2014 Toyota Corolla

2014 Toyota Corolla

Despite its perceived humbleness, the Toyota Corolla is an undisputed icon of the automotive world. It has been at or near the top of the best-seller list for most of its 50-year (and counting) run, with an astounding 40 million units sold. Yet, like that friend who excels at most sports but isn't a superstar standout in any one, the Corolla has always been about pursuing the humdrum glory of sensibility: Always rock-solid reliable, but never a hint of sex appeal.

Over the last five or so years, Toyota had grown ever more complacent with its stalwart sedan (the phrase "dull as dishwater" comes to mind in thinking of the outgoing 2013 Corolla). So when rumors spread that Toyota would be pulling out all the stops to produce something special for the 11th generation of its tried-and-true compact, our ears perked up. Hell, we were downright excited to see whether Toyota engineers would have the cojones to conjure up something special for their top seller.

Well, a recent spin in the all-new 2014 Corolla revealed the changes were evolutionary more than revolutionary – and yet we were impressed with the upgrades. It's a family car through and through, for sure, but Toyota has finally injected a little much-needed attitude into the little compact that could.

The Corolla's new chutzpah comes from sleeker, crisp lines and more athletic proportions – its lower, wider, and longer stance give it a more aggressive appearance. Plus, the interior looks and feels far more refined, with lots of soft-touch materials (though we don't love how some of the dash appliqués are reflective, which can be blinding in direct sunlight).

The latest tech options have finally been implemented – Bluetooth connectivity, smart key, push-button start, heated front seats, navigation system, and rearview camera – as are three different audio systems, including two versions of Toyota's Entune system with App Suite. This highly customizable infotainment unit should please tech-loving consumers and comes loaded with apps like Pandora, MovieTickets.com, OpenTable, and iHeartRadio as well as informational data services like fuel prices, sports, traffic, and weather. It's not Tesla, but it's full service and solid.

Under the hood, Toyota wisely left the Corolla's time-tested drivetrain pretty much alone. For 2014, the four-door will be available with two versions of the company's 1.8-liter, all-aluminum four-cylinder engine (one the same and one upgraded). Neither is going to earn you any pink slips racing in back alleys, however, the upgraded four-banger features Toyota's new Valvematic variable valve-timing technology, which boosts horsepower and fuel economy by 5 percent (bringing total engine output to 140 hp). Only available on the LE Eco model paired to the CVT automatic transmission, the engine is good for an impressive 30 mpg city and 40 mpg highway – or an impressive 42 mpg with the base 15-inch steel wheels. Those are sensationally good numbers for an all-gasoline car, and they rival many hybrids. And even the least-efficient Corolla in the lineup, the four-speed automatic L version, is still rated at a solid 27 mpg city and 36 mpg highway.

As promised, Toyota did engineer a little more driver enjoyment into the new Corolla. Ride and handling have improved noticeably and overall the ride was softer over the bumpy stuff and feels more composed at speed. While we wouldn't imply that the Corolla is sporty yet, it tracks far better, feels livelier, and has more engaged steering. And most important, on our recent drive, this car no longer felt as though we were sitting high atop a milk crate behind the wheel; to the contrary, we felt more connected with the road and more centered in the cockpit. In short, there was never any doubt we were driving a Corolla, but that's a good thing, because there's never been a better time to say that. The 2014 update continues this sedan's decades-long tradition: It's utterly predictable and guaranteed to deliver hundreds of thousands of worry-free miles. [From $16,800; toyota.com