If it wasn’t always exciting, the Toyota Corolla has long been known as a compact alternative, a small family mover and a reliable way to go from Point A to Point B.
It can finally be called feisty.
Just when the South Koreans starting putting a dent in the Corolla’s domestic sales share, Toyota is coming back swinging.
The vanilla is suddenly not so bland. The boredom is finally a little less hum drum. The Corolla is redesigned.
Was that a yawn we heard in the distance?
Reshaping its best seller is hardly anything earth shattering for the automaker that has done a good job of rolling with the punches. The Corolla was completely redesigned and enlarged five years ago. This time it’s different.
Just in time for some good old-fashioned competition, the Corolla has arrived looking nothing like the past. And with the latest version, it’s all about the looks.
A quick glance and you might think you’ve stumbled over a Focus. With pointy headlights and a front head that carries a heavy dip, the Corolla looks like a Ford knock-off. If you’re going to redesign, that’s not a bad place to start. The Focus has been a worldwide leader since its introduction a few years back and obviously there are pros to copying a good thing that works.
It’s an interesting position for a car that has assumed so many different looks over the years, and has been sold to so many different people, it’s the best-selling nameplate in the history of automobiles.
The Corolla’s been a hatchback, a coupe, a wagon and a sedan. Now it wants to be the true market leader.
In its ninth incarnation, the all-new 2003 Corolla is rolling proof that a little competition is a good thing.
Where the compact sedan was a little light on height, it’s now taller. Where it was narrow, it’s now wider. Where it was short, it’s now longer.
Get the picture? Toyota does. When your margin slips as much as the Corolla has because of some heavy pressure from what used to be automotive lightweights, it requires a little action and reaction.
The result is a better overall package.
At the forefront of the Corolla’s changes is an even better driving feel. The car that used to be average is now more confident, poised, mature and – gasp! – it’s sporty.
At its best, the Corolla is just plain larger all over. Far removed from the Corollas that used to be (think 1968), the newest version is heavier and more luxurious. That means more interior room, more power and more standard equipment. Toyota’s aim was strictly at its own reputation. For years the automaker has led the way in value for money. Looking for a return, especially with such intense competition, is key. The Corolla delivers it in spades.
Trim levels continue to be the base CS, the better-equipped LE and the sporty S. And that’s about where familiarity ends.
More power means a 130-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine with a variable valve timing syst em that provides even better acceleration and throttle response. The Corolla was never the fastest kid on the block; this at least gets it closer, and mostly thanks to the kind of technology that bleeds down from its Lexus cousin. With a clean, low-emission engine, power seems more focused – just enough to provide a few surprises, if not a few smiles.
More room means a much more comfortable feel than your typical compact sedan – almost as much as a midsize. Even if leg room in the rear seems to have been sliced a little for increased seating position, this version just feels bigger. Actually, measure it out and the Corolla’s interior dimensions are just barely smaller than its best-selling sister, the Camry. And remember, that’s the five-inch-longer Camry. Trunk space in the Corolla is even up to 13.6 cubic feet, which means plenty of grocery bags and golf clubs, especially if you fold the rear seats flat. Deceptive, indeed.
More standard features mean things like air conditioning with micron filtration, a CD player, power steering, power mirrors and 15-inch wheels even in the lowly CE version.
Inside, the Corolla is still typical Toyota, which is a good thing. The controls have a high quality feel and the interior design is fluid and sensible. For an inexpensive car, there is a surprising bit of elegance. Combine that with a ride that is tighter and firmer than you’d expect out of a compact sedan and a better handler than a compact and you’ve really got something going. Toyota even did everyone a favor by eliminating the three-speed automatic in favor of a four-speed automatic or a five-speed manual.
Step into the S version and Toyota may have cornered the market on big improvements. The S model includes a “sporty” trim, including body-color door handles and rocker panels, smoked headlights, foglights and special gauges. Step up even higher to the LE and you’re talking faux wood (is that a good thing?), a vertical seat-height adjuster and remote entry. The option list even includes things like side airbags, cruise control, leather seating and a sunroof.
No matter how you dress it up, it still is a Corolla.
That means you’re looking for three basic things: Reliability, strong resale and good value.
At less than $14,000 in the base models, you can check all three. With 38 miles per gallon on the highway, check another box.
There still is only the option of a sedan body style. And price does start to become an issue as the option list grows longer, but Toyota has made a statement in its newest Corolla.
The old dog isn’t dead yet.
It just looks different. And looks aren’t everything.
2003 TOYOTA COROLLA — SPECS
High gear: Basic transportation this is not. The Corolla has evolved into a reliable, value-driven, quiet and tight sedan. With increased interior room and increased power, this is a car that demands attention, if only because it is hardly a compact.
Low gear: New styling takes on the look of other compacts. Price becomes an issue when options are added into the mix. And because it’s only offered as a sedan, the option of a smaller ride is not applicable.
Standard equipment (S model): Five-speed manual transmission, power steering, power front disc brakes, four-wheel independent suspension, 15-inch tires, driver and passenger dual stage air bags, daytime running lights, AM/FM/CD stereo, power steering and door locks, rear window defroster, vertical seat height adjuster, digital clock and split-folding rear seats.
Competition: Dodge Neon, Ford Focus, Honda Accord, Pontiac Sunfire
Engine: 130 horsepower, 1.8-liter DOHC four-cylinder
Torque: 125 foot-lbs. @ 4,200 rpm
Wheelbase: 102.4 inches
Length: 178.3 inches
MPG rating: 29 mpg city/38 mpg highway
Manufactured: Fremont, Calif.
Warranty: Basic warranty is three years/36,000 miles; power train warranty is 5 years/60,000 miles; rust perforation warranty is 5 years/unlimited miles.
Base price (CE model): $13,370
Price as tested (S model – includes options, destination and delivery charges): $17,432