2003 Toyota Corolla Review

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John Pearley Huffman John Pearley Huffman Editor
January 7, 2002

2003 Toyota Matrix by John Pearley Huffman (12/3/2001)

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Set the way-back machine for 1986! (Insert hallucinatory special effects and a John Williams score here.) Ah, we’ve arrived back at that magic time of an un-ironic Miami Vice, a less-than-creepy Michael Jackson and an NBA with Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan in it. Be careful what you say! These people are still paying $10,000 for personal computers with 20MB hard drives! We don’t want to give them to revolt and deny Bill Gates his billions!

Okay, now let’s go to the Toyota dealer and buy us a new ’86 Corolla! But which Corolla, you say? The front-drive sedan? Rear-drive coupe? Rear-drive hatchback with 16-valve engine? Or the four-wheel drive wagon? There are just too many Corollas to choose from! Our 21st-century minds can’t handle such variety! Let us flee back to our own time… where there are far fewer Corollas to confuse us!

Leaving the chaos of 1986 behind, the great variety of Corollas past has dwindled to this, an all-new 2003 Corolla compact sedan. If you like front-drive and four-doors, then they’re still making a Corolla for you. And it’s the best Corolla sedan yet.

Nine-gen sophistication

This ninth-generation version’s “style and substance” has been, asserts Don Esmond, Toyota U.S.A.’s general manager, specifically designed to “reach out to younger buyers with a strong, new identity.” Based solely on appearance, that new identity seems to be that of a scaled-down Camry. Considering how many Camrys they sell, that can’t be all bad. But it’s not the sort of visual excitement that’s likely to drop the median age of Corolla buyers down much from 44 (that’s absolutely Methuselan in econocar terms). The new Corolla looks modern, sober and substantial, but hardly exciting or youthful.

2003 Toyota Corolla

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Available as a base CE, luxury LE or somewhat sportyish S, the new Corolla rides on a 102.4-inch wheelbase which is more than five inches longer than the Corolla it replaces and 0.7 inches shorter than the current Honda Civic sedan’s. However, at 178.3 inches long overall, the new Corolla is actually 3.7 inches longer than the Civic and a scant 0.8 inches longer than Nissan’s Sentra (which has a 99.8-inch wheelbase). Throw any of these cars into a swimming pool, and they’ll all make about the same size splash.

What distinguishes the Corolla from the competition is the sheer structural integrity of the chassis. From the moment a door is opened every molecule of this machine bespeaks the sort of quality one would have expected only in a Lexus a few years ago. The MacPherson strut front and torsion beam rear suspension couldn’t be more ordinary in specification, but it’s poised, composed and driver-blunder-resistant. Modest P185/65R15 tires on the CE (195/65R15s on the LE and S) keep the limits rather low, but run smoothly and quietly. Throw in decent front disc/rear drum brakes (anti-lock brakes are optional on the S and LE) and excellent rack-and-pinion steering, and this is as close to a luxury car ride and experience as any small economy sedan has ever.

That feeling of sophistication carries to the interior, which is cleanly styled, easy to use and surprisingly roomy. The S innards can seem a bit spartan, with a big swath of black plastic running down the center of the dash, but it does feature the sporty trend-of-the-moment white faced gauges, a truly gorgeous three-spoke steering wheel and the seats are accommodating, supportive and finished in a grippy cloth. The LE’s basic equipment isn’t much different than the S (power windows, power door locks and lots of storage cubbies are standard on both), but uses a nearly plausible phony wood grain that’s more attractive than the relentless matte finish dash of the S. Even the basic CE model (where you have to roll up your own windows) feels well equipped and includes an AM/FM/CD sound system and a 60/40 split rear folding seat.

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2003 Toyota Corolla

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Familiar powerplant

Its engine keeps the Corolla from dominating the class. An evolutionary version of the 1.8-liter, all-aluminum, DOHC, 16-valve engine that was in the previous Corolla, it now features Toyota’s VVT-i variable valve timing system and that helps bump the horsepower rating from 125 last year to 130 this year. However the VVT-i doesn’t do much for peak torque production, which actually drops a pound-foot from last year’s 126 lb-ft at 4000 rpm to 125 at 4200 rpm. In daily driving the difference between last year’s engine and the new one is barely perceptible. However the five-speed manual transmission’s shifter does seem a bit more precise and even the CE-grade Corolla can now be had with four full gears in its optional automatic.

In power production, the new Corolla engine is roughly comparable to its competitors (The base Sentra 1.8-liter engine, for example, is rated at 126 horsepower and 129 lb-ft at 2400 rpm), but it feels at least a generation behind the rest of the Corolla in sophistication. It gets a bit rough at higher revs and isn’t quiet about its work, while the Corolla’s chassis never gets rough or loud. And from a sporting standpoint, the engine comes up far short of the “big” 2.5-liter, DOHC four used in the Sentra SE-R, which is rated at a robust 165 horsepower and 175 lb-ft of torque. Up against an SE-R, the Corolla S doesn’t stand a chance.

Where’s the rest of me?

Back in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties the sheer breadth of Corolla offerings meant that there was at least one for every entry-level buyer. And since Corolla owners usually found that their Toyota was a nearly indestructible everyday companion, they went on to become Camry, Celica, Avalon, Tundra and Sequoia buyers in the future. The new Corolla will likely surpass its illustrious predecessors for quality, longevity and sophistication at a competitive price (starting somewhere near $13,000 for a CE). But if Toyota really wants to attract more young buyers to the brand, they need to bring back more than just a single four-door body style in three modest trim levels to the market. How about an S sedan with the 180-horsepower engine and six-speed manual transmission they’re offering in the Matrix XRS and Celica GT-S to start?

2003 Toyota Corolla
Base price: $13,000 (est.)
Engine: 1.8-liter in-line four, 130 hp
Drivetrain: Five-speed manual or four-speed automatic, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 178.3 x 66.9 x 57.4 in
Wheelbase: 102.4 in
Curb weight: 2490 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 32/40 mpg (manual); 30/38 mpg (automatic)
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags
Major standard equipment: AM/FM/CD player, tilt steering wheel, 60/40 split rear seat
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles

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