Toyota, Japan's biggest automaker, had to do something completely different when it was putting together its marketing strategy for the all new Corolla. With Saturn and Honda dominating the small-car market, the Corolla, which was revamped for the 1993 model year, would be going up against some stiff competition. And unlike the six previous versions of the Corolla, this one was not sure to be a hit. So what Toyota did with the Corolla, essentially, was make a baby Lexus. Lexus, as you probably know, is Toyota's award-winning luxury car division. Lexus cars are renowned for their exceptionally smooth, quiet and powerful engines; for their near flawless assembly; and for their style, features, design and value. The Corolla - one of Toyota's least expensive models - also excels in all those areas. With a fancier grille, leather seats and some real wood inside, the Corolla could proudly wear a Lexus badge. PERFORMANCE The test car came with the bigger of the two engines available in the Corolla - a 1.8-liter, 115-horsepower, 16-valve four cylinder with double overhead cams and electronic fuel injection. Corolla's base engine is a DOHC 1.6-liter unit that is rated at 105 horsepower. In the Lexus tradition, the 1.8-liter engine is uncommonly well-behaved. It idles so quietly you have to strain your ears to hear it. And you practically can't feel it running while waiting at a stoplight or stuck in traffic. The car's performance is everything you could want in a small family sedan. The Corolla DX has terrific low-speed throttle response, excellent midrange power and ample muscle for passing slow traffic. Our test car was outfitted with a five-speed manual transmission. The shifter and clutch seemed notchy and sloppy compared to previous Corollas I've driven. But the test car, with more than 10,000 very hard miles, might have been abused during its year in the hands of automotive journalists. Fuel mileage averaged better than 28 mpg in the city and 35 mpg on a trip to Cocoa Beach and back. HANDLING With the larger engine, the Corolla DX really should have fatter tires that would grip the road better, helping to harness the engine's power. With the smaller tires, you can easily cause the front tires to squeal on acceleration, especially when turning. But that was the only flaw in an otherwise thoroughly well-engineered car. The Corolla's road manners border on sporty. The suspension is somewhat firm, and it keeps the body straight when you take a curve quickly. Minor bumps are dispensed almost without a trace. Most road noise never finds its way into the passenger compartment. Flush-mounted glass and body edges, tight gaps between the body panels, and plenty of extra insulation help to muffle noise. Only on rough pavement can you hear the roar of the tires. Corolla's front disc and rear drum brakes do a credible job of stopping t he car. However, for the price you pay for a Corolla (the test car was stickered at more than $15,000), the optional anti-lock system should have been standard equipment. For the sake of comparison, consider that ABS is standard equipment on an $8,000 Chevy Cavalier. The Corolla's power-assisted rack and pinion steering is light and makes the vehicle easy to drive. FIT AND FINISH The Corolla is one of those rare cars you feel good about the minute you sit in the driver's seat. It's brimming with sensible, easy-to-use features - such as adjustable seats belts - pop-out cupholders and fold down rear seats. The test car had a curious mix of options. It came with an electric sunroof, but not electric windows. It had cruise control, but not anti-lock brakes. One would think that a buyer would choose the more sensible equipment over the luxury add-ons. In any case, visibility is excellent. Though the Corolla is a compact car, you never feel c austrophobic driving it. There's plenty of head, leg and foot room for average-sized front and rear passengers. The seats are firm, supportive and very comfortable on long drives. With the rear seats folded down, you can load plenty of cargo into the Corolla. All in all, Toyota's Corolla is one of the best cars I've driven this year. Truett's tip: The Corolla is quiet, powerful, well-built and fun to drive. It is one of the best small cars on the market.
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