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Car reviews - Toyota - Corolla - Sportivo 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Toyota having a dip at performance
Room for improvement
Not enough performance, too expensive

16 Aug 2001

TAKING a mild child and turning it into a wild child is accepted motoring lore. The proof is in our very own backyard - just take a look at HSV's hi-po V8s and the humble Commodore taxi packs at the opposite end of the Holden food chain.

But if that seems a stretch, it's nowhere as elastic as the Corolla Sportivo. The ultimate commuter car becomes a rorty little performer, or so Toyota would have us believe.

The Sportivo is fundamentally a Corolla Seca Levin - previously presented as the sportiest of Corollas. A small IHI turbocharger is bolted on to the virtually stock 1.8-litre DOHC engine (no forged pistons here) to deliver 115kW and 237 Nm of torque.

Those figures are up a substantial 35 and 53 per cent respectively on the normally-aspirated unit, making this the most powerful Corolla ever sold here.

An intercooler, a stronger clutch pack, high-performance brake pads, stiffer suspension springs and semi-sporty Bridgestone rubber are all designed to cope with the extra urge offered over the standard Corolla fare.

To let the world know this is a Corolla above and beyond the usual, there's an eye-catching Aztec Gold paintjob, 15-inch alloy wheels and a bodykit which includes airdam, side skirts and risers for the rear wing. Mesh for both upper and lower front grilles and foglights are shared with the Levin.

In fact there's plenty more shared with Levin, as the Sportivo offers the same level of specification: air-conditioning, dual front airbags, anti-lock brakes and discs all-round, a three-in-one audio system including a single-slot CD, power front windows, chrome exhaust extension, leather-trimmed three-spoke steering wheel and leather and polished metal gearknob.

The catch is that you pay substantially more for that extra performance, getting close to the pricing of Honda's Integra Type R, Subaru's Impreza WRX and Nissan's 200SX, the three kings of dollar-friendly sports performance.

The Sportivo, quite frankly, cannot match them in a straight line or, even more noticeably, when the going gets tight, twisty and sporty.

But it still accelerates like no other Corolla. While there's some thrashiness and noise as the revs rise, there's also real overtaking and hill-conquering power that would have a normally-aspirated Corolla panting. Yet it's civilised enough to loll along smoothly around 4000rpm, just waiting for the shift back into third and firm prod of the accelerator to get up and going. Turbo lag? Not really evident.

The significant increase in torque, which comes in 1200rpm lower in the rev range at 3600rpm than the normally aspirated 1.8, plays an obvious and crucial role in this performance boost.

The engine works neatly with a sweet-shifting five-speed transmission (that's all you can get with Sportivo incidentally) that's as good as any we've ever sampled in a Corolla. The clutch is nice and malleable too and the pedal set-up good for heel-and-toeing.

Unfortunately, the extra power through the front wheels - and the fact the standard Corolla's unequal-length front driveshafts remain unchanged - means Sportivo also has some idiosyncratic and disturbing characteristics.

The tighter the road gets the less impressive the chassis behaviour is. A firm grip on that steering wheel is definitely required during any cornering activity, or when you take off from a standing start with any sort of serious throttle application.

There is plentiful inside front wheel wheelspin during cornering, torque steer at high revs in the low gears and steering weighting that changes depending on how much load is on the throttle.

There's also plenty of kickback through steering wheel and plenty of jarring coming off the road too thanks to the stiffer suspension. Get on dirt roads and the unpredictability is increased because of the tendency to wheelspin and react severely over corrugations. This is a package that feels only partway resolved. A four-wheel drivetrain would have made a lot of sense.

Dirt roads also expose some inadequate sound proofing under the guards and an anti-lock braking system that doesn't seem as well calibrated as others we have sampled off the tarmac.

Inside, it's all pretty much what we know about Corolla already - particularly if you are familiar with the Levin. It's comfortable enough and the quality of build is good, of course. But the bright orange numbered Sportivo badge on the centre console strikes a jarring note and that big wing does interfere with rear vision.

The sports front seats are comfortable, the steering wheel about the right size and easy to grip (firmly!). Rear seat space is limited, but the luggage area is huge, and aided by the versatile 60/40 split-fold seating.

Overall, this car is a bit of a conundrum. It's an important experiment for Toyota Australia's T-CAM skunkworks, which made the running on this project with a lot of co-operation from Toyota Japan.

To simply be given the nod to develop the Sportivo under the full gaze of one of the world's most conservative car manufacturers is a triumph for the Australians. The car itself is not. Neither econobox or sportster, it resides uncomfortably - and too expensively - somewhere in between.

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