Can Toyota's New Corolla Compete With Ford's Focus?


The all-new 2014 Toyota Corolla, shown here in sporty "S" trim. Photo credit: Toyota

Here it is, folks: The all-new 2014 Toyota Corolla, arriving at your local dealer this fall.

What do you think?

Before you answer, here's some food for thought. This car is a big deal for Toyota. The Corolla isn't just Toyota's best-seller, it's one of the two best-selling cars in the world.

For many drivers around the world, the Corolla is the car, the only one they'll consider when they need a new ride. There's a good reason for that: For years, it was a no-brainer choice, a dependable car that was easy on gas, lasted a long time, and lived up to its promises.

That's still true. But lately, the Corolla's competition has gotten a lot tougher, starting with the otherbest-selling car in the world, Ford's much-lauded Focus.

And that makes this all-new Corolla an even bigger deal than it might have been otherwise.

Did Toyota really "elevate expectations"?
Toyota's PR folks certainly want the new car to be seen as a game changer. The press release that landed in my mailbox late Thursday night was titled, "Toyota Elevates Expectations with the Surprising 2014 Corolla".

But is that wishful thinking? Certainly the new Corolla comes with some intriguing changes, starting with its daring (by Toyota's standards, anyway) styling. It's certainly... different, at least in appearance.

But whether it "elevates expectations" is another question. The problem really is that expectations for the new Corolla were already elevated, thanks to the Focus and other surprisingly strong compacts like Hyundai's Elantra that have come to market since the last all-new Corolla hit the U.S. in 2008.

Toyota needed to make a bold step forward to catch up with that competition - while at the same time, not alienating that big following of loyal customers who were happy with the old car. Did Toyota do it? Let's take a closer look.

Some significant changes beneath the new skin
There are real changes to the Corolla that go way beyond its interesting new styling. Its wheelbase is almost four inches longer than the old car's, giving more room inside. The change is particularly noticeable in the back seat, where Toyota says it has gained 2.95 inches of length over the old car.

Thank the Chinese market for that one. In China, busy white-collar types often employ drivers, so that owners can ride in the back seat while someone else navigates traffic. A roomy back seat is a critical selling point in China, and the size and influence of China's market is making bigger back seats a global design trend.

The 2014 Corolla has a revamped interior. Photo credit: Toyota

Overall, the interior looks like an upgrade over the old car's, with nicer materials and a clean design. It has to be, because that's one place where expectations have been seriously elevated in this segment. Toyota's interiors are always well-assembled and functional, but the materials in the old car were kind of Tupperware-ish - good enough in 2008, but not close to the near-luxury-car finish found in newer entrants like the Focus and General Motors' Chevy Cruze.

The new car steps up on the high-tech front as well - but again, that's part of the price of entry in this segment now. A touchscreen audio system with Bluetooth will be offered, along with other techy features like a backup monitor, and it'll be the first compact car to come standard with LED headlights.

Toyota being Toyota, the new Corolla will offer a selection of well-thought-out, but conservative, drivetrains, including an "Eco" line that will have a more efficient, 1.8-liter engine and other changes to attain a highway rating of 40 miles per gallon or better.

But is it all enough?

It won't rock the world, but it should get the job done for Toyota
To my eyes, this new Corolla isn't at all a game changer. It doesn't make the hot cars in this segment look irrelevant, or even like yesterday's news. It doesn't even really offer much beyond Honda's recently revamped Civic. And it's unlikely to make a big dent in the sales gains Ford has been posting with its Focus.

But I don't think it needed to be a game changer. I think it just needed to update Toyota's game in a segment where the game has already changed in a big way since the last Corolla, and it needed to do that while keeping Toyota loyalists happy. In that sense, it'll probably do just fine.

I can't say I'm wild about the styling. That grill is just... well, I don't think it makes the statement that CEO Akio Toyoda might have had in mind. But I think it'll get the job done for Toyota, and give it something of a boost in a segment where it had been seen as falling behind.

What do you think? Is this new Corolla a strong contender? Or did Toyota miss the mark? Scroll down to leave a comment and let me know.

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Fool contributor John Rosevear owns shares of Ford and General Motors. Follow him on Twitter at @jrosevear.The Motley Fool recommends Ford and General Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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