suspension that is both firm but able to handle bad roads with aplomb, a high level of noise control, power-train smoothness, and quality feel to the seats and interior touch points.
The noise control is a result of acoustic glass, better carpet insulation, a new seal behind the instrument panel, and silencing pads in the fenders and dashboard.
Inside, that dashboard has a horizontal design that adds to the spacious feel of the cabin. The Corolla’s 3.93-inch longer wheelbase and a 2.95-inch added rear seat hip-point makes for good rear seat legroom. Re-routing the exhaust also resulted in a flatter floor.
Up front, the seats have a longer lower cushion and improved bolsters, a big advance in helping larger drivers adapt to a compact vehicle.
“Compact doesn’t necessarily mean entry-level,” says Colon. “Buyers want upmarket features.”
Enough to take on Miami.Bill Griffith can be reached at WGriffith@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MrAutoWriter.