2014 Toyota Corolla ‘S’ Premium: Not (yet) a Toyoda

Toyota Corolla S Campaign

The Corolla’s launch campaign. Can we feel the excitement? In a word, no…

As this is written, Toyota president Akio Toyoda is but a few weeks shy of his 58th birthday. And with that personal timeline Toyoda-san is fully within the throes (if a billionaire can ‘throe’) of middle age; as is, critics would note, most of Toyota’s automotive lineup. Whether considering the about-to-be-refreshed Camry, recently refreshed Highlander or all-new Toyota Corolla, a blandness hovers about the Toyota showroom that is almost palpable. Admittedly well-built, and after a series of recalls over the last few years once again perceived as reliable, there remains a sameness about the company’s car and truck menu that reminds you of Groundhog Day: It’s once again dawn, and haven’t we driven this (expletive deleted) Corolla before?

Akio Toyoda

Toyota president Akio Toyoda. An expression that speaks volumes.

With a week of driving the new Corolla scheduled we may not have been excited by its arrival, but were certainly curious. The Corolla ‘S’ Premium is at the top of the Corolla food chain, with a handful of exterior upgrades and a slew of interior mods. With a base of $20,400 (plus destination), those upgrades and mods (along with sunroof) add almost $2,400 to the Corolla’s bottom line, a figure not too dissimilar from what the first Coronas sold for back in the Swingin’ Sixties.

Shrouded in what Toyota calls Blue Crush Metallic (really…), the Corolla combines a more-or-less traditional 3-box profile with what John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn called ‘spunk’. This isn’t, to be sure, the ‘spunk’ associated with Toyota’s Furia concept, which previewed this newest Corolla at the 2013 Detroit show. But relative to what we typically see from the brain trust in Irvine, California…it’s pretty spunky.

And do those looks extend to what’s under the hood? Not, regrettably, that you’d notice. Equipped with 1.8 liters of dual overhead cams, Dual VVT-I and a CVT (a 6-speed manual is available), the 2014 Corolla goes about its business with an admirable degree of efficiency, while lacking anything you could remotely describe as personality. And while I get that the Corolla demographic will typically opt for appliance-like rather than visceral, the new sheetmetal promises at least a modicum of excitement. And that’s a descriptive president Akio Toyoda has publicly assured us is coming.

Of course, over some forty years I’ve driven any number of cars that overcame a horsepower deficit (the Corolla’s 132 is down some 23 from the base Mazda3’s 155) with connectivity. And no, we’re not referring to Apple or Bluetooth; we’re talking that connection between the car’s front end, your grip on the steering wheel and the occasionally warm (or tight) feeling between the cheeks. In our week – and some three hundred miles – we couldn’t discern any meaningful connection; this Corolla was rather like speed dating with virtually no semblance of ‘speed’.

2014 Toyota Corolla S

Daring to be different – but not that different.

All of the above, of course, brings us to pricing. With destination our Corolla ‘S’ Premium topped out at an eye-popping $23,570. And while that figure includes the 17-inch alloys, Entune audio, a 6-inch touchscreen and SofTex trim, $23K will get you a garage-full of Camry, Accord or Altima. (The Accord Sport, with a $2K premium, will cost you but $40 more a month.) And despite my very real affection for what the Corolla intends to achieve (simple and efficient motoring), your bang-for-the-buck is exponentially greater if purchasing one of Japan’s Bigger Three.

Or you might consider, for no more money and probably less, one of the Corolla’s direct competitors from the domestic side of Auto Row. Having not had a competitive entry in the subcompact category since the earliest Novas, Chevrolet seems to have found a design and marketing sweet spot with its newest Chevy Cruze. And if you enjoy upscale furnishings and (perhaps) a less-harried shopping experience, the same credible platform can be found with new sheetmetal and ‘prettier’ appointments as the Buick Verano.

Ford’s showroom is perhaps even stronger, with various iterations of the well-received Focus and Fusion available between roughly $18K and the Corolla’s $23,000. That money won’t buy you the hyper-performing Focus ST, but will equip you with the goodness of a Focus 5-door, appropriate interior upgrades and a platform fully connected to the road.

Finally, there’s the all-new Mazda3, no longer sharing the aforementioned Focus platform and – despite the Focus’ capability – presumably the better for it. And while Mazda’s own window sticker can reach some rather dizzying heights, you can keep it simple and attractive for something south of the Toyota price point.

The Corolla will continue to serve a segment of the market more interested in getting from ‘A’ to ‘B’ than making a stylistic statement. And while the Corolla S Premium’s window sticker seems daunting (or insane – pick one or both), a competent Corolla can be bought for almost $6K less. If Mr. Toyoda is serious, however, about giving the Toyota brand a swift kick in the *ss, his team might have started with the Corolla. It’s in dire need of that swift kick, another 30 horses and a window sticker roughly 10% lower on the same level of equipment. Were it our $23K and we simply had to shop Toyota, we’d be in a base RAV4. That brings to the table both a modicum of sport and buttload of utility. Just sayin’…