Toyota's Too-Compact Compact
Toyota is doing an admirable job of selling vehicles. The Camry continues to be the top-selling car in the United States, despite intense competition from Honda's Accord and Ford's Taurus. In truck land, Toyota's Tacoma is one of the best-selling non-domestic trucks in America. Throw in the success of the company's all-conquering Land Cruiser (see our recent full-sized SUV comparison for complete details), and it would seem that Toyota has got this automobile thing all figured out.
It would seem that way, but a recent jaunt in the 1999 Corolla proved that even Toyota is not perfect. Our test model was done up in LE trim, which meant that body-colored side molding, power exterior mirrors, power windows, air conditioning, outside temperature indicator and a tachometer were included in the $14,868 sticker price. With its $800 automatic transmission and $420 destination charge, our Corolla was over 16 grand even before adding the California Emissions or antilock brakes.
That much cash, plus a Toyota nameplate, should equal "great car." But in the Corolla's case, it doesn't. Certainly the compact Toyota has many of the traits we've come to expect from this company, including excellent build quality, superior ergonomics and a secure, rattle-free ride. But for every one of the Corolla's strengths, an equally annoying weakness exists, sapping the car's overall appeal and relegating it to mediocre status, at best.
Let's discuss the Corolla's worst characteristic, first. Not since the initial generation of Saturn vehicles have I (a 6-foot adult male) been in a car with such painfully inadequate legroom. With the driver's seat jammed up against its rear position stops, and the upper seat back set at my preferred angle, (which, admittedly, is nearly vertical, as opposed to the "Barca lounger" position that so many drivers use) my feet were completely tangled in the Corolla's pedals. Normally, in a small, four-cylinder car I prefer a manual transmission to maximize the driving experience, but due to the cramped space and restricted movement of my feet, I honestly don't think I could have safely navigated a manual-shift Corolla.
Checking the specs on its various competitors, I found that while the Corolla is on the low end of the front legroom spectrum, most vehicles fall within an inch or two of the little Toyota, and a few small cars, like the Daewoo Nubira, are listed with less front legroom. Yet a recent drive in the Daewoo Nubira turned up no legroom issues, and actually proved it to be a comfortable car. So what gives? Obviously, vehicle specs don't tell the whole story. Several factors, including seat angle, seat height and pedal placement come into play when operating a car, which is why test drives are so crucial for determining whether or not a vehicle will fit you.
While front seat legroom may be less of an issue for smaller drivers who sit at a reclined position, the Corolla's rear seat legroom is just plain feeble. It took only a few moments to realize that normal-sized adults will not fit back there. This notion was confirmed by checking its specs versus the competition. For instance, the Corolla has considerably less rear legroom than Honda's Civic, Dodge's Neon, and Mazda's Protégé. It even falls short in this aspect when compared to the less-expensive subcompacts from Kia and Hyundai.
Of course, there are aspects of the Corolla that few competitors (with the exception of Honda) can match, including Toyota's run-forever reputation and the previously mentioned build-quality issue. As expected, our test unit was meticulously finished in a sparkling shade of silver enamel. Body-panel gaps were tight and consistent. Interior ergonomics (with the exception of pedal use) were flawless and included a white-faced gauge cluster with an almost Lexus-like orange glow at night. Toyota also managed to pack a multitude of interior storage compartments into the Corolla, including a small pullout drawer in the dash, just to the left of the gauges, and a large bin under the HVAC controls.
This level of quality continues under the hood, where the 1.8-liter engine is outfitted with a shimmering intake manifold that would make several aftermarket companies jealous. Service points are logically placed and easy to locate and best of all, the 120 horsepower and 122 foot-pounds of torque supplied by this engine are enough to propel the Corolla from zero to 60 in just nine seconds. On a few occasions, however, the Corolla did feel underpowered, but this was only when the automatic refused to downshift into first gear. With the five-speed manual taking advantage of that torque number, the Toyota would be fully capable of earning "fun-to-drive" status.
Even with the automatic this compact proved entertaining in the twisties. An independent front and rear suspension, outfitted with stabilizer bars at each end, kept body movement to a minimum and disposed of midcorner bumps with little drama. The 14-inch wheel and tire combo remained quiet at highway speeds, yet secure when assaulting corners. A final bonus was the thick, well-padded steering wheel that seemed meant for cornering duty. Only during braking maneuvers did the Corolla's performance fall short, with a stiff pedal that required substantial effort and didn't feel power-assisted in the least. A 60-to-zero stopping distance of 150 feet confirmed our sense of inadequate braking ability. We wondered if the number of heavy options on our model, such as the sunroof, side airbags and even the ABS, simply overworked the brake system.
Additional complaints were levied against the optional sound system that produced muddy bass tones and had poor reception. We also ran into a problem when trying to fold down the rear seat. One of the locking clamps for the rear seat back was jammed shut, requiring us to pop the trunk and yank directly on the cable to open it. Even after the clamp was open, it seemed likely to jam again. Once we did get the rear seat back to fold forward, we ran into a problem with the rear headrests hitting the front seats. Almost as if there wasn't enough interior room in the Corolla...
There's no denying that a compact car with features like side impact airbags, a sliding sunroof (as opposed to those weak "pop up" units), and alloy wheels makes for an attractive package. But at $18,000, a buyer could get a brand-new base Camry or Accord, which would actually carry five people in comfort. And if that same buyer is willing to buy a slightly used sedan, a well-optioned Camry could be had easily for $18,000.
Shopping the other end of the price scale looks even worse for the Corolla. For instance, a brand-new base Kia Sephia, which will hold five adults comfortably and has a more powerful engine, starts out over $3,200 cheaper than the cramped Toyota. And even a fully loaded Sephia LS would be cheaper than our test model, while still including many of the same options. It's tough to compare a Kia to a Toyota when such a disparity exists between the companies' reputations. But, having driven both cars within a few weeks of each other, and as a fully declared fan of Toyota design and build quality, I can say without hesitation that I would buy the Kia first. It may not offer the trouble-free experience of the Corolla, but it would be substantially cheaper and I would at least fit in it, along with my family and friends.