Even with a complete redesign last year, the Toyota Corolla remains an unobtrusive car, one that seeks to meet the needs of buyers looking for transportation rather than sensation. The absence of flash can make any car a difficult selling proposition, but customers are so attracted to Corolla's reasonable price and reputation that near-invisibility seems to have no effect on sales.
One rung down from the popular Camry, the Corolla enhances Toyota's reputation for meeting the needs of its customers, blending long-time virtues with new strengths into an appealing whole.
As a model name, Corolla has been around for some 30 years, evolving from a tiny imported sedan of slightly odd appearance into a made-in-America compact that sells well and is routinely praised for its refinement.
Naturally, there are numerous companies looking for a big slice of this market. Honda, Nissan, Volkswagen, Dodge, Chevrolet, Ford and Saturn all offer their own interpretations of what a compact car should be. And they all build good cars.
The Corolla meets this challenge with Toyota's strong durability and reliability record.
Toyota, which seldom opts for startling style, has once again brought forth a conservative, clean shape that doesn't call attention to itself. The new Corolla is, in fact, one step away from being plain. But it is nicely proportioned, trim and efficient.
A couple of details set it apart from competing designs. The body sides are indented and the rear lamp clusters look similar to those of the Lexus GS with small trunk-mounted segments. But as a whole, the Corolla does without superfluous ornamentation.
All Corollas are four-door sedans. Three trim levels are offered. VE is the plainest, a low-price car with all but the most basic amenities optional. Most people opt for the mid-range CE or the well-equipped LE. None are exactly luxurious unless extras are ordered, but they fulfill transportation needs well.
Frankly, Toyota's VE to CE to LE strategy is a little bit difficult to fathom. Even a digital clock is extra on a VE, which gets the plainest interior fabrics; it's hard to imagine anyone but fleet customers will go for a VE without air conditioning and a radio. Add much equipment to one and its price begins to climb to that of the CE.
A CE can be equipped to be a virtual twin to the LE (except for the latter's optional sunroof and alloy wheels) while both antilock brakes and side-impact airbags are options for all three versions.
But Toyota has long been wedded to this approach. Its primary drawback, aside from confusion over which car gets which features, is an element of sticker shock. The VE's base price appears to put the Corolla squarely in the bargain category, right down there in rock-bottom land with many competitors. But by the time you've driven away in a fully equipped LE--like our test car--the tab has climbed into midsize-car territory.
Toyota has done a fine job of squeezing maximum passenger space out of a small overall package. Generous room is provided for the driver and front-seat passenger, both of whom sit on comfortable seats. The rear seat, as is common to cars in this class, is rather less commodious. With two occupants the rear seat is a reasonable habitat, though lacking in both leg- and headroom for taller passengers. But three riders had best be good friends. Cupholders, storage boxes and a center-console with a lidded bin are provided for convenience.
The interior design matches the exterior insofar as it's attractive and well finished, but is otherwise similar to most cars in the class. Instruments are housed in a curved dashboard; a tachometer is added in an optional Touring Package. Controls are laid out for easy use.
Materials and workmanship are above average, though a few of our passengers found the cloth seat material, which looks attractive and should be durable, rather scratchy on bare skin. Our LE model carried just about every conceivable option, which gave us use of a good four-speaker sound system, air conditioning, power windows, mirrors and door locks and a glass sunroof.
Opinions were divided on the white instrument faces that are part of the Touring Package; their colors reverse when lit at night, and in the transition between day and night they are sometimes hard to read. Others thought they looked really neat. Luggage can be stowed in a roomy trunk with a large lid that opens right down to bumper level for easy loading.
For the money, the Corolla offers very good performance, handling, ride quality and comfort.
Toyota's all-aluminum 16-valve four-cylinder engine is lighter, more powerful and more economical than its predecessor. It gives the Corolla sprightly performance, even when teamed with a four-speed automatic transmission, as was the case with our test car. Yet it sipped fuel at a commendably miserly 30-mpg average during our test.
The engine is noisy under hard acceleration. It's much quieter at cruising speeds, though there's an intrusive resonance at 3000 rpm. The gearbox, on the other hand, shifts smoothly and responds quickly when called upon to downshift for hill climbing or passing maneuvers.
Judged by class standards, the Corolla handles well, especially when equipped with the slightly upgraded suspension included in the Touring Package. Light but precise power-assisted steering helps as well.
Ride quality, given the short wheelbase, is very good. Nothing short of potholes will disturb the Corolla's occupants. Southern California's freeway expansion strips, which create uncomfortable rocking-horse motions on some of the cars we test, went unnoticed in the Corolla.
The brakes stop the car quickly even after repeated hard use; we recommend ordering them with the optional ABS.
The economy-grade tires were less than ideal, however. They make a noisy nuisance of themselves when asked to carry the car around corners at anything beyond a casual pace, they transmit tread noise into the cabin on the highway, and they lack grip under hard braking.
Driving a Corolla equipped with the automatic transmission, I found the brake pedal and throttle a bit close together for my big feet. Anyone who wears a size 12 or larger shoe will need to pay attention to pedal usage. Drivers with smaller feet-most drivers, in other words-will not likely have any difficulty. And ordering a Corolla with the manual gearbox eliminates this altogether because a different brake pedal is used.
Faced with impressive competition, the Corolla holds its ground well. Budget-minded buyers who want a solid car need look no farther. Those seeking a sportier package may want to check with their Volkswagen or Honda dealers.
Redesigned last year, the new Corolla is a better car than the previous version-and it was one of the better offerings in its class.
The 1999 Corolla is comfortable, rugged and well built, a solid little machine that delivers what it promises. In the ride and handling department, it is better than expected.
By shopping carefully, a customer can drive away in a nicely appointed Corolla without spending much more than $15,000. The CE model, for example, when equipped with optional side air bags and ABS, is a very good buy. As such, it represents good value. Be warned, however, that a loaded Corolla intrudes into Camry territory, so a decision has to be made: Do you want a larger car with minimal extras or a smaller car loaded with everything?