When Toyota first introduced the Corolla to the U.S. in 1968, its intention was to offer a car that blended quality, style and economy in one neat little package. That recipe struck a chord, not only with Americans, but with people everywhere. And the Corolla was soon the best selling automotive name in the world. Nearly thirty years and eight generations later, Toyota is still using the same tried and true formula for yet another new Corolla. But with intensified competition, does this chord still ring true, or has it lost a few notes?
That all depends on whether you liked the tune that Toyota was playing with the Corolla in the first place. Those who have been singing the Corolla’s praises for the last 30 years definitely do. So Toyota isn’t likely to ask them to learn a new number anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean that Toyota can’t tweak the melody a bit. Note the parking lamps have been moved from the bumper to the headlight housings to make them more bump resistant.
And the new Corolla is larger, as well. It’s longer, wider and taller than that of its predecessor. Overall the familiar and smoother sheet metal now bears an even stronger resemblance to its big sibling, the Camry. And the family traits don’t stop there. In appearance, the Corolla’s new interior is also very Camry-like, with slight increases in front head and leg room.
Though its lesser status is reflected in the rather disappointing quality of most interior plastics, especially that of the dash. The same cannot be said, however, for the Corolla’s bucket seats, which in our LE-grade test car came equipped with a class first, optional side impact air bag. The seats are well-padded and more supportive than those of many compact sedans, and face a set of large, clear analog gauges. The optional compact disc stereo is well laid out and easy to reach, as are the rotary ventilation controls shared with the new Sienna minivan.
The warm weather power sunroof, optional on LEs only, takes up less headroom than before. While the huge glove box, and a host of nooks and crannies, provide plenty of storage space all year long. And the new cupholders, well, they now hold real cups, not just 12-ounce cans.
The rear bench seat is comfortable, and offers adult-size headroom, but since Corolla wheelbase is unchanged at a short 97 inches, leg room is far too tight. A clever, retractable center shoulder belt stays out of the way when folding the standard split seatback. We thought the pass-though opening was a bit tight, however, and wondered why Toyota insisted on putting the seatback release in the trunk. The trunk itself is quite roomy, measuring 12.1 cubic feet.
To haul an extra 130 pounds of car, Toyota has given the Corolla an all-new 1.8-liter, twin-cam 16-valve 4-cylinder engine. Now all-aluminum, it pumps out 120 horsepower, and 122 pound-feet of torque. That’s a 15-horsepower increase. The base 1.6-liter engine is gone.
But the one Corolla engine is offered with three transmissions. A 5-speed manual, a 3-speed automatic for VE and CE grade cars, and our LE test car’s new 4-speed automatic. With 4 speeds and 120 horses, our car hit 60 in 10 seconds flat. The quarter mile ran out in 17.4 seconds, with a terminal speed of 80 miles per hour. Bottom end power was quite strong for a mere 1.8 liters of engine, and the power band wide, flat and steady. The new 4-speed transmission is among the smoothest of small car automatics, with gear ratios that make efficient use of all 120 horses.
The MacPherson strut suspension is carried over from last year. We found that, despite a sudden cold snap that robbed our testers of tire grip, it delivered the controlled, predictable handling that Corolla drivers have come to expect. Braking also suffered slightly due to the cold, averaging 140 feet from 60. But with optional ABS controlling the front discs and rear drums, stability was first rate.
Our drivers were also very impressed with the Corolla’s performance on the street. Daily commutes, and even long highway trips, were less tiring this year, thanks to substantial improvements in sound insulation. While the more rigid platform helped give the Corolla a much more comfortable ride than ever before. Not yet Camry-quality, but very good for a compact sedan.
And if you want this very good compact sedan, the Corolla line starts with the VE model, which costs $11,908. The mid-line CE starts at $13,788. While our LE automatic starts at $15,598, and comes to $18,715 with options and delivery.
Now, that’s over a thousand dollars more than the mechanically identical Chevrolet Prizm and as much as some mid-size sedans. And that’s despite an overall drop in Corolla prices of almost $1,000 on average. But then, this is a Toyota, and Toyotas have always been pricey. But their fans just don’t seem to care.
They, like us, will favor the Corolla’s slick, Camry-like styling. We also liked the strong, refined drivetrain, smooth ride, logical interior layout, predictable handling, and large trunk. Misses include the bargain interior plastics, tight rear legroom, and poorly located rear seatback release. And while we’re glad to see Toyota finally lowering its prices, almost $20,000 for a compact family sedan is a bit rich.
But Automobile Magazine thinks maybe it should be. They say: “Its seamlessness and elegance lift the Corolla out of the entry-level-sedan morass. In its functioning, it is better adjusted than its competitors.”
And we agree that Toyota’s efforts to keep the Corolla true to its faithful fans’ demands means that sales should remain strong no matter what the price. Toyota has been singing the Corolla tune for the last 30 years, and it’s still a worldwide hit. And the 1998 melody is familiar enough that Toyota fans will probably continue to hum it for a generation more.
Engine: 1.8 Liter, 16-valve, 4-Cylinder
Torque: 122 Lb Feet
0-60 MPH: 10 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 17.4 Seconds @ 80 MPH
60-0 MPH: 140 Feet