2015 Toyota Corolla Test Drive

Nearly 40 million copies have been sold over 10 generations; the Toyota Corolla is a highly successful nameplate and one that spans 47 years since its introduction in Japan in 1966. It is known for quality, reliability and durability with low running costs and a car that you can pass on from generation to generation with just routine maintenance.

However, this 11th generation Corolla is facing stiffer competition than it has ever faced before. With Akio Toyoda at the helm of Toyota Motor Corporation, he is determined to “make driving fun, again” and wants people to buy Toyotas because they are desirable.

In the compact segment in Canada, we are blessed with a wealth of models from which to choose. They mostly fall between $15,000 and $25,000 and come with a variety of features, specifications and driving dynamics. The target for this generation of Corolla is to make the vehicle more fun to drive, more economical to own and of greater value for money. Toyota has mostly succeeded but as with most mainstream vehicles, there are a few compromises to be made.

14corolla1Design
On the outside, the exterior design is more expressive, particularly in the front where the Corolla wears two different types of faces (piano black with chrome trim or faux carbon fibre patterned) depending on the trim level you choose. Toyota calls this design theme “Iconic Dynamism” and was first previewed at the 2014 Detroit Auto Show as the Corolla Furia Concept. The piano black version looks quite striking when paired with the right exterior colour. The standard LED low beam headlamps give the Corolla a unique night time signature and are a first for the segment. The slimmer front headlamp design complements the sporty intent of the designers. It’s unfortunate that the rear of the vehicle isn’t afforded the same level of athleticism to its design as the taillamps look rather pedestrian and have a bit of a 90s look to them.

In an effort to improve fuel economy, the new Corolla has incorporated the latest in aerodynamic features employed by Toyota. Vortex generators near the mirrors and fins in the taillamps are present. A look underneath the vehicle reveals a flat underbody with rear stabilising fins to smooth air flow exiting from the rear of the vehicle.

14corollaIPThe interior has been redone and the wood trim on the previous LE model has been replaced by piano black trim that lend a bit of class to the interior than simply matte black plastics that are present in other vehicles in this class. The focus of the dashboard is now in the horizontal plane, visually widening the cabin and creating more space ahead of the driver and front passenger. The high placement and flat face is reminiscent of vintage vehicles and works surprisingly well. However, where the dashboard meets the front door panels look awkward with the window ledge thinning out to about half the width as it approaches the dashboard. It appears the designers were torn between lowering the window ledge so that the lower portion of the wing mirrors is viewable and matching the door panels to the dashboard. The faux stitching on the top of the dashboard and airbag cover is an attempt to increase the visual appeal but unlike other Toyota vehicles where this application exists, it’s not very convincing in the Corolla. Yet, a thin blue strip (amber in some models) that sits above the silver trim on the door panels and dashboard add a bit of flair and colour to a mostly black and light grey interior. The placement of the controls are well thought out with large buttons on the steering wheel to control the phone and audio, large buttons flanking the Display Audio system, a well placed shifter and large circular dials for the climate control that can be adjusted even when wearing gloves. The 6.1” Display Audio screen is standard on the LE, LE ECO and S trim levels and can be equipped with navigation if so desired. An LCD screen does make pairing the phone with Toyota’s Bluetooth system much easier (it’s done through voice activation on Toyota vehicles without an LCD screen) and you can view Artist, Track and even Album Art in the Audio section. Additionally, there is a vehicle section to view fuel consumption in one minute intervals for the trip as well as average fuel consumption. I found the headunit easy to use and navigate but I wish the onscreen buttons were a bit larger and that the screen was tilted towards the driver.

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The front seats are firm and comfortable with basic manual adjustment and have two-stage heaters on all but the base CE (L in the U.S.) trim level. Sightlines are good but the rear is a bit hindered with fixed rear headrests instead of collapsible ones. The rear seat passengers are now treated with the most space they’ve ever had in a Corolla. A stretch in wheelbase by 100mm to 2,700mm (106.3”) boosts rear legroom up a significant 130mm (5.1”) to 1,051.2mm (41.4”). Storage space includes a seatback pocket behind the front passenger seat and door pockets with bins and bottle holders. A rear armrest is no longer available.

At night, the dashboard is illuminated in ice blue, similar to Hyundai and replaces the amber illumination of the previous generation. The S model gets a twin cluster instrument panel with a 3.5” TFT screen in the middle and looks upscale. Other models get a triple pod display trimmed in chrome with the speedometer in the centre, tachometer to the left and a large fuel gauge to the right.

14corollaLE_ECOengineEngine
The engine for the most part is carried over from the previous generation. It’s a 1.8 litre DOHC 4 cylinder with VVT-i technology for both the intake and exhaust. Peak horsepower of 132 comes in at 6,000rpm with 128 lb-ft of torque arriving at 4,000rpm. If you check the box for the LE ECO model, you get the same engine with Valvematic technology. This is Toyota’s continuously variable valve lift intake technology. It comes in at a slightly higher compression ratio of 10.6:1 and a slight bump in horsepower to [email protected],100rpm and while maximum torque drops slightly to 126lb-ft, it arrives earlier at 4,000rpm. While the technology isn’t new, it is the first Toyota in North America to use this engine. Now here comes the slightly messy bit of explaining the combination of engine and transmissions available on the Corolla. Base trim level gets a 6-speed manual with optional 4-speed automatic and the standard 1.8 litre engine. The LE is exclusively paired with a new CVTi (Continuously Variable Transmission w/ intelligence). The S comes with a 6-speed manual as standard with an optional CVTi-S transmission. This transmission includes a Sport button to change the mapping to allow for a quicker response from the transmission during enthusiastic driving. It also has an “M” position on the shifter that will provide seven faux shift points to mimic a semi-automatic transmission and allow the driver to “shift” via the shift gate or steering wheel mounted paddle shifters. Lastly, the LE ECO is available only with the CVT and is the only model that is equipped with the Valvematic engine. Toyota says the CVT is designed to provide a more direct feel to pedal inputs and make the transmission feel more familiar to a traditional automatic transmission. Read on to see if they were successful.

2014 Toyota CorollaThe Drive
The Corolla that I have for testing is a Canadian model in LE trim with no options which is perfect as Toyota Canada expects this trim level to be the most popular. It is priced competitively at $19,725 (excluding $1,520 for Freight & PDI). I was intrigued to try out this new CVTi after a rather disappointing experience with the CVT in the Scion iQ. For the most part, I was pleasantly surprised with this transmission. Toyota programmed it to mimic an automatic and it’s most noticeable when starting off from a standstill. You’ll hear the engine note rise, then do a familiar dip before rising again, mimicking a shift from first to second gear. Power loss isn’t noticeable and I didn’t notice a large drop in engine rpm so it’s a very convincing transmission and void of engine drone under normal driving. Of course if you need to pass, the engine will rise and the CVT will show its true colours and hold an rpm to ensure maximum torque. However, I think Toyota took it too far was when it came to passing. In other CVT-equipped vehicles that I’ve driven, if you were cruising at a constant speed and then pressed the accelerator to pass, the engine note will rise almost immediately (the rate depends on how rapid the computer determined you depressed the accelerator). In the Corolla, there’s a slight pause, as if it’s simulating a downshift, followed by a rapid rise in rpm. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your intention), there’s a rather loud and coarse exhaust note that accompanies the high rpm which garners some unwanted attention. I’ve noticed under moderate acceleration, sometimes it’s quiet and sometimes it’s loud and in the week that I had the vehicle, I didn’t figure out what determines it.

The CVT is tuned for fuel economy (at least on my LE trim) and I did notice it will get the engine into fuel cut-off mode (at lower speeds) or engine brake (at higher speeds) quite often and it’s reflect as 0.0L/100km on the instant fuel economy readout. It definitely rewards fuel efficient driving and drivers that practice pulse and coast or other fuel efficient driving methods can wring out excellent numbers from this vehicle. A small ECO indicator will indicate if you’re in the sweet spot for fuel efficient driving.

The big surprise is how well the Corolla behaves out on the open road. The increase in wheelbase and weight of the Corolla (my test car weighs 1,290kg/2,855lbs!) means they ride like a bigger car. The steering isn’t overly boosted and has a decent feel for what is supposed to be an economy car. The suspension is firm like most cars nowadays and on smooth, winding tarmac, it is a surprising joy to drive. Without the constant acceleration from a stop and braking to a stop one experiences in the downtown core, the CVT is allowed to let the engine rev low under light load or braking and modest acceleration isn’t met with the raspy exhaust note that I experienced in the city. Additionally, the cabin is quiet with wind and engine noise practically non-existent at highway speeds. The only intrusive sound came from the low-rolling resistance tyres which can be swapped out to something a little quieter if need be. The driver’s footrest is large and accommodating. The quiet interior means you can enjoy a quieter conversation with your passengers or listen to music through the 6-speaker audio system. A USB port and 12V outlet are found at the base of the centre stack with a convenient tray to place your music player or phone while it is plugged in. Cupholders are of a good size with an adjustable 3-position tab in between the two cupholders to adjust the size. The centre console box features a padded armrest at the top and a tray insert within the box. It’s definitely made for smaller, slim items as the underside of the console lid isn’t scooped out enough to fit something larger like a pair of sunglasses.

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At night, the LED headlamps produce a brilliant white light that is closer to 6000K on the colour temperature scale than 4300K that factory HIDs on other cars produce. Aside from the obvious “hot spot” near the centre of the lane, the beam pattern is fairly wide given its bulb source. It’s definitely a step up from the previous generation which I found had just adequate low beam illumination. The downside is that there’s a very sharp cutoff at the top of the beam pattern to avoid blinding oncoming traffic. On a road without street lamps, I found that I end up looking for people’s legs as I approached crosswalks as anything above the waist wasn’t illuminated by the headlamps. It was freaky to see people cross as I waited at crosswalks, not being able to see their faces. Additionally, as they’re used as DRLs in Canada, Toyota Canada must trust their durability to last the life of the vehicle. Let’s hope that drivers remember to switch on their taillamps at night. The last point I want to touch on with regards to night time driving pertains to the reverse camera. It works well during the day and shows up nicely on the 6.1” display. There are guidelines overlaid, an upgrade to previous Toyota backup camera units. However, at night, I found the camera image to be grainy with quite a bit of white noise.

Out back, the trunk is rated at 369 litres (13.0 cu. ft.) which is a bit on the small side given that some compact cars offering up to 428 litres (15.1 cu. ft.). The opening is wide but may be a bit shallow in height. I wasn’t able to fit a full size cooler inside upright which resulted in some Tetris-like packing to ensure the water from melted ice didn’t leak (it didn’t). The rear seats do split and fold 60/40 with a large opening. The trunk is fully finished with a light trunklid which does fully open when the trunk release is used.

IMG_4359Fuel Economy Champ

The redesigned Corolla is definitely an economy car, in fuel economy that is. In hilly terrain with many short trips that don’t favour fuel economy, I got as low as 10L/100km (23.5 mpg) but cruising on a flat surface with the cruise control set at 80km/h (50mph), the instant readout was hovering at 4.7L/100km (50mpg). Mixed driving that included that wonderful mountain highway drive ended up at 6.6L/100km (35.6mpg) and one tank of mostly city with some highway turned out 7.2L/100km (32.6mpg). These are outstanding numbers. You no longer need a diesel to achieve impressive highway numbers.

I’m all about the “base”…
… LE trim. While a CE with a 4-speed automatic and A/C retails for $18,400, the extra $1,325 for the LE is worth the cost. The big ticket items would be a more fuel efficient CVT, 6.1” Display Audio head unit, heated front seats, cruise control, a backup camera and remote keyless entry. There are also minor convenience and interior dress- up items that top off the package. Those that want a bit more pizzazz will want to spring for the Corolla S which brings a more aggressive front bumper and grille design, the CVTi-S transmission with paddle shifters and a black interior with available amber/black or steel blue/black fabric seating and more aggressive side bolstering on the front seats.

Wrap Up
Toyota set out to produce a more exciting Corolla and in terms of the design, they definitely have made the most appealing Corolla yet. The drive is a step up from its predecessors but not quite the sporting drive that the Focus or the Mazda3 deliver. The interior design is classy to the eyes but not to the hands. It could use more soft touch material in places that people touch such as the door pull handles or upper door panels. I still applaud Toyota for offering cloth (or SofTex) inserts in the door panels on higher trim levels to break up the monotony where some competitors have went with an all-plastic interior door panel with a only small padded armrest. The larger size will accommodate passengers comfortably and a reasonably sized trunk will carry their luggage. The aggressive pricing provides more value for the money which may be enough to attract younger buyers into the Toyota fold but the Corolla, particularly the S, has one problem – its sibling, the Scion tC, that’s similarly priced and better equipped.

Pricing

USA: (Excludes $895 Delivery Fee)

L 6-Spd Manual: $16,900

L 4-Spd Auto: $17,500

 

LE CVT: $18,515

LE Plus CVT: $18,915

LE Premium CVT: $21,975

 

S CVTi-S: $19,145

S Plus 6-Spd Manual: $21,445

S Plus CVTi-S: $19,845

S Premium CVTi-S: $22,905

 

LE ECO CVT: $18,915

LE ECO Plus CVT: $19,615

LE ECO Premium CVT: $22,675

 

Canada: (Excludes $1,520 Freight/PDI)

CE 6-Spd Manual: $15,995 A/C Package: $17,630

CE 4-Spd Auto + A/C: $18,400

 

LE CVT: $19,725

Upgrade Package: $21,475

 

S 6-Spd Manual: $19,365

50th Anniversary Edition: $20,960

Upgrade Package: $21,115

50th Anniversary + Moonroof: $21,515

Technology Package: $23,280

S CVTi-S, add $985 to any package above

 

LE ECO CVT: $20,475

LE ECO Technology Package: $25,200