Cars

Corolla still the model for reliable compacts

THE WHOLE PACKAGE: The 2014 Corolla LE Eco includes many standard features that make it a safer and more comfortable.
THE WHOLE PACKAGE: The 2014 Corolla LE Eco includes many standard features that make it a safer and more comfortable. PHOTO: BILL GRIFFITH

Sometimes fate tosses a surprise your way.

In September, I had the opportunity to be in Miami for the East Coast introduction of the 2014 Toyota Corolla.

At the time, I extolled the virtues of the ’14 Corolla LE Eco, a model that Toyota projected would only account for 10 percent of Corolla’s sales but which struck me as an outstanding mix of performance and economy.

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So what turned up as this week’s test car? A 2014 Corolla LE Eco. Now the big question (for me) was how well would those first impressions hold up?

Would the package that was so much fun on Miami Beach be equally at home on Greater Boston’s roads and in rush hour traffic?

My test week consisted of a daily commute from Newburyport on the North Shore to Brighton Center. At least one direction each day was in rush hour.

And there were circumstances to make traffic worse. One day was Game 6 of the World Series. Another was the Rolling Rally Parade to celebrate the Red Sox championship.

One thing that was obvious in all that traffic: Corollas are everywhere. It seemed there always was another Corolla in front of me at a traffic light or in the line of snake-and-brake traffic. Toyota has sold nearly 40 million Corollas worldwide since 1966 but they blend in so well you don’t notice how many there are unless you’re looking for them.

The LE Eco comes in three trims, base, plus, and premium. Ours was the base car—MSRP $18,700 plus $810 destination charge for a bottom line price of $19,510. Added options? None.

Standard features, though, include electronic power steering (with a good road feel) and a full safety array of stability control and smart stop brake assist. The LED low-beam headlights are highly effective and the rear view backup camera is a welcome feature, especially when backing into parking garage spaces (usually between two large SUVs) all week. It also had remote keyless entry, automatic climate control, and steering wheel controls for audio and cruise control.

Moving up to Plus and Premium trim levels adds 16-inch wheels, an Entune audio system with navigation, a moonroof, and an ECO button for more economical driving settings. You have to go to the premium level for heated seats.

Because it has an Eco tag, the immediate reaction is that this LE Eco is an Econobox, especially because it has EPA fuel economy figures of 30 mph city, 42 highway, and 35 combined. A week’s worth of driving and a tank-and-a-half of gas returned a 37.9 mpg figure, impressive when a lot of time was spent inching along and sitting at traffic lights.

Our test car, however, didn’t fall into the Econobox category.

The LE Eco actually has more horsepower (140 vs. 132) than the other three trim levels: base, LE, and S.

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 highway speeds with a low throttle setting by changing valve lift settings.

All the other 2014 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 continuously variable transmission, named the CVT-iS. It’s programmed to have seven shift points to give the feel of a conventional automatic transmission while providing the greater economy of a CVT.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of the new Corolla is the interior styling.

Instead of a wraparound dashboard that melds into a center stack and console to give the driver the feeling of being in a cockpit, the dashboard is old-school straight across but with contemporary materials, nice stitching, and styling. This provides the front-seat passengers with the sense of being in a more spacious mid-size car.

Indeed, the new Corolla has grown up to be nearly a mid-size vehicle with its 183.1-inch overall length and 106.3-in wheelbase. That’s comparable to the specifications of my beloved 1997 mid-size Camry, which had a 105.2-inch wheelbase and overall length of 188.5 inches.

Toyota has pushed the wheels out to the corners, minimized engine compartment space, and provided a roomy interior and trunk.

Another plus is insulation. The car is quiet.

But, in living with it for a week, we found the auto climate control took a while to rev up on chilly days, and the touch screen radio, while easy to tune, had small pre-set spots that were tough to change while driving. It was easier but more time-consuming to scroll through pre-sets via the steering wheel controller.

The gauges—fuel, speedometer, and (unnecessary) tachometer—were easy to read. Other information was available by scrolling through a menu. Because I was interested in the mpg on the current tank, I used that setting, which resulted in hiding the engine temperature display. So, any time I passed through a burning smell (not uncommon in Boston traffic) I’d be changing the display just to make sure we weren’t overheating. And we weren’t. The gauge stayed comfortably normal.

So did the LE Eco live up to that first impression? Absolutely. Turns out the folks who bought those near 40 million Corollas were right all along.

2014 Toyota Corolla LE Eco

THE BASICS

Price: base/as tested (with destination): $19,510/$19,510. Fuel economy, EPA estimated: 30 city/42 highway. Fuel economy, Globe observed: 37.9 mpg. Drivetrain: 1.8-liter Valvematic I-4 engine, CVT, front-wheel-drive. Body: Five-passenger compact sedan.

THE SPECIFICS

Horsepower: 140. Torque: 126 lb.-ft. Overall length: 183.1 in. Wheelbase: 106.3 in. Height: 57.3 in. Width: 69.9 in. Curb weight: 2,853 pounds.

THE GOOD

State of the art package for styling and drivetrain, economy, rear view camera standard.

THE BAD

Non-navigation sound system touch screen a bit touchy, automatic climate control slow to warm car.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Still the benchmark for reliable and quality compacts.

ALSO CONSIDER

Chevrolet Cruze, Dodge Dart, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Mazda3, Nissan Sentra, Subaru Impreza.

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