Reliability. Dependability. Simplicity. These are the characteristics that Maytag hopes to convey with its stark advertising. Back in the mid-80s, Draper Hall, at Western Michigan University, had rows of Maytag washers in the basement designed to accommodate the weekly laundry needs of hundreds of college freshman and sophomores. After trudging down four flights of steps with a hamper full of nasty boy-on-his-own-for-the-first-time soiled clothing, never did I find one of those Maytags on the fritz. Similarly, the apartment complex in which I lived on Mill Avenue in Tempe, Arizona, featured Maytag washers. The non-Maytag dryers were always broken, but those Maytag washers worked right every time for three long, hot years. Maytags are reliable, dependable, and simple to operate -- so much so that they're pretty darn boring.
Toyota is building a Maytag of its own, and they call it the Corolla. We rented one in Portland, Oregon, recently, and spent a couple hundred miles evaluating it. Our overall impressions were quite favorable, but then we got home and totaled up the sticker price of the maroon base model we drove. Listing for nearly $16,500 without hubcaps, a clock, cruise control, or a cassette player, we can't figure out why people are buying these rather small sedans in rather large numbers.
In 1995, Toyota moved 213,640 Corollas off dealer lots. Chevrolet dealers sell a Corolla clone called the Geo Prizm. Both cars are built in Fremont, California, and they feature the same engines, transmissions, assorted parts, and quality construction. In our opinion, the Geo is better looking, and Chevrolet has been offering hefty incentives on the Prizm for nearly a year. Moreover, the Geo comes with a roadside assistance program, while the Toyota does not. Yet, only 87,295 Prizms were sold during 1995. Equipped like our test car, a Prizm would go out the door for more than $700 less than the Corolla we drove, and that doesn't take into consideration the $750 rebate that is in place at this writing. Does this make sense? No it doesn't. Anybody investigating the Corolla should also test drive the Geo Prizm, but we digress. The Corolla is what we drove, and the Corolla is what we shall review.
Portland, Oregon, has a reputation for rainy weather and excellent microbreweries. Despite the insistence by locals that Portland suffers only a 33% chance of rain on any given day, it was gloomy, misty, and rainy the entire time we were visiting, and due to the rather inclement weather, we never did get downtown to sample any microbrews. We did however, get a chance to scoot over to the coast, and test the Corolla on a variety of roads.
Road and wind noise is excessively bothersome in the base Corolla. At speed, an odd whistle that was especially irritating developed near the rear window. Punch the throttle, and the gutsy 1.6-liter inline four-cylinder engine revs hard, adding to the interior din. Unfortunately, the four-speaker AM/FM stereo wasn't able to drown out the noise. Reception proved to be terrible, but we acknowledge that the lousy weather, combined with Portland's rolling topography, likely caused some of our stereo problems.
Base Corollas are motivated by a 105-horsepower 1.6-liter engine. We found it surprisingly spunky, even when mated to an automatic transmission. On wet roadways, we could even get the inside front wheel to spin a bit. Our car was geared to take full advantage of whatever power and torque was available when zipping around town, but at legal highway speeds, the 3-speed unit simply wouldn't downshift, making passing a very tedious, drawn-out process.
Minimally isolated from the mechanicals, passengers hear every thump and whack from the suspension as it handles impacts that sound more harsh than they are. Handling is predictably limited by skinny Goodyear Invicta GS tires, but the car is easy to control in panic situations and feels well balanced. We drove through a blinding mountain rainstorm several miles east of Tillamook, and were impressed by the Corolla's ability to shrug off the torrents that poured upon the car. Standing water in the road caused some hydroplaning, but the little Toyota handled much better than anticipated during the deluge.
Roadwork on Highway 101 slowed us up as we traveled north along the foggy coast. Manuevering through cone zones, we discovered steering, braking, and visibility to be unobtrusively good. The driver's seat is comfortable enough, and didn't fatigue this editor during a four-hour jaunt through the rain. The steering wheel, as on most Toyotas, is perfectly sized, but we wished for a tilt mechanism. Interior materials look and feel much richer than they can possibly be, and our test car's interior was colored a wonderfully muted shade of charcoal gray. All controls are well marked and easy to see, though we'd like to recommend a switch to rotary climate controls during the next redesign. The current slide lever setup isn't particularly easy to use, and visually dates the otherwise contemporary interior. Thanks to a firm, supportive bench seat, rear passengers will find themselves quite comfortable once they fold up their legs and stuff them into the meager space between the front and rear seats. One interior decor item we could live without is the economy-sized lettering on the passenger airbag panel that screams SRS AIRBAG. Also, why does an optional radio that runs nearly $300 fail to provide a digital clock? I didn't wear a watch to Oregon, and had no idea what time it was for most of the time I spent there. Not good when you've got to schedule enough time to get from the Pacific to Portland, gas up the car, return it, walk to the terminal, check in, and get on the plane. It's not like you can judge the time by the sun. There isn't any.
Like a good washing machine, there isn't much to say about the exterior of the base Corolla. The styled steel wheels featured black center caps, and not much else in the way of decoration. The car was devoid of moldings, and everything was painted a dark shade of maroon except the mirrors, door handles, and a big, ugly slab of gray plastic located between the taillights. At least ours wasn't painted Appliance White. But maybe it should have been, because after being uncomfortably seated next to a window in a stretched Boeing 727, jet engine whining in my left ear and faced with a heavily sauced unidentified part of a chicken, I decided that the Corolla was a very basic automotive appliance designed for Point A to Point B types with little spare cash to blow at repair shops. The Toyota Corolla is the Maytag of automobiles.
© 1995-2003 Edmunds.com, Inc.