Car reviews - Toyota - Corolla - Ultima sedan
Upscale interior decoration, voluminous boot, four airbags fitted standard, reassuring braking performance
Room for improvement
Unremarkable engine performance, no standard cruise control, distracting noise levels, dash rattle in test car
15 Apr 2002
By TERRY MARTIN
NO OTHER car has had quite the same influence as Corolla, with more than 750,000 delivered to Australian homes before this all-new ninth generation - and more than 29 million sold throughout the world.
But how times have changed. Once the all-conquering constructor in the Australian small-car segment, Toyota has come under enormous pressure from a number of fronts, most notably Holden with its outstanding European-built Astra.
While Corolla held down the number one spot in 2001 with more than 30,000 cars rolling out of showrooms, that number was lineball with the previous 12 months. Holden, on the other hand, increased its Astra sales in the order of 10,000 cars to end the year a mere 1850 short of the "world's biggest selling car".
Corolla is still breaking records of its own, of course. And it is still the one to beat. But has it got what it takes to keep its nose in front? Yes.
That nose might look as if it's been punched in, such is the radical appearance of the tall, "cab forward" new generation car.
Yet significant improvements across the board have emerged in a line-up comprising no less than 18 models across sedan, five-door hatch (Seca) and, for the first time since 1994, wagon body styles.
At the top rung is the Ultima, which brings quasi-Lexus ambience with hints of chrome throughout the cockpit, "timber" panelling, plush seating, leather on the steering wheel and T-bar, and an appealing two-tone colour treatment across the dash and doors.
There are some high-grade - and quite startling - features, too, such as fabulously clear backlit instruments, optional satellite navigation and a strong quartet of disc brakes with a supporting cast of acronyms: ABS (anti-lock braking system), EBD (electronic brake force distribution) and BA (brake assist). In a Corolla?
You must pay handsomely for the privilege - and even then the dollars fail to bring cruise control, climate control, a trip computer, rear maplights and, on the hatch variant, a centre-rear lap-sash seatbelt.
But add to this four airbags, fog lights, alloy wheels, 100kW engine performance, a six-speaker/six-disc CD stereo and mandatories such as air-conditioning, remote central locking and electric windows/mirrors, and it all starts to add up.
Claims about significant improvements in crash performance cannot be discounted either, nor can the fact that the decidedly un-Lexus-like shape brings an impressive amount of space for bodies and bags.
Resting on a Celica-derived 2600mm wheelbase (up 135mm), Gen IX offers excellent comfort and abundant clearance in the critical areas - head, legs, shoulders and feet - for two adults, whether up front or across the 60/40 split-fold rear seat.
The boot, too, is now a generous size with a wide (1060mm) aperture leading to a deep (920mm) and wide (up to 1500mm) luggage area. A full-size spare wheel lies under the floor, though we hasten to mention that practical aspects in other respects are in short supply.
We had hoped for a boot handle or a boot-release button on the remote keypad, space-saving boot lid struts, luggage tie-down hooks, storage bins and a flip-up rear seatbase to provide a flat floor when the seatback is folded.
We were, it seems, a little optimistic. Driver's seat lumbar adjustment, steering-mounted audio controls, an electric aerial and steering wheel reach adjustment are also nowhere to be seen, though in other respects the driver is quite well catered for.
High-mounted, upright seats help with egress and exit, and in providing a fine view of the road ahead, while good seat travel and steering wheel and seat height adjustment should enable most drivers to find a natural position behind the wheel.
A driver's footrest, right-hand indicator stalk, well-positioned temperature controls and variable intermittent windscreen wipers are included. While the accurate and informative sat-nav unit (which includes the stereo) becomes a breeze to use after a breaking-in period, it can demand an uncomfortable lean forward for adjustment.
As we alluded to earlier, engine performance has improved with a new 1.8-litre VVT-i engine - a retuned version of the unit first seen in the MR2 sports car - lifting power 18 per cent to 100kW at 6000rpm and torque 11 per cent to 171Nm at 4200rpm. Furthermore, a weight loss program has helped even the fulsome (1185kg) Ultima achieve a power to weight ratio of 84kW per tonne.
It all bodes well for a cracking drive but on the road performance is acceptable rather than sparkling.
Though the engine is smooth and turns the car into quite a strong little sprinter, it requires a large dose of revs - and determination to keep it in a lower gear - to reach its full potential.
Ultima owners, we suspect, will not be inclined to do such a thing and left in drive around town, where it will spend most of its time, the sedan rewards with lean fuel consumption, low emissions (it meets the stringent Californian LEV parameters) and adequate pulling power.
What becomes apparent, however, is that despite its smooth and decisive nature, the tall-geared auto takes the edge off the engine. While good response is achieved with revs piled high, the associated noise tends to send the driver back to a more sedate level.
Unbecoming noise emanates from other areas, too: tyres across coarse-chip bitumen, wind whistling across the front pillar at freeway speeds. A dash rattle also emerged on our test car.
For all that, the new Corolla (now with a torsion beam rear suspension) remains confident in its handling - a fair amount of pushing is needed before understeer and wheelspin arise - and composed and comfortable in its ride, though stuttering over a series of small bumps is a factor to contend with.
Kickback can rise up through the tiller during corners but it does not detract from the crisp, reactive steering. And at 9.8 metres, the turning circle is excellent.
While this particular model will not get Toyota off the hook in the sales race, it is without doubt the one that most embodies the new spirit to be found within this popular little car.
Safe and dependable motoring will still be the clinchers for many people, particularly those with more than $30,000 to spend. But more room, features and a touch of class are sure to bring the swinging voters back for a closer look.
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