Ed Hellwig, Executive Editor
You've probably never thought of the Corolla as a cult car. It's never been much for style and its most notable performance numbers are its EPA mileage figures not exactly the stuff of automotive legend. But with over 25 million sold worldwide since its debut in 1966, the Corolla has since earned the title of "the best-selling passenger car of all time."
You don't earn a distinction like that without some measure of undeterred loyalty. But unlike more notable cult cars like the Volkswagen Beetle or the Mustang, the Corolla didn't inspire its massive following because of unique styling or lusty performance. Instead, it's been a more conservative, but no less desirable, combination of an affordable price, excellent fuel economy and superb engineering and that has convinced millions upon millions of car buyers that the Corolla was the car for them.
The 2003 Corolla represents the ninth generation of the venerable nameplate, and as you would expect, it's the most comfortable, most refined version yet. Our experiences with the previous-generation model left us a little less than overwhelmed with enthusiasm, as it took seventh place out of nine cars in our 2000 Economy Sedan Comparison Test. We cited the rather lofty sticker price, lackluster performance and a dull, cramped interior as drawbacks that couldn't be overlooked. So is the new car much better?
For the most part, yes. Interior passenger room has increased considerably and the engine was given a boost, but a few issues remain unresolved. For one, our test car stickered at $17,787, not exactly a bargain bottom line. But to be fair, it was a top-of-the-line LE model with nearly $2,000 worth of options, so those looking for cheaper transportation can opt for a base model with fewer amenities and reduce the final price considerably.
The standard LE is well equipped, with power windows, locks, mirrors and faux wood trim on the dash and door panels. We noted in the comparison test that the previous model lacked a few basic features like a driver's seat height adjuster, map lights and remote keyless entry. Obviously we weren't the only ones complaining, as Toyota has now made all three of these features standard equipment on LE models. Optional equipment on our tester included ABS brakes, side airbags, cruise control, an AM/FM/CD stereo, floor mats and a power moonroof.
The dreary monotone interior of the old model left us thoroughly unimpressed, but this year's restyle has given the cabin a more upscale, refined look that moves it much closer toward the head of the class. There's nothing particularly unique about the design, but subtle improvements like larger climate control dials, clearer white-faced gauges and a much easier to read radio faceplate make all the difference. We're not big on fake wood trim, but it's passable for those who are. And the gap tolerances between dash panels were so tight that you would be hard-pressed to slip a sheet of paper between them (Toyota claims that the Corolla uses quality standards previously set by its Lexus brand cars).
Seat comfort has been similarly improved with firmer cushions and acceptable side support but we find the seating position awkward. The addition of a seat height adjuster helps, but the steering wheel never feels very comfortable in relation to the driver. On the contrary, rear-seat accommodations have been improved dramatically. Two adults can now sit comfortably without ducked heads or pulled up legs. Even the seat itself feels more comfortable than before with firmer cushioning and a three-point belt for the middle passenger. Room in the trunk has also increased to 13.6 cubic feet, more than most cars in its class.
Although the cabin was attractive at first glance, we couldn't help but notice a few lapses in quality on our test car. The door handles had visible plastic flashing left over, the dash wasn't centered and numerous trim pieces could be pried loose with a finger. We also noticed an annoying rattle coming from the center stack at low speeds and a trunk lid that wasn't quite straight all issues that are typically unheard of in Toyota products.
There were no such flaws in the drivetrain, however, as the slightly revised 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine chugged along without complaint. With just 130 horsepower (up 5 from last year) to draw on, there's not much punch from under the hood, but it compares favorable with anything in its class. We weren't able to performance test our particular car, but our last Corolla turned in a 0-to-60 time of 8.9 seconds, so we would figure this slightly more powerful version might do it a tick quicker. The four-speed transmission in our test car shifted smoothly, and the five-speed unit in our last loaner was given high praise as well, so either choice is a safe bet.
We found the Corolla's performance acceptable in most around-town driving, with a good off-the-line punch and decent passing power at speed. Like most four-cylinders, it gets a little noisy at higher rpm, but never loud enough to sound overly intrusive. In fact, during highway driving the Corolla was an extremely quiet cruiser, with very little ambient engine noise and even less wind noise. Mileage was respectable with an observed 31 mpg during our week-long test.
Complementing the surprising silence of the interior is a reworked suspension that feels considerably more stable and composed than Corollas of the past. Revised shocks, more precise steering and larger standard tires and wheels (15-inch) give the Corolla a better feel for the road and overall handling that rivals the best in its class. We wouldn't call it sporty by any means, but there's enough competency there that you don't feel as though you're completely disconnected from everything going on down below. The brakes feel better than before as well, and although we didn't perform official distance testing, we would guess by their feel that they would better the longish distances they posted in the past.
The improved road feel and handling are welcome improvements, but we tried to keep in mind that this car will rarely be pushed any harder than a moderately tight freeway off-ramp. What counts here is no-hassle dependability, and the Corolla is likely to deliver that and then some. But the question remains is it worth the price?
If you're looking for nothing more than basic transportation, the Corolla at least in its near $18,000 form seems a bit overkill. Any number of sedans offers equivalent accommodations, features and performance for considerably less. Do they have the same reputations for quality and reliability? Probably not, but with warranties extending as far as 100,000 miles, it hardly seems much of a risk.
For those who are willing to spend a little extra for peace of mind, however, the Corolla makes perfect sense. The interior will make you feel like you spent significantly more and the roomy cabin will rarely leave you cramped on space. The engine won't wow you with its zing but it gets the job done with minimal damage to your gas card bill. And if that's not enough, just consider the numbers 25 million people can't possibly be wrong. Right?
System Score: 9.0
Components: This car stands as one more piece of evidence confirming that Toyota is serious about giving its customers a lot of bang for their buck when it comes to the stereo systems in its vehicles. While Toyota lagged behind for years in this department, it has now pulled close to some of its main competitors, and even surpassed a few. For example, this system rivals the setup in the Ford Focus, long a favorite of ours and one of the standard bearers for the segment. Let's take a closer look.
The system begins with a user-friendly head unit that now comes standard on most Toyota vehicles. Surprise and delight features on the head include separate circular knobs for volume and tuning, a logical and useful topography and wide button spacing for safe and practical operation. While this is good in and of itself, it's the speakers that really set this system apart from the competition. Forward speakers include a pair of 6.5-inch midbass drivers in the front doors, coupled to a nicely positioned pair of one-inch dome tweeters tucked beside the A-pillars. A very generous pair of 6-by-9 full-range drivers mounted on the rear deck completes the speaker array in this vehicle.
Performance: Considering the price range of the Corolla, this audio system is a real steal. Since the cabin is more or less a standard-size econobox, the system doesn't have to work very hard to fill the passenger compartment with sound. The surprise here is how much gain control is left once that has been accomplished. This system plays very loud with a great thumping bass, thanks to the dual 6-by-9s on the back deck. Low frequencies are aggressive without being overpowering, mids are detailed and intricate and higher frequencies really soar. We liked the sound of this system quite a bit, and think you will, too.
Best Feature: Thumping bass and loud volume.
Worst Feature: No CD changer.
Conclusion: We were very impressed with the little system in this car. Toyota has come a long way in a short time. Scott Memmer
Road Test Editor Erin Riches says: After driving our Corolla test car, I wondered if this is indeed the sort of car that most economy car buyers want. Or is this the car that Toyota thought it could get away with building, given the Corolla nameplate's worldwide reputation for dependability at a fair price? Not that the 2003 Corolla is a bad car I could buy one today with the understanding that it would serve my transportation needs for the next decade and be just fine. But as I've driven most of its competition, I'm a little surprised that the company would introduce an economy sedan so average in performance and accommodations at this late hour.
If your expectations are modest, the Corolla could be a satisfying car on the highway, it rides smoothly and cruises quietly with minimal intrusion of wind and road noise. Plus, it feels more connected to the road than the previous generation did, and this makes one feel more confident during lane changes. But when I turned off onto a winding two-lane road, it was clear this was not an economy car for someone who likes to drive (as perhaps the Ford Focus, Mazda Protegé and Nissan Sentra are). The suspension seemed weak-kneed and noncommunicative around every turn, allowing the body to flop over toward the outside wheels. The steering was unhurried and light with little variation in feel, regardless of the speed of travel. And the tires gave up quickly and abruptly at first, grip was there, and then all four tires were checking out on my little adventure. Fortunately, the brakes felt quite strong, and I made good use of them.
As in the Matrix XR AWD I evaluated last year, the four-speed automatic transmission was a little hesitant to downshift at times, and it seemed to sap the strength of the 1.8-liter inline four, even in this lighter front-drive application. Also, the engine is surprisingly noisy as it's revving.
Although the front chairs offer better contouring and cushioning than those in last year's Corolla, there still isn't enough seat track travel, such that I spent the entire drive with my left knee pressed into the hard plastic on the door panel. And the steering wheel is too close to the dash; just because I have long legs doesn't mean my arms are the same length give me some telescoping adjustment. I'm never one to reserve comment on the build and materials issues in the traditional domestic cars, and frankly, Toyota has earned a spot on my informal watch list. This is the fourth Toyota in a row that I've driven with a serious rattle this time from the center stack, and apparently aggravated by the engine revving up. Moreover, some of the plastics in the cabin were rushed through the finishing process, as they have "hangnails" all over them. Other shortcuts occurred before the assembly this Corolla has a standard-issue Toyota head unit, but it's constructed of cheaper plastic and feels very insubstantial to the touch. And where the hell is the gear read-out in the instrument cluster? I don't want to have to look away from the road just to assure myself that I'm in "D" rather than "2."
The final problem I have with this Corolla is its $17K price tag. Why would I pay this when I can get a similarly equipped, more carefully assembled Hyundai Elantra that's also more fun to drive for about $4,000 less?
Senior Editor Brent Romans says: The Corolla's success in America has come mainly from its strong tradition of reliability and quality. These attributes have traditionally been big selling points. For a long time, American and Korean car companies were completely baffled by the process of building a good and robust small car. But now there are at least a handful of quality small cars available. So for 2003, the Corolla's usual advantages don't seem as important to me as they once were. And what's left is a bland car that leaves only hazy impressions after driving it. Perhaps for traditional small sedan buyers, this latest Corolla will suffice. It'd be comfortable and familiar, like eating oatmeal everyday for breakfast. But I couldn't own this car. If you're not tied to the name, you really owe it to yourself to check out a number of other small sedans that offer at least respectable reliability, more enjoyable driving experiences and a smaller price tag.
"I just traded my '99 Ford Escort SE Sport for the LE with leather package. I never knew such a small car could be so refined, it feels like an Avalon or ES 300 on the inside. I have not been over 55 mph yet because of break-in, but at 55 the interior is extremely quiet, especially for such a tall vehicle. The exterior is not the greatest, but if you value interior ambiance, performance, reliability and resale value, this is your vehicle." bobby1425, May 9, 2002
"I now have 740 miles on my 2003 LE Corolla. I am very happy with the car. So far there have been no problems with anything on the car. It drives like a luxury car; has a great stereo system, handles beautifully and is a great choice for anyone with a family." Dotie Mitchell, Apr. 3, 2002
"I first saw this car on the street, and I thought Lexus had come out with a small car similar to the ES 300. Believe me, I know the ES 300 since I had considered buying one. I was shocked to find out it was a Toyota Corolla. I test-drove it and was smitten, performance wise, and the interior has a better feel to me than the Camry. I bought an LE with cruise control and a moonroof for well under $17,000, and I feel like I've committed the Brinks robbery. Believe me this a lot of car, an unbelievable car for this price. Thank God the salesperson didn't know it, but I would have been willing to pay more for such a substantial car." Earl2003, March 26, 2002
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