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2003 Toyota Corolla

A baby Lexus for the rest of us.

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2003 Toyota Corolla

by John Rettie


Toyota says the Corolla has been the world's best-selling car when measured over the past 35 years. Apparently, that wasn't good enough. Toyota engineers and executives have not felt the old Corolla was the best sub-compact car in terms of image or value.

What's more the company is concerned that the average age of Corolla buyers in the US is 44 years while buyers of the Honda Civic are an average five years younger than that.

Rather than try to design one new Corolla that would appeal to older and younger buyers, Toyota has introduced two new cars radically different from each other in looks. Yet both are essentially identical under the skin. For younger buyers the Toyota Matrix (see separate nctd.com review) is a stylish five-door hatchback/wagon type vehicle that stands out in the crowded roads.

For the rest of us, this new ninth-generation Corolla is an evolutionary model that carries on Toyota's tradition of producing a robust small car that acts as a great introductory model to the Toyota family.

It's totally appropriate to describe this new Corolla as a baby Camry, which, in turn, is in a baby Lexus. That's not a bad pedigree for any car.

Model Lineup

Ignoring the Matrix, the Corolla line consists of just one body style: a four-door sedan. Although the Corolla line has included two-door and station wagon models in the past the majority of American car buyers want straightforward four-door sedans.

All Corollas come with a 1.8-liter four-cylinder 16-valve engine and a choice of a manual or automatic transmission.

Three trim levels are available in the 2003 Corolla lineup.

The CE is the base model starting at $13,570 with manual transmission, or $14,370 with an automatic. Although the CE comes with an AM/FM/CD stereo system, power steering, power mirrors, tachometer and an exterior temperature gauge, it has manual windows and no air conditioning. Needless to say in this market where just about 100% of buyers want A/C we doubt that Toyota will sell very many CE models without it.

Fortunately the jump up in price to the S model at $14,515 ($15,315 with automatic) is not terribly significant as the extra money gets air conditioning, power door locks, slightly bigger tires and a sporty look inside and out. In addition, features such as remote keyless entry, power windows, and sunroof are available as options, while they are not even available as options on the CE.

But perhaps the best value is the LE model, which retails for $14,680 ($15,480 with automatic). It gets the same features as the S model plus remote keyless entry and power windows. The LE lacks the sporty body cladding of the S. And in place of the S model's sporty interior finish, the LE gets wood-like trim and upgraded cloth seating surfaces. An optional leather package is available ($1,050) for the LE that gives the car a luxurious feel.


At first sight the new Corolla actually looks smaller than the one it replaces. This is a false impression as it is four inches longer with a wheelbase that is over five inches longer. However, it is over three inches taller while having the same width as the old model, hence the impression of being smaller.

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Ironically, in photographs the new Corolla looks bigger than it does in real life and could easily be mistaken for a Camry or even a Lexus. It has similar ovoid headlights and a rakish yet curved shape that is in keeping with the newest Camry and Avalon as well as the Lexus ES 300.

Fairly thick A-pillars at the front and C-pillars at the rear give the car a solid look. Likewise, the Corolla has fairly hefty looking bumpers, which add to the car's substantial appearance. Although the new Corolla has 15-inch wheels (compared to 14-inch wheels on the previous Corolla), it could do with larger wheels and tires that would fill out the wheels wells more effectively. The Matrix comes with 16-inch wheels as standard and 17-inch as optional so it seems like it would be an easy upgrade that would improve the car's looks.

At the rear the Corolla has a fairly high trunk line in keeping with the car's high belt line. The rear taillights match the shape of the headlights nicely. Part of the taillight module is actually mounted in the trunk lid. This is fine except that the design causes the trunk lid to be narrower than it might be.

The doors have reasonably wide openings, which makes getting in and out easier. That's a benefit of the long wheelbase, which also means that the rear wheel wells do not protrude into the rear door as much as they do on some cars. Another benefit of a longer wheelbase is shorter overhangs at the front and rear (the distance from the wheels to the ends of the car). Short overhangs improve the car's looks, and the handling.

The S model has additional body-color moldings that set it apart as the sporty model. These include a lower front spoiler with integrated fog lights, side rocker panels and a rear under skirt.

Interior Features

The interior is where the Corolla really shines. Inside, it doesn't feel like a small car, and it doesn't feel cheap. Of course it's true that if you're a big and/or tall person you will find accommodations somewhat cramped but that's the case in any small vehicle.

Take a look inside a Corolla LE with optional leather seating and you could easily imagine you're looking inside a luxury car instead of an $18,000 sub-compact. The leather seats have that soft pleated finish which so many buyers like in a car. The center console and portions of the armrest on the door panels have a wood-like veneer trim. Okay it's fake but it's so well made that it looks more realistic than some real wood found in luxury cars. Both the LE and S models get a leather-wrapped steering wheel as standard.

For most people though front-seat leg and headroom is just fine and there's a decent amount of room in the back for two average size adults. Although there are seat belts for a third rear-seat passenger, there's definitely a shortage of space for that person. Materials used in the seats appear classy with nice fit and finish. The driver's seat has a much more substantial feel than in many cars in this price range, which makes it more comfortable for long journeys. Even the doors shut with a pleasant thud thanks to sound deadening felt mounted inside the door panels.

The ergonomics of the dashboard layout are exemplary. It is nicely laid out and its finish is as good as that in all but the most expensive luxury cars. Coupled with the nice finish, it makes the Corolla feel more like a small Lexus, especially if one opts for the leather seats. The dashboard layout is the same on all models. It has a top surface that sweeps across the width of the car in a slight S-curve and wraps into the door trim. Each side of the center console seamlessly blends up to the lower portion of the dash, which includes a large glove box on the passenger side. Four small vents are nicely inlaid into the upper part of the dash.

The radio is located high up so it is easy to reach while the three large round knobs for the heating and air conditioning system are located below. The handle for the parking brake is located on the left of the center console so there's room for a small storage cubbyhole on the right.

Three overlapping round gauges in the instrument pod contain a large speedometer, a smaller tachometer to the left and a water temperature gauge and fuel gauge mounted in a matching circle to the right. They incorporate red lettering on a plain white background. There's also an outside temperature readout on all models.

Storage spaces are quite generous with small pockets in each door and cubbyholes in the center console. The rear seats split 60/40 to allow access from the trunk, though the opening is not that large, limiting pass-through with large cargo. On the other hand it's a sedan so it is not supposed to have the hauling capacity or convenience of a hatchback or station wagon. The trunk is a reasonable size although once again gooseneck hinges intrude into the cargo space and also crush fragile items if they are in the way. Many auto manufacturers have switched to the scissor-type hinges that are located outside the storage space. Quite why Toyota and other Japanese manufacturers have not switched to this design remains surprising.

All in all the interior has a high level of refinement beyond what one expects in a low cost sub-compact. On the safety side all Corollas come with multi-stage front airbags. While side curtain airbags are offered as an option on all models.

Driving Impressions

One word sums up the driving experience in the new Corolla: transparent. That's a benefit to those who don't particularly enjoy driving. The Corolla gets the job done so nicely that it's difficult to fault.

Okay it's only got a 130-horsepower four-cylinder engine so naturally its acceleration performance is not scintillating. But it's not supposed to be. Instead, it delivers its power smoothly thanks to the nicely matched electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission. It includes a shift logic system that helps hold a gear longer than it might otherwise if it senses the car is going up an incline or the driver wants plenty of power while passing.

The power steering is just right, providing a nice feel without being too stiff or sloppy. The suspension has been tuned to give a smooth ride, which is helped by the longer wheelbase compared to the previous generation. Body roll has been minimized and the car feels secure at all speeds. Those who enjoy the crisp handling of a sports sedan will find the car's suspension a little too soft. These drivers may want to opt for the Matrix, which does have a slightly stiffer more sporty suspension.

For those who enjoy doing their own shifting the five-speed manual allows for more performance as the engine's power can be better utilized. There is no difference in engine, transmission or suspension between the three trim levels; despite the S model being designated a sporty trim level.


The Corolla is the car to consider if you're looking for a sophisticated and utterly reliable sub-compact sedan that blends in so well it's almost non-existent. It's not too much of a stretch to say the Corolla is a baby Lexus, it certainly has the same DNA.

If you want something with the same mechanical components but with some pizzazz you're in luck as the Toyota Matrix, which is built off the same platform and has the same engine, offers more excitement and utility.

Some may complain that Toyota has been conservative with its new Corolla but what it has cleverly done is create two very different cars - the Corolla for the conservative buyer and the Matrix for the young-at-heart person who wants Toyota reliability with a look that stands out in the crowd. You have your choice - the Corolla or the Matrix.

Model Line Overview

Model lineup: CE ($13,570); S ($14,515); LE ($14,680)
Engines: 130-hp 1.8-liter dohc 16v inline-4
Transmissions: 5-speed manual; 4-speed automatic
Safety equipment (standard): dual front airbags
Safety equipment (optional): front side curtain airbags, anti-lock brake system (ABS)
Basic warranty: 3 years/36,000 miles
Assembled in: Fremont, California; Cambridge, Ontario, Canada

Specifications As Tested

Model tested (MSRP): Corolla LE automatic ($15,480)
Standard equipment: tilt steering wheel, power steering, air conditioning, AM/FM/CD system, power door locks, mirrors, windows, intermittent wipers, remote keyless entry, remote trunk/fuel door release, wood-like trim, 60/40 split rear seats
Options as tested (MSRP): ABS ($300); side airbags ($250); cruise control ($250)
Destination charge: ($485)
Gas guzzler tax: N/A
Price as tested (MSRP): $16,530
Layout: front engine, front-wheel drive
Engine: 1.8-liter dohc 16v inline-4
Horsepower (hp @ rpm): 130-@ 6000
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm): 125 @ 4200
Transmission: 5-speed manual
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy: 30/38 mpg
Wheelbase: 102.4 in.
Length/width/height: 178.3/66.9/57.7 in.
Track, f/r: 58.3/57.5 in.
Turning circle: 35.2 ft.
Seating capacity: 5
Head/hip/leg room, f: 39.1/51.9/41.3 in.
Head/hip/leg room, m: N/A
Head/hip/leg room, r: 37.1/46.2/35.4 in.
Trunk volume: 13.6 cu. ft.
Payload: N/A
Towing capacity: 1500 Lbs.
Suspension, f: Independent
Suspension, r: Independent
Ground clearance: 6.0 in.
Curb weight: 2580 lbs.
Tires: P195/65R15
Brakes, f/r: disc/drum w/ ABS
Fuel capacity: 13.2 gal.

Unless otherwise indicated, specifications refer to test vehicle.
All prices are manufacturer's suggested retail prices (MSRP) effective as of October 01, 2002.
Prices do not include manufacturer's destination and delivery charges. N/A: Information not available or not applicable.
Manufacturer Info Sources: 1-800-468-6968 - www.toyota.com

Copyright © 1994-2003 New Car Test Drive, Inc.


This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
2003 Toyota Corolla