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

Our Opinion

We like
Value for money, performance, transmission, interior
Room for improvement
Understated exterior styling, light and grabby clutch

5 Aug 2003

IT’S not often a car delivers more than expected - but Toyota’s latest Corolla Sportivo comes perilously close.

Particularly considering the shortcomings of the previous Sportivo – a hot hatch with a wonderful turbocharged engine that generally overcame the car’s ability to control itself. It was not a model of sure-footed traction, or how to minimise front-drive torque-steer.

But the new Sportivo is a surprisingly well balanced package, in which engine design efficiency replaces cheaply acquired turbo power and understated presentation replaces unfulfilled promise.

A look at the specifications should provide more than a mere clue to the hot Toyota’s abilities.

The engine, for one thing. With a host of power-extracting features including variable valve timing and variable valve lift (which begins breathing more deeply from 6000rpm), the twin-cam, multi-valve engine is able to produce an incredible 141kW from its 1.8 litres.

This, as Toyota points out, exceeds the 100 horsepower per litre mark that was once considered the goal for highly tuned (non-turbocharged) race engines. The power equivalent would be a 5.7-litre Holden V8 that produced nearly 450kW.

Or, perhaps more importantly, it’s worth noting the specific output is better than that of the turbocharged Astra SRi that, with 2.0 litres, produces only 6kW more than the Sportivo.

If the Sportivo’s specifications sound slightly familiar, don’t be surprised: this engine, the 2ZZ-GE, is the same as that used in the current Toyota Celica.

And, looking more deeply into the Sportivo’s specifications, you’ll find something else that also belongs in a Celica: the six-speed, close-ratio transmission.

What, essentially, we are talking about here is a Celica with a five-door hatchback body. The engine specifications are so close as to be virtually identical (an extra 1kW is produced 200rpm higher in the rev range), and so are those of the six-speed gearbox. Only top gear has been juggled to give a little more accelerator response.

The footprint of the Corolla is essentially the same as the Celica with an identical wheelbase, and track dimensions that are within millimeters of each other.

Front suspensions are both by MacPherson struts too, although the Corolla does use a more simple torsion beam rear axle where the Celica uses an independent multi-link system. Perhaps the closest thing to a significant difference is the weight: the Corolla tips the scales at around 100kg more than the Celica.

But, at 1224kg, the Sportivo is no heavyweight and most people would be pushing to detect any real difference in accelerative abilities. Toyota claims 0-100km/h acceleration of 8.4 seconds and a standing 400-metre time of 16.1 seconds, which is not too shabby for a worked-over small car.

The slightly tricked-up body understates the case. The Sportivo gets a subtle kit comprising a front spoiler, side skirts and rear deck spoiler – all supported by a set of 10-spoke alloy wheels. There’s plenty of scope for aftermarket adventures.

Inside it gets slightly more serious with leather faced seats, leather on the steering wheel and shift lever, and Lexus-style "Optitron" high-definition instruments.

There’s a splash of silver trim surrounding the centre control cluster, as well as a six-speaker sound system with six-disc CD changer and tape deck.

There's no questioning it’s a pretty luxurious Corolla – especially when climate-control air-conditioning is also listed as standard.

The business of driving the Sportivo is as you’d imagine: lots of revving (the 141kW comes in at 7800rpm) and a nice, close-ratio gearbox to minimise pauses in acceleration. The only problem comes with learning to smoothly operate the grabby but light clutch.

The six speeds are nicely spaced, with top gear allowing the Corolla to continue working in the higher-speed realms for easy passing and presenting no problems maintaining pace on uphill gradients.

The four-cylinder sounds good too – another thing that makes it both easy and pleasurable to give the car a workout at every opportunity. Although low-speed torque is quite acceptable – despite the fact its maximum and admirable 180Nm does not come in until 6800rpm, ostensibly leaving a very narrow, 1000rpm power band – it is one of the those cars that best reveals its character at the upper reaches of the rpm band.

Yet the Sportivo can be crept along quite happily in traffic and will respond in a more linear way to low-speed throttle inputs than most turbos.

The handling, with 16-inch alloy wheels and 195/55 tyres, is well up to the task - rarely is there a sign of torque steer or any other front-drive idiosyncrasies.

Generally front-drive cars are more manageable without too much low-speed torque and here the Sportivo meets the requirements almost perfectly. Yes, it is possible to induce some torque steer under hard first-gear acceleration, especially if the road surface is uneven, but let’s not forget the power-weight ratio we are talking about here.

The Sportivo also steers very nicely, with a good balance between weight at higher speeds and ease of low-speed handling. The Corolla is no beast intended for those with a preference for heavy steering and fast responses to a nervous accelerator pedal.

It steers and clings like the sports car it is, yet the ride is acceptably comfortable despite a worked-over suspension.

The brakes are up to the task too, with four-channel anti-lock, brake assist and electronic brake-force distribution backed up by discs on all four wheels (ventilated at the front).

The main aberration among hot hatches is the Sportivo’s five-door body. Traditionally three doors are the norm, and there’s little argument that such a body configuration will generally imbue a car with a sportier look.

But the Corolla looks pretty chunky anyway, and there’s no question the extra doors are far more convenient – especially in a nicely space-efficient car like the Corolla that invites extra passengers.

All in all, it’s a pretty sizzling package that is more satisfying to drive than its outward appearance suggests, and is quite luxurious inside with its leather seats, climate-control and respectable sound system. And the fact there’s a real sports car lurking underneath is unmistakable.

For the price, Corolla Sportivo is unquestionably a bargain.

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