Scott Sturgis' Driver's Seat: Toyota Corolla LE Eco up to speed

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2014 Toyota Corolla LE Eco vs. 2014 Honda Civic 4 Door EX-L with navi

This week: Toyota Corolla LE Eco

Price: $19,510 as tested. (No options. Includes destination.)

Conventional wisdom: likes the “roomy rear seat; comfortable ride; simple controls; extra fuel-efficient LE Eco model,” but not the “modest horsepower and acceleration; usefulness of available Entune system …”

Marketer’s pitch: “We turned up everything.”

Reality: There was a lot of “up” available to turn over previous models, and Toyota does seem to have turned some of it.

New generation: Toyota gave the bread-and-butter Corolla a redesign for the 2014 model year, but most people are going to have to squint hard to see the changes. My notes include the line, “It says it’s new for 2014, but really? What’s new?”

It retains the same basic overall look and still pretty much acts like a Corolla. But it has grown by almost four inches in length and gotten a hair shorter.

Eco: One new feature of the 2014 model is the new Eco line, which promises 42 mpg on the highway. It features a 140-horsepower 1.8-liter four-cylinder, which is actually eight more horses than the standard model. I averaged 34 mpg, not as advertised, but on the high side for small cars under my testing. Your mileage may vary.

CVT: This modern alternative to the automatic transmission joins the Corolla lineup as well (on every trim level except the basic L). It’s a nice step up from the old four-speed automatic, which in the 2013 model kind of made me want to pull my flip phone out of the pocket of my flannel shirt, call the local record store, and ask them if my Nirvana cassette had arrived yet.

The CVT boosts fuel economy, theoretically, but frustrates people who have grown up focused on the rhythm of gearshifts and who think this turns cars — especially small ones — into golf carts.

As far as CVTs go, it’s the smoothest I’ve tried, but it’s not making me a convert.

On the road: Acceleration happens at a fairly leisurely pace, and I’m among the most patient auto reviewers you’ve met. The handling is fair. Curvy roads won’t excite drivers; the Corolla competence remains, but that’s about it.

Construction zones and bumpy roads, however, set the Corolla tossing around on the highway, even more than other small cars. The low-rolling resistance tires on the Eco model may contribute to this, but I’d never noticed a similar effect in any of the Priuses I’ve tried and they use similar footing.

Comfy on the cheap: People who don’t want to spend extra for fancy seats — yes, that includes me — are well served by Toyota. The budget cloth seats in the model I tried were comfortable enough and held me in place nicely.

Keeping cool — warm: The heater control astounds in its simplicity. A dial handles the temperature; buttons control the fan. Buttons often don’t work for me, but the Corolla’s are big and easy to follow.

Simple tunes: The radio controls also function well. Knobs on either side are intuitive. There’s a readout display, but no map came with this model.

From behind: Every Corolla except the basic L comes with a standard backup camera. So, adding this information to the aforementioned four-speed auto, my recommendation: Buy any Corolla except the L. It can be challenging to see out the back window.

Cruising: I love the Toyota cruise control stalk — appears on every Toyota I’ve driven. It’s an oldie but a goodie.

Friends and stuff: The rear seats offer nice territory for third and fourth friends, or for young’uns. (There exists a middle seatbelt as well, but let’s simply acknowledge that fact and stop.) Legroom and foot room are good — almost in Jetta territory. Heads will find the space a little snug but not bad.

Often the rear seat itself can be disappointing, hard, oddly angled and lacking any adjustment. While the Corolla seat is fixed (except for folding down), the seat offers great comfort for a small-car back seat.

Clear gauges: As the mainstay competitor Honda Civic has gone spaceship with its two-piece dashboard, the Corolla keeps this aspect simple as well. And the speedometer and other gauges are nice and clear.

Night shift: Interior lighting often gets skimped on in a cheap, small car, but the Corolla’s was bright without interfering with driving. The headlights didn’t make an appearance in my notes, so no problems there, either.

Where it’s built: Tupelo, Miss.

How it’s built: Its predicted reliability is above average from Consumer Reports, which also adds a recommended rating.

In the end: Given the choice between the two exact vehicles I drove, I’d pick the Corolla. It’s definitely more practical, with the large back seat, better mileage and slightly more comfort. But let me try a couple stick-shift versions and that could change.

Scott Sturgis, a freelance auto writer, can be reached at

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