18 February 2000: by Brian Byrne.
Hmm ... Corolla has grown up.
Maybe that sounds a little paternalistic, given that Toyotas bread and butter automobile is the best-selling car in the world. But some of its reputation is only because of how long the Corolla name has been rolling on the roads of the world. While theres no gainsaying that the product has long been consistently reliable, tough and ... well, inoffensive.
But it has never been a car to excite, either in looks or performance, the latter largely because it has had a limited range of engine options in the last couple of generations. Indeed, in a world where 1.4 litres has been the standard for this class for a long time, the aged 1.3-litre petrol unit that powered the bulk of Corollas here has made it uninteresting for most of us who have real interest in cars. And the last rebodying - specifically for this side of the Atlantic - was a disaster, leaving it looking smaller than what went before and puny against direct class competitors Astra and Focus. The front end really was wimpish.
But, hey ... did any of that matter? The Corolla still sold very well, to people who relied on its legend and accepted that it would provide what they wanted. Automotive sexiness wasnt part of this.
But Toyota were worried behind the scenes. And, while it was too soon in the cars life-cycle to give a complete model rebuild, a nose job and a heart transplant were both possible. Both were implemented, and the results are quite stunning, each in its own way.
Since you see the front cosmetics first, lets deal with them now. Gone is the cheap grille that looked like it was made from chicken mesh. Gone too are the bug-eyed front lights that also visually downsized the car. In their place we now have substance and style. The new lights particularly succeed, following the jewel effect trend made popular by Opels Astra and VWs Golf in the class. They make the car distinctive too, and for the right reasons.
Bodywork after the front panels is much as was, but underneath it has been stiffened, with consequent improvements in handling. Inside the car, the main changes are in the dashboard, which now features a large LCD panel to give a variety of information, including radio station selection, depending on model and specification. And the rest of the interior is comfortable and practical.
The heart transplant, though, is what makes what would otherwise have been a minor makeover something much more. The new 1.4-litre engine has the variable valve timing (VVT) technology first produced by the marque in its initial 1-litre Yaris. This efficiently designed engine is now being produced in 1.3-, 1.4-, 1.6- and 1.8-litre versions, all delivering outstanding performance in very smooth manner. For the upgraded Corolla, the 96bhp 1.4-litre will be the biggest seller, with maybe only five per cent of buyers opting for the 1.6 option.
Taking the Corolla on the road is now a satisfying experience, even in base form. From the turn of the switch, there seems to be an urge about the car which Ive not noticed before. Slipping through the absolutely smooth and precise gearbox, allowing the revs to lift you through traffic and turns, is now a fun thing.
Precise is also the word for how you can place this car as you go, because the superb response from the steering is a joy to play with either in careful threading through housing estates or spinning up a mountain road. The backup from the new engine is a large part of the overall experience, and quite often, because of the wide power band with the VVT-i technology, I forgot I had a mere 1.4 pulling me.
The cars ride has improved too, partly because of the stiffened bodyshell. I did find the review saloon a little choppy at lowish speeds on good roads, but at higher speeds or when pushed in manoeuvre, it displayed a super suppleness. ABS is standard.
Upcoming is a brand new 16-valve diesel, sometime around the autumn. But in the meantime theres the rather modest 68bhp 1.9-litre oilburner which was developed in conjunction with Peugeot. Its a thrifty unit, but the new one towards the end of the year is likely to be considerably more efficient.
Having missed the initial launch run of the latest Corolla, I approached it for my full review assessment with something less than anticipatory enthusiasm. But as I got to know it, I got to like it very much. It went back to Toyota leaving me highly impressed. Prices start at £13,350 ... the review car was £14,150.
Corolla facts: 1.4- and 1.6-litre petrol engines and 1.9-litre diesel; 5-speed manual; 3-, 4- and 5-door and estate; price range £13,350-£16,550.