Toyota reclaimed one of the top spots among mid-size sedans, with ten standard airbags plus top overall ratings from both U.S. safety agencies. Bluetooth connectivity is included in all trims—even the base model—and the screen-based Display Audio system, with Bluetooth audio streaming, USB connectivity, and iPod connectivity, is now included even in the base Camry L. A navigation system with voice recognition is also available, as is a high-end JBL sound system, with HD Radio and satellite radio. And through Toyota’s advanced Entune system—also available—you can tap into Pandora streaming audio through your smartphone, as well as a suite of connected services. For 2014, the SE Sport trim–essentially a value package–has been brought back for the four-cylinder model. It comes standard with the 18-inch wheels, power driver’s seat and moonroof.
People who choose to drive out of necessity and practicality are going to find everything they need from the Corolla’s performance, but those who like to drive may find the experience too appliance-like. The Corolla’s 132-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine feels a bit short on power on the highway–particularly with the four-speed automatic, which has widely spaced gears and hesitant responses that can together add drama to highway passes. In general, the Corolla is softly sprung and lacking a handling and ride sophistication that many rivals now have. The electric power steering is dull and overly light, and that combined with the suspension makes the Corolla feel out of sorts on a curvy road.
It’s a case of give and take in performance, where the RAV4 gives up its V-6 aspirations for better, more carlike handling. There’s only a 176-horsepower four-cylinder under the hood now, but it’s saved by a six-speed automatic with a sport-shift mode and a 0-60 mph time in the acceptable range (under 9 seconds). Smoother than it is swift, the drivetrain doesn’t get in the way often, but never spurs the urge to drive more as we’ve felt in the latest Ford Escape. Revamped suspension tuning lets the RAV4 ride lower, and electric power steering has good weighting and centering feel. The choice at hand is whether to stand by the front-drive versions and their slightly lower curb weight, or opt for the upgraded, $1400 all-wheel-drive system, which not only locks the rear wheels in line in foul weather, but delivers some torque back there when the RAV4 tacks into a sweeping corner. Whatever the choice, avoid the Eco mode button–it’s called that because “joy extinguisher” wouldn’t fit–and we’d stick with the 17-inch tires on LE and XLE versions for a more absorbent ride.
Thanks to some design work originating in France, where the Yaris is built for the U.S., this model is more visually appealing, and it gets even more suave, sharp, and Euro-influenced for 2015. The overarching design has been preserved—tall yet nicely proportioned from the side, in either three- or five-door versions—the Yaris gets new detailing, with new hood sculpting, a swooping line of brightwork around a large Toyota emblem, and a larger trapezoidal grille with new black ‘mesh’ design texturing—results in a visual sum that isn’t just bolder, as Toyota likes to point out, but more flamboyant and original, as we see it. Inside, the cabin remains far more stylish and practical than previous Yaris generations (yes, we’ve *almost* forgotten about the center-mounted gauge cluster of its predecessor). The 2015 revamp also brings soft-touch materials to the instrument panel, a new sport gauge cluster for the SE, and new metallic and chrome accent trim throughout.
At least from the side, the Prius C looks conventional enough that you might not realize it’s a Prius–until you see the badges or its 50-mpg rating. Its shape combines a smooth, rounded, swept-back nose and smooth sides with a more conventionally vertical tail than the larger Prius liftback. The 2015 update brings a slightly more aggressive front end to replace the original happy face. This styling is very much in line with that of the similarly sized Toyota Yaris as well as the latest Camry. It seems Toyota is getting edgy with its styling, perhaps to appear more youthful. For the Prius C, it works. There’s no two-piece rear window here, just a conventional top-hinged hatchback flanked by high vertical tail lamps and topped by a surprisingly long roof spoiler–again to reduce fuel-wasting wind turbulence at speed. Especially from the rear, there’s really nothing that reads “hybrid” except for a Hybrid Synergy Drive badge.
Venza V-6 models come with a Towing Prep Package that allows up to 3,500 pounds of towing capacity. With all-wheel drive and a high-riding stance, you might think the Venza is up to off-road duty, but you’d be wrong. The all-wheel-drive system is intended for inclement weather, not tackling the Rubicon. Sitting relatively high up, the driver is presented with a driving experience that’s more minivan than SUV, with soft suspension tuning and numb steering. Those traits make it easy to drive, but sap any possibility of excitement. It still can be pressed to hustle corners at a surprising pace–it’s just not all that interested in doing so.
A much-improved set of connectivity and infotainment features is really the big news for 2013. The Venza is offered in four-cylinder or V-6 form, in base LE, mid-range XLE, and top-lux Limited trims—again with the Limited model V-6-only. But each level adds some other new features for 2013. LE models get new Display Audio systems (comparable to those that made their debut in the 2013 Camry), plus a blind-spot side mirrors, puddle lamps, and outer turn signals. Venza XLE models get a memory power driver’s seat, reverse-tilt outside mirrors, and navigation—in addition to Entune multi-media features. And at the top of the line, all Limited models now get LED daytime running lights plus premium 13-speaker JBL sound and an upgraded navigation system.
The Yaris design, now in its fourth year, is tall yet nicely proportioned from the side, and comes in either three- or five-door versions. Last year it got new hood sculpting, a swooping line of brightwork around a large Toyota emblem, and a larger trapezoidal grille with new black mesh design texturing. The result is a bold, even startling, front end on an otherwise straightforward hatchback shape. Inside, the practical and intuitive layout includes lots of storage areas, and the instruments are located in front of the driver, unlike previous Yaris generations. The dash has horizontal, shelf-like lines and the controls are simple, cheerful, and easy to understand.
Infotainment systems are perhaps the heart of it. They work well, without the now almost expected lag and latency, and with intuitive menus. Even at the Camry LE level, you get an Entune touchscreen audio and infotainment system with a CD player, auxiliary audio input, USB port, voice recognition, Bluetooth hands-free calling and audio streaming, and six speakers. Mid-level models get the Entune Audio Plus system with the new Connected Navigation Scout GPS Link App, which uses the customer’s smartphone to provide navigation functionality through the head unit. Top models get an Entune Premium Audio system with audio playback capability, HD predictive traffic, Doppler map overlay, and the Entune App Suite, which lets you run Bing search, Pandora, Yelp, and others on the touchscreen through your smartphone’s connection.
Cabin appointments, predictably, feel like those of a decade-old full-size pickup from the front seats. The design and some of the materials are carried right over from the last Tundra pickup, with matte-metallic plastic trim flowing down from the gauge area and covering part of the center console. We find that center-dash treatment a little overstyled, but otherwise the chunky design, with simple large controls and displays, is functional without looking too plain. That said, some of the Sequoia’s switchgear doesn’t feel up to a sticker price that approaches $70,000 when fully equipped.