The all-new 2014 Toyota Corolla is by no means all-new. It's an updated version of a car that's already eight years old, with Stone Age suspension design, low-power and relatively low-MPG engines, obsolete drum brakes, and a transmission familiar to any car buyer of the 1980s. That's bad.
Toyota flew me out to sunny San Diego last week to drive the new 2014 Corolla. All driving impressions and pricing information is strictly embargoed by the Toyota Motor Corporation until tomorrow. Expect a full review after midnight tonight. Now, though, I can still explain why this car fundamentally breaks with the one tradition that made the Corolla successful in the first place, and how it falls into the same cash-saving mistakes that doomed its rivals.
The Corolla is a huge deal for Toyota, selling in dozens of markets across the globe, produced in at least 16 places, and sold to millions of buyers. Getting it wrong would be a massive blow to the company and so Toyota, even at its most extreme, can only go so far.
The Corolla's Chief Engineer, Shinichi Yasui, very frankly explained the problem with his current-generation design, telling journalists at the vehicle's launch that people tell him, "Corolla is [a] good car, but [there's a] lack of excitement." He went on to explain that the main goals for the 2014 were updating the styling, the driving feel, and the pride of ownership in the car.
What ended up happening was they ended up building the car on what appears to be the same platform as the old model. This means that the car retains a twist-beam axle in the rear, it retains its old non-turbo four-cylinder engines with middle-of-the-pack MPGs and bottom-of-the-pack power, it retains its drum brakes in the back (just like you'd find on a Corolla in the 1970s), and it retains a four-speed automatic, which hasn't been cutting edge since the 1980s.
Let me elaborate on the four-speed auto. First off, it's only available on the lowest trim level and there's nothing keeping potential Corolla buyers from optioning out a brand-new CVT.
Now, it's not like the four-speed auto jerks you around around or stabs you in the eyeballs every time it changes gear. It's not aggressively bad. But it does say that Toyota thinks it can get away with selling obsolete technology to dumb Americans who don't know any better and it means that the Corolla will never give off an image of cutting-edge design or great value.
If you buy a new Corolla, you're saying to the world that you willfully passed up newer cars with more advanced design. It says that you just don't give a shit. Given that Toyota has promised the opposite with their cars for the last few generations makes me think they're making a mistake.
Even worse than the transmission is Toyota's engine offerings. The L, LE, and S models get a 1.8 liter, 132 horsepower four cylinder that should get somewhere around 27 and 29 MPG city and between 36 and 38 MPG highway, depending on whether or not you choose the archaic four speed or the more expensive CVT. This engine debuted in the mid 2000s. The Eco model, on the other hand, gets brand-new variable valve technology that not only boosts horsepower up to 140, but also should be able to get 42 MPG highway and something over 30 MPG city.
To recap: the most powerful engine is the most economical, and it is only offered on one limited trim level.
Why is Toyota not offering this engine as standard across the Corolla line in the United States? Is it a production issue? Do they lack the capacity? Is there an underlying problem? I'd run around naked through the NY Auto Show if this more powerful, more economical engine wasn't available across the board in a few years, but right now it's an embarrassment for the world's largest car company to not sell it across the line.
Look around the interior, and the 2014 model is done up in much, much finer materials, but everything is laid out just like its 2013 predecessor. The steering wheel is the exact same shape and the buttons are in the same place, the air vents are in the same place, the infotainment screen is in the same place, as are the parking brake, the window dividers, the door latches, the door handles, the cupholders, the door speakers, the gearshift, the glovebox, the mirror controls, the door locks, the washer stalks, the map lights, and a few dozen other buttons, knobs, switches, footwell shapes, and carpets that I can't keep track of.
It would be easy to say that familiarity will appeal to the steady return buyers of the Corolla, but given that familiarity isn't bringing success to the 2013 Corolla, I don't think that will hold true as this 2014 model gets extensively older.
When you look at the current 2013 Corolla, Toyota is having to put more and more cash on the hood of the car to get it out of the showroom, and they're dumping an estimated 23% of their Corolla production into fleet sales according to Edmunds and Automotive News. If this a trend for a car that's just six years old, what happens when the Corolla has twelve-year-old bones?
The problem with Toyota keeping the Corolla on such a geriatric platform isn't necessarily that they're building a bad car. As I said before, the Corolla isn't particularly offensive. In fact, there's something very desirable about cars built on platforms that are in production for decades. Cars like the Model T, the VW Beetle, and the original Mini Cooper are among the most legendary cars in automotive history. And since these cars stayed in production for so long, the companies that built them had time to work out kinks in their design, streamline their assembly lines, and recuperate initial investments in tooling.
The problem is that while these cars are remembered very fondly, they never really sold well when their competition regularly updated their lineups. Ford tumbled from their spot as #1 carmaker in the world when they kept the Model T around too long. VW lost their grip on the American small car market when younger compacts from Japan regularly introduced new generations every few years.
GM was notorious for keeping cars like the Chevy Cavalier and the front-wheel-drive Lumina platforms on the market for decades. This (lack of) strategy ended with GM going bankrupt and Toyota stealing their crown of world's largest automaker. Keeping a durable platform on the market for years might seem honorable, but history shows it's a losing strategy with American carbuyers.
The Toyota MC platform dates back to 2006, when it debuted in the US under the RAV4, of all things. The 2006 Japanese-market Corolla was also on the MC platform, along with the Prius, the Matrix, the Scion xB, the Lexus CT. The current 2009-2013 Corolla (the red car in the pictures) is on the MC platform reports Automotive News, despite the fact that it looks just like its 2003-2008 predecessor. Some sources claim the 2007 and up Camry is MC-derived, but I believe there are significant differences between the Corolla and Camry under the skin, and Mark Rechtin, Automotive News's specialist on Toyota in America, agreed with me.
With the bad stuff out of the way, let me add that the interior is miles ahead of the old car in terms of materials, the styling is handsome if forgettable, updated crash structures conform to new testing standards, and there are new spot welds that strengthen the underlying chassis. Toyota also added a new set of bushings to the rear suspension, which are supposed to make the car more comfortable on highway cruising.
I'm not going to say that this is an outright bad car. I will say that it is already years behind its competition in terms of styling and design and it has four to six years of sales ahead of it.
It's one thing for Toyota to pass off a heavy refresh like this for a model year or two. It's entirely another thing for them to bank on this level of rehashing until we're nearly in the next decade.
Another journalist on this trip (whose name escaped me after a few free beers on Toyota's dime) explained that Toyota's PR people told him they benchmarked class-leading cars like the Ford Focus in the 2014 Corolla's development. The PR people were careful, however, never to claim that their new Toyota was any better than its rivals. All they could say was that it was better than the old Corolla.
All this being said, the Corolla is still strong in two areas: it's bigger than its competition inside and out, and it has every chance of maintaining Toyota's reputation for unbeatable reliability. If they're planning on manufacturing the same damn parts or over a decade, you had better hope they car is reliable.
In the end, don't these shortcomings actually support the reasons why anyone buys a Corolla? There have always been rivals in its class with better technology, better styling, and better handling. The Corolla is about conservative styling (which is maintained for 2014) and a reputation for reliability (which is also maintained for 2014).
The issue isn't really about 2014, though. By the time that model year 2019 rolls around, Toyota may be selling a Corolla with a platform that dates back to 2006. Toyota's current cheapskate tactics with the 2014 Corolla will bite them in the ass in a few years and they'll be left shipping out their Corollas in large numbers to fleet sales and bottom-tier buyers, further eroding the brand's reputation. That's exactly what's happening to the 2013 Corolla now, which looks and feels absolutely ancient and it's only six years old at this point.
Photo Credits: Raphael Orlove