Odometer at pick-up: 1,744 km

The Toyota Corolla is a legend. An icon.

The Corolla is now something entirely different, even if you can still get it in beige.

While it is often the object of some derision in enthusiast circles, it's only the truly blind that cannot see its brilliance. At various times in its past the Corolla has worn both the crown of reliability and the shackles of complete and utter lack of character (as well as one glorious shining moment of mythological prowess in the AE86). But the latest generation of Corolla has struck an interesting blend of practicality, style, quality and competence that has impressed me thoroughly.

Throwing off the blandness of the previous generation’s design and massively improving the lacklustre driving experience while retaining its comfort, efficiency and practicality allowed it to reign supreme in a showdown with its archrival Honda Civic and place an impressive second in our last Mega-Comparison of compact cars. In its previous incarnation, it was a disastrous last place in our first compact car mega-comparison in which I dubbed it “The Anti-Car”, unable to capitalize on its reputation for reliability and resale value to climb the rankings, when it had very little to offer mechanically and others that eclipsed it for practicality and efficiency.

But that was then and this is now. The Corolla is now something entirely different, even if you can still get it in beige (calling it Brown Sugar doesn’t sweeten the drab colour quite enough to not be beige), and still expect it to be reliable and retain value as well as or better than any other compact.

You can see for yourself that the design is sharper and features a large prominent grille with more angular detailing and creased body panels. I’ll leave the “bold” and “dynamic” adjectives to the PR folks, but I think it safe to agree that this is a braver design than Corollas past and far more of the people with whom I’ve discussed it have positive things to say about this styling direction.

Under the skin, it retains the common front-engine, front-wheel-drive formula for efficient commuting, with typical MacPherson struts up front and torsion beam in back. Power is provided by a 1.8L four-cylinder, but it can be had in a couple of different ways. Most models use a dual variable valve timing mechanism to deliver an efficient combustion process with ample power at 132 hp and 128 lb-ft of torque. Eco models use Toyota’s Valvematic continuously variable valve-train mechanism for greater efficiency and a bump to 140 hp, but a drop to 126 lb-ft of torque. Despite the Eco badge it is the base engine that earns a cleaner ULEV II emissions rating compared to the Eco’s LEV3.

Fuel consumption varies by trim, but is no higher than 8.6 L/100 km in the city and 6.5 L/100 km on the highway. The LE Eco CVT is the most efficient of the bunch, with 7.7 city rating and 5.6 for highway driving and 6.8 combined. Our test car, the Corolla S CVT, is rated at 7.9/6.1/7.1 city/highway/combined, so we expect a summer of efficient motoring between our commuting routine and any road trips we undertake.

The Corolla lineup starts at a modest $15,995 (and $1,560 for Freight & PDI) for a CE model with a manual transmission and no air conditioning. The Spartan list of features includes four-speaker audio with USB input in addition to AM/FM/CD and MP3, Bluetooth hands-free phone capability, steering wheel audio controls, power door locks, power windows, 15-inch steel wheels and LED headlights. To get air conditioning, you can either spend $1,870 for just A/C, or ante up an extra $800 on top of that for the CE Automatic (with a four-speed automatic transmission) for $18,635.

But really, what most Corolla shoppers will wisely do is head straight to the $19,960 LE CVT. The LE CVT starts with a more sophisticated and efficient continuously variable transmission, air conditioning and adds two speakers (for six total), a 6.1-inch touchscreen display, keyless entry, back-up camera, heated front seats, “Eco Driving Indicator”, upgraded seat fabric and interior materials, cruise control and 16-inch steel wheels. A $1,750 Upgrade Package adds leather-wrapped steering wheel, same size alloy wheels, climate control, fog lamps and a power moonroof.

The LE Eco incorporates most of the features above, plus a rear lip spoiler, climate control and TPMS for $20,710. That’s not a very impressive list of equipment, but opens the door to the high-content $4,725 Tech Package with essentially all the goodies barring a few sport-oriented features of the S trim.

If you prefer or can stand to row your own gears, the Corolla S trim offers even better value, with many of the same features as the LE with Upgrade (six-speaker stereo with 6.1-inch touchscreen display, fog lights, variable intermittent wipers, leather steering wheel, heated seats), plus a long list of extras:  bolstered sport seats with sport fabric and eight-way power adjustability, 3.5-inch TFT info display in the gauge cluster, power heated mirrors with integrated signal lamps, sport front & rear fascia and chrome exhaust tip.

On top of the S trim, the CVT is a $985 add-on and you can choose from two upgrade packages. The basic Upgrade Package is $1,750, with Power Moonroof, 17-inch alloy wheels and rear disc brakes. The Technology Package is $3,915, with all the features of the Upgrade, plus navigation, satellite radio, Softex simulated leather, proximity entry and push-button start, and auto-dimming rear-view mirror.

This is how our long-term tester arrived, in S trim with the CVT and Technology package, pretty much loaded up as much as a Corolla can get, ringing in at $26,160 before regional taxes. Toyota selected a vibrant Blue Crush metallic for this example, and it works well with the new design, somewhat absorbing the gawp-mouthed lower front grille.

All trims come with Toyota’s Star Safety system combo of Vehicle Stability Control, Traction Control, Anti-lock Brakes, Electronic Brake-force Distribution, Brake Assist and Smart Stop Technology, plus eight airbags, whiplash-injury-lessening front seats, LATCH anchors for the two outboard positions in back. However, it received only a Moderate score in the IIHS small overlap test  and does not offer any of the advanced driver aid safety systems like front crash prevention, lane departure warning, blind spot assist or the “You’re going to slow in the fast lane” alert.

There’s quite a bit of overlap between various of the packages and trims, so take your time sifting through the features to make sure you’re not adding excessive content when an upgrade package on a lower trim might suit your needs jut as well, and note that the S offers a couple of those vibrant colour choices that are supplanted by the understated Brown Sugar and 4evergreen Mica.

We’ve done little more than drive our trusty Corolla back across town after picking it up, but we were instantly reminded of one other favourite aspect of this generation: the sport seats are as good as anything in the segment and would be at home in many a modest sports car. Bluetooth was simple to pair, favourite radio stations are set up and the home screen customized with the four phone shortcuts I use most frequently.

I’m looking forward to spending several months in this Canadian icon, a symbol of reliability and trustworthiness, and transportation of the people here in our urban landscape. It’s a car that has made a great first impression, proved itself in the gauntlet of an autoTRADER.ca comparison and now will undergo the most thorough of reviews in the day-to-day grind.