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Car reviews - Toyota - Starlet - Life 3-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Performance, handling, ride, refinement, comfort, versatilty, reliabilty, durability, quality build and economy
Room for improvement
Slightly cramped rear seat, silly name

23 Jul 2003

ONCE upon a time the smallest and cheapest Toyota was the Corolla. Since the 1960s it has regularly outsold generations of rivals from the early Holden Toranas to today's Ford Laser.

But as the Corolla grew in size, sophistication and price, smaller and cheaper imports like the Hyundai Excel and Ford Festiva began to steal sales.

With the Corolla nudging $25,000, Toyota desperately needed a cheaper entry level vehicle. Enter the Starlet.

Three models were launched in April, 1996 - the base three-door Life, the better equipped Group X and the top- line five-door Style.

A five-door Life appeared a year later while the Group X and Style versions disappeared in March, 1998. The Starlet Life hogs the sales spotlight although it was not until Toyota declared a price war with Hyundai in 1997 that success came. Buyers flocked to the $1 3,990 driveaway-with-air deals.

The interior is generic Toyota - well built and laid out with light and easy switches and controls and clear if basic instrumentation ... and nothing more.

A basic Life awaits: exposed painted metal inside, radio/cassette player and no power steering - a pity as parking can be quite a chore without it. But the turning circle is tight.

Body-coloured bumpers came in July, 1997, ahead of 1998's standard driver's side airbag.

There was not much in the way of creature comforts but the Life is not uncomfortable.

The seats are shapely and supportive, providing a good driving position, and there is plenty of shoulder room.

A relatively short wheelbase means adults may wish for more rear legroom. Headroom front and back is good.

But the Starlet's boot is as pitifully small as the Excel's is huge.

Another gripe concerns the mean-spirited deletion of rubbing strips along the sides, adding to Life's little scrapes.

Toyota obviously invested money in other areas. For a cheapie, the Starlet impresses with its low levels of noise, vibration and harshness - savour the satisfying thud of a shutting door.

Then there is the 1.3-litre, twin cam, 16-valve engine. With only 834kg to haul around and 55kW of power on tap, the lively Starlet is an impressive performer. And it has excellent fuel economy to boot.

The standard five-speed gearbox is sweet with short and crisp throws. Its high gearing contributes to quiet highway cruising.

But the three-speed only automatic is disappointing when most rivals have an extra gear ratio.

The suspension is quiet. Around town the MacPherson strut and torsion beam rear end provides a soft, comfortable ride.

The down side is the suspension settings can be a little too soft when pushed, forcing the car to lose composure over rough surfaces. All Starlets feature seatbelt pretensioners. Dual airbags and anti-locking brakes were optional but unlikely to have been fitted because they are expensive.

The Starlet's reliability record is exemplary. Nevertheless, insist on a complete service history, avoid high kilometre examples and check for signs of accident damage or neglect as many buyers are first-time drivers.

Dull, unexciting but utterly dependable, a used Starlet Life is the perfect runabout.

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