Value, comfort, practicality.
by Mitch McCullough
Base Price $12,418
As Tested $17,493
It may not attract much attention, but the Toyota Corolla is an excellent choice if you want reliable, durable, comfortable transportation. Toyota builds all of its cars to high standards of quality, even the lowly Corolla compact.
So there's nothing second-rate about this little chariot. The Toyota Corolla is the second biggest-selling car in history. Since its 1968 introduction, Toyota has sold roughly 17 million Corollas. (Volkswagen takes top honors for selling roughly 21 million Beetles.)
Three models are available: VE ($12,418); CE ($13,108); LE ($15,068). All Corollas are four-door sedans powered by a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine. All come standard with a five-speed manual gearbox. A three-speed automatic is a $500 option for the VE; a four-speed automatic is an $800 option for CE and LE. Antilock brakes and side-impact airbags are options for all three versions.
Most people opt for the mid-range CE or the well-equipped LE. VE is a low-price car with all but the most basic amenities optional. None are exactly luxurious unless extras are ordered, but they fulfill transportation needs well.
Even a digital clock is extra on a VE, which gets the plainest interior fabrics. It's hard to imagine anyone but fleet customers will go for a VE without air conditioning and a radio. Add much equipment to one and its price begins to climb to that of the CE. By ordering options, a CE can be equipped to be a virtual twin to the LE, except for the LE's optional sunroof and alloy wheels. LE comes standard with air conditioning, power windows, mirrors and door locks, and a four-speaker sound system.
Start ordering options and you may suffer sticker shock. The VE's base price appears to put the Corolla squarely in the bargain category, right down there in rock-bottom land with many competitors. But by the time you've driven away in a fully equipped LE the tab has climbed toward midsize territory.
Toyota, which seldom opts for startling style, has once again brought forth a conservative, clean shape that doesn't attract attention. The new Corolla is, in fact, one step away from being plain. But it is nicely proportioned, trim and efficient.
A couple of details set it apart from competing designs. The body sides are indented and the rear lamp clusters look similar to those of the Lexus GS with small trunk-mounted segments. But as a whole, the Corolla does without superfluous ornamentation.
Standard safety features include dual airbags, side-impact door beams, front seatbelt pretensioners and force limiters and adjustable shoulder belt anchors, child protector rear door locks. Side-impact airbags ($250) and ABS ($550) are optional.
Toyota has done a fine job of squeezing maximum passenger space out of a small overall package. Generous room is provided for the driver and front-seat passenger, both of whom sit on comfortable reclining bucket seats. The rear seat, as is common to cars in this class, is less commodious. There's reasonable room for two occupants, though it's lacking in both leg- and headroom for taller passengers. Three's a crowd.
The interior design matches the exterior insofar as it's attractive and well finished, but is otherwise similar to most cars in the class. Instruments are housed in a curved dashboard; a tachometer is added in an optional Touring Package. Controls are laid out for easy use. Cupholders, storage boxes and a center-console with a lidded bin are provided for convenience.
Materials and workmanship are above average. Some find the cloth seat material scratchy, but it looks attractive and durable. White instrument faces come as part of a Touring Package ($280). The instrument colors reverse at night when the lights are on; in the transition between day and night they are sometimes hard to read. But they look neat.
Luggage can be stowed in a roomy trunk with a large lid that opens right down to bumper level for easy loading. Corolla CE and LE grades feature a convenient release in the trunk to fold down the rear seats.
Corolla offers good performance, handling, ride quality and comfort.
Its all-aluminum 16-valve 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine is powerful, lightweight and economical. For 2000, Toyota has outfitted this double overhead-cam engine with its VVT-i variable-valve timing technology, increasing output by 5 horsepower without sacrificing fuel economy. Rated at 125 horsepower, this engine gives the Corolla sprightly performance. With the new variable-valve technology, it offers stronger low-rpm torque, that force that propels you away from traffic signals. Low-rpm torque is especially important when teamed with an automatic transmission and the Corolla works well with the four-speed automatic. At the same time, it gets an EPA-rated 37 mpg on the highway with the automatic. The engine is noisy under hard acceleration. It's much quieter at cruising speeds, though there's an intrusive resonance at 3000 rpm. The transmission, on the other hand, shifts smoothly and responds quickly when called upon to downshift for hill climbing or passing maneuvers.
Judged by class standards, the Corolla handles well. Power-assisted steering is light but precise. Ride quality is very good, thanks to a relatively long wheelbase, fully independent MacPherson struts on all four wheels and front and rear stabilizer bars on all three trim levels. Nothing short of potholes will disturb the Corolla's occupants. Freeway expansion strips, which create uncomfortable rocking-horse motions on some cars, go unnoticed in the Corolla.
The economy-grade tires are less than ideal, however. They make a noisy nuisance of themselves when asked to carry the car around corners at anything beyond a casual pace, they transmit tread noise into the cabin on the highway, and they lack grip under hard braking. Otherwise, the brakes work well, even after repeated hard use. We recommend ordering the optional anti-lock braking system.
Driving a Corolla equipped with the automatic transmission, I found the brake pedal and throttle a bit close together for my big feet. The pedal arrangement is much better on models equipped with the five-speed gearbox.
The Corolla is comfortable, rugged and well built, a solid little machine that delivers what it promises. In the ride and handling department, it is better than expected. It is an excellent transportation appliance.
Corolla holds its ground well against strong competition. Budget-minded buyers who want a solid car need look no farther. Those seeking a sportier package may want to check with their Volkswagen or Honda dealers.
By shopping carefully, a customer can drive away in a nicely appointed Corolla without spending much more than $15,000. The CE model, for example, when equipped with optional side air bags and ABS, is a good buy. As such, it represents good value. Be warned, however, that a loaded Corolla intrudes into Camry territory, so a decision has to be made: Do you want a larger car with minimal extras or a smaller car loaded with everything?
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.