While not a hybrid, the conventionally powered Toyota Corolla has long-since garnered a following as a frugal and economical car.
Of course the minimum bar for “good” gas mileage has also long-since been raised, but with the 2014 overhaul of the compact sedan that’s been carried forth for 2015, the “Eco” version of the Corolla is rated up to 30 mpg city, 42 highway, 35 combined.
That doesn’t nearly beat the 50 mpg Prius but the Corolla LE Eco’s sub-$20,000 entry point and fact that it’s one of America’s top-10 most fuel efficient non-hybrids means it could be worth a look and we’re not the only ones who say so.
Actually, the Corolla line has been around for 49 years, has sold over 40 million copies, is now available in 154 countries, and is the quintessential set of wheels to haul the family or yourself solo around in compact, reliable, and serviceable style.
As for that style, the designers were turned loose on the 11th generation in hopes of luring a more youthful-minded buyer. The “boring” look as some have called it was tossed, and in came a sharp front face, new cues from its big brothers in the family, improved interior, and while they were at it, almost as much rear legroom as a Camry.
The Eco’s price premium over a regular comparable Corolla LE is $400 and for that comes 3 mpg better combined fuel mileage and ironically a tad more power. But is there a catch? Let’s find out.
Adorning the DOHC 16-valve 1.8-liter four-cylinder is a plastic beauty cover with the words “VALVEMATIC.” This system offers a broader range of continuously variable valve timing (lift and phasing) for the intake valves (not exhaust) relative to engine demands. The Eco is the first Toyota to get it in North America and it gives a five-percent power edge over siblings with 140 horsepower and 126 pounds-feet of torque.
This compares to the standard engine’s 132 horsepower /128 torque combo and is made further efficient with a continuously variable transmission (actually CVTi-S – i for intelligent, S for shift).
The CVTi-S is one of the choices in other non-Eco trims too, and in any case Toyota has simulated shift points to mimic the stepped gearshifts of a conventional automatic. This it did because drivers have complained about the “rubber band” effect of regular CVTs.
As for the EPA rated mpg, this differs depending on wheel choice. With the plainer 15-inch steel wheels with covers (pictured) mpg is better at the aforementioned 30 mpg city, 42 highway. Opt for 16-inch alloys and ratings drop to 30 city 40 highway, and the combined figure drops 1 mpg to 34 mpg.
To go along with a revised chassis, suspension, and lengthened wheelbase, the sheet metal is sharper. The look is almost aggressive in front, but merges to sharper than before in the rear but otherwise kind of generic.
But it’s the face you normally look at first, right? And eyes? In this case, LED headlights are the first offered on a compact sedan and they’re complemented by a new grille treatment.
Efficiency tricks included low rolling resistance tires and to smooth airflow and thus improve mpg, the Eco get covers below the bumper fascia, engine, front and rear floor, and fuel tank.
Inside the interior is also refreshed all around with the centerstack drawing your eye along with some technological bells and whistles your dad’s Corolla never had.
For example, the new Corolla has a push button starter, and available are features like navigation, heated front seats, and Toyota’s Entune system that can accept apps to personalize the infotainment.
From a more practical people-mover standpoint, probably the most astonishing improvement is the interior room, especially in back. This is a compact car which was stretched 3.93 inches between axles which opened up almost three-more inches of rear legroom, now pegged close to a midsized Camry at 41.4 inches.
The centerline floor hump was also lowered to make middle rear seating not such a hardship.
Trimmed seatbacks for the front seats add to the rear knee room, though rear headroom is only alright for taller people. It should fit most average sized people fine.
But overall, while Toyota spiffed up the details that draw the eye, underlying it all is the same formula that made the Japanese sedan that’s only two years younger than Ford’s venerable Mustang the global cumulative best seller.
And this not-so secret formula is the updated car is still very much a Corolla.
As you might expect the Corolla LE Eco feels modern enough, with a touch of new upscale features and design. The cloth seats we sampled are comfortable, material quality is nice all around, and switches feel reliable.
The pushbutton fires up the thrifty gas burner which is quiet and hushed during operation with extensive sound deadening added for the redesign.
Acceleration is sufficient for the sub-2,900-pound car that really is leagues better than former generations, and 140 horsepower once upon a time would have made an early generation hot hatch envious. Today, it’s just OK in world of cars that have gotten bigger, heavier and faster.
To help save gas, there’s an ECO drive mode that changes accelerator response to non-linear to suppress the car’s response to choppy driving and to somewhat limit acceleration rate.
After 50-percent throttle, the pedal is the same as “Normal” mode.
ECO mode also limits air conditioning operation as applicable, cutting compressor energy consumption and switching to recirculation mode.
As for road dynamics, Toyota has added more high-tensile steel for increased rigidity, improved the front MacPherson strut and rear torsion beam axle suspension, and revised damper settings in light of the enhanced structural engineering.
What’s the result? The car still feels like a Corolla, and that is purely not accidental. Here the automaker did not want to mess with a good thing with its bread and butter car.
The electric energy-saving steering tracks nicely, feels acceptable in turns, and the vehicle tracks around like it should.
Bump attenuation is decent, the ride is smooth enough. Nail a big pothole though, and you will feel it, though that could be said of a lot of cars.
Fuel mileage observed is on par with the EPA ratings if driven at an ordinary pace. The usual qualifiers apply here. Speed and drive carelessly, and even ECO mode won’t save you from using more gas than the government rates. Take care, and practice smooth driving, and you may exceed the numbers.
The styling will never confuse people that this is now a sports sedan, but it is sharper even with large wheel gaps at the arches and a generic rear end. But that’s not all this car is about. It’s about chart-topping reliability, functionality, decent value for the money, and even good resale value. Here the Corolla that’s all-new as it approaches its 50th birthday should help uphold the tradition.
Compared to direct competitors like those from Honda, Hyundai, Mazda, Chevrolet, etc., the Toyota is nicely revised to stay current.
Compared to other alternative-energy cars, the whole question becomes what are your goals? Want to burn less gas? Get a hybrid. Want to burn even less or no gas? Think plug-in hybrid. If you never want to stop at a gas station again, go EV.
Admittedly those vehicles are not normally thought of as direct competitors, and the closest fuel-sipping alternative-tech car would be a hybrid. Next to the Prius Liftback starting $5,300 more, over years you’ll probably make up the difference – and you’ll have a Prius which is an entirely different ownership experience.
And how does it rank next to its actual siblings?
The only reasons to get any other Corolla would be personal ones – such as you want the manual transmission available with the S Plus or L trims, or other lifetyle considerations.
Compared to more ordinary Corolla LE, the Corolla LE Eco’s $400 extra to save 3 mpg and even get more power is probably a clear choice in the affirmative.