2003 Toyota Corolla First Drive

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests (2)
  • Comparison (1)
  • Long-Term

2003 Toyota Corolla Sedan

(1.8L 4-cyl. 5-speed Manual)

World Car, Ninth Edition

Toyota says the Corolla is the world's all-time best-selling passenger car, with more than 25 million units sold in 142 countries. Yes sir, that's a lot of Corollas. Not that we've had much to do with that.

In our 2000 Economy Sedan Comparison Test we ranked the car seventh out of nine cars. We disliked the uncomfortable front seats, tepid styling, high price and soggy handling.

For the 2003 model year, Toyota has introduced an all-new Corolla that addresses many of the car's deficiencies. It's bigger, has more power, is more crisply styled and has higher levels of refinement.

Built utilizing an all-new platform (one that also serves the 2003 Toyota Matrix and Pontiac Vibe), the '03 Corolla is longer, wider and taller. Overall length is now 178.3 inches, as compared to the '02's 174.0 inches. The wheelbase is also correspondingly longer at 102.4 inches.

While this super-sizing boosts curb weight (by about 50 pounds), it does provide more interior room. The big winner is rear legroom. It now measures 35.4 inches, a significant gain of 2.2 inches. Most of the remaining front-and-rear interior dimensions are either about the same, or slightly more. Sitting in back, we noticed the increased legroom immediately. The rear seat is nicely contoured, and two adults should be comfortable, though rear headroom is still less than some of the competition. Trunk space is up from 12.1 cubic feet to 13.6 cubic feet.

For the front passengers, Toyota updated the dashboard and controls for better ergonomics. The audio system is now on top of the center stack, a change from its previously low-mounted location. This was done to make it more accessible, though our initial impression is that it's still hard to reach. Entry and exit is improved thanks to higher-mounted seats, and those seats have additional bolstering for more support. As is typical of Toyota products, the controls and switches have a solid feel to them. The quality of the materials is nothing to get excited about, however, as most of the panels are hard plastic and there's no padding for the driver's armrest.

Of more importance is what you're getting for your money. On this front, the Corolla should certainly satisfy. As before, trim levels continue to be the base CE, the better-equipped LE and the sporty S. More features are standard this year, and even the lowly CE comes with air conditioning with micron filtration and rear floor ducts, a CD player, power steering, power mirrors, an outside temperature gauge, 60/40 split-folding rear seats and 15-inch wheels.

The LE comes with wider tires, variable intermittent windshield wipers, fake wood trim, color-keyed exterior trim, power windows and locks, remote keyless entry, map lights and a driver-seat height adjuster. The S model includes "sporty" trim such as even more color-keyed exterior items, smoked headlights, foglights, special gauges and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. Options include upgraded audio systems, ABS, side airbags, cruise control, leather seating and a sunroof. Compared to similarly equipped '02 models, Toyota says the '03 Corolla is actually less expensive.

In terms of its powertrain, the new Corolla is pretty much a carryover. Under the hood is a 130-horsepower 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine. Thanks to a variable valve timing system (Toyota's VVT-i), this engine provides a broad torque output. It's also clean enough to allow the car to earn ULEV emissions status. Transmission choices are either a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic. Last year's doggy three-speed automatic has been mercifully removed from the lineup, and fuel economy is rated at 32/40 mpg for the five-speed and 30/38 for the automatic.

On the road, the Corolla makes for comfortable and pleasant transportation. Despite Toyota's hype that the car is more exciting than before, it still offers little inspiration, even in S trim. Acceleration is certainly on par with or better than most other economy cars, and the ride is smooth. For 2003, the rear suspension has been changed to a non-independent torsion-beam design. While perhaps a step back on the technological scale, it's been tuned to a high degree with special shocks and bushings. MacPherson struts are used up front, just as before. Though our drive in the '03 car was brief, this Corolla did seem more stable. The steering is sharper, too, thanks to a relocated steering rack.

While we expect to have a full-road test available soon, our prediction is that the new Corolla will continue to sell to people looking for a safe and dependable economy car. Though the prices are higher than last year, the actual amount of stuff you get for the price is more. And what's wrong with extra stuff?

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