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February 5, 2001

Review: 2001 Toyota Corolla GLi

The battlefield of the 1.6-liter sedans has never been this big.  Long before, people had only two choices: the Mitsubishi Lancer and the Toyota Corolla.  Pretty soon, other car manufacturers came into the picture offering their own brand of compact-sized family car.  Now, the field has no less than seven competitors: Chevrolet Cassia, Ford Lynx, Honda Civic, Mazda 323, Mitsubishi Lancer, Nissan Sentra and Toyota Corolla.  This huge array of choices makes buying a compact-sized sedan much more difficult than shopping for hotdogs at a local supermarket.

Moreover, with the collapsing market of the Philippines, people who normally settle for 2.0-liter cars are often stuck with buying an economy sedan instead.  Which is why, most of these manufacturers have to place things that aren’t normally present in cars of this class such as leather seats, wood trim, sun roof and the like.

Now, the question arises: could the perennial leader, Toyota Corolla be able to meet these two new challenges that threaten its position as market leader?

Frankly, the answer is a disappointing no.  Although there’s nothing really bad about the Corolla, there’s nothing really good about it either.  If we were to compare the Corolla to a drink, it has to be mineral water—healthy, tasteless, functional and inoffensive.  Much like a bottle of Hidden Springs, the Corolla satisfies pretty much the basic needs of the person, without actually being on top of anyone’s favorite drink list (unless you’re Mika Hakkinen).

The exterior shape for instance is just pressed metal with coatings of paint.  There’s nothing really spectacular about the Corolla—the lights the grille, the general lines of the car are all functional.  Like its competitors, the 1.6 GLi (the mainstay challenger) has 14-inch tires, a third brake lamp, and the 3D-look head and tail lamps.  Sadly, the car fails to really put out a sense of awe and head turning experience.  This is so unlike the Ford Lynx, which, despite its 323 origins, has a body design that’s at least a stand above the rest in the 1.6-liter crowd.

Moreover, this model is a far cry from the luxury-box design of the previous Corolla.  In fact, if the model year would be hidden away, one would think that Toyota mistakenly reversed the design blue prints of this model and the previous one.  From a reduced-Lexus look of the previous generation, the newest model has the words ‘fleet car’ written all over it.

On the plus side, the Corolla has good fit and finish quality.  Although the doors don’t close with a Mercedes-like solidity, it could easily outclass the other compact sedans.  There’s no doubt about it, but the Corolla is one solid choice when it comes to reliability and durability (that’s probably why they’re used for fleets anyway).

Inside, the story is the same: bland and uninspired.  What’s more, some of the ergonomics don’t really make any sense and could have improved more.  Although the window switches and radio controls could be operated with considerable ease, the ventilation controls are too low to be reached without having to stretch out like a gorilla.

However, the interior quality is at par with the level of some luxury sedans.  In fact, that’s the only thing that’s pretty much great with owning a Corolla.  The interior surfaces such as the dashboard and the doorframes have consistent quality made with soft-feel plastics.  The stalks and the window switches, although from the same batch of parts as the Toyota Hi-Lux and Toyota Echo fit very well and are sturdy enough to be operated without the fear of snapping them off.

Nonetheless, having tons of soft-touch plastics isn’t good unless you’re the type who takes car of their car with weekly interior cleaning.  If not taken care off, the interior could become a big hassle to clean in the future, especially if dirty hands are used to operate the steering wheel and gearbox selector.  But, if you’re the type who takes care of his car like Bert does with his bottle cap collection, then the Corolla’s interior is bound to last forever.

Space is a poor point of the Corolla.  Although this car is relatively the same size as the previous model, this newer model doesn’t utilize space that well.  In fact, this is perhaps the biggest gripe against the Corolla.  The space up-front is adequate for normal people, but for those who are vertically or horizontally endowed, it’s a squeeze.  For instance, I’m a five foot seven inches; I find the dash already hitting my knees whenever I try to press the accelerator.  What Toyota should have done was to push up the dash and center area like the Honda Civic.  For the people at the back, three across would be sardines, and two would be the adequate number.  Again, this is a surprising fact as the previous Corolla had the ability to swallow five adults easily.

Mechanically, the Corolla hasn’t changed much from the previous version.  In fact, aside from having the same suspension set-up, this model shares the same engine (the 1.6-liter fuel injected DOHC 16-valve inline-4) with the older model.  What’s changed however is that this engine has been mated to a better-programmed four-speed automatic gearbox.  But, it is any better than the other 1.6-liter sedans?

It depends on whom you ask.  If you're after the sudden rush of speed through torque and horsepower, then the Corolla isn’t your car.  What the Corolla does best is traveling at mid-revs (3,000-4,000 rpm) at a relatively sedate pace.  Although the 110 bhp peaks at 6,000 rpm, the car doesn’t seem like to rev that high.  Add this to the fact that the engine becomes too boomy at around 4,000-4,500 rpm that’s sometimes an annoying fact especially in highway driving.

Another annoying fact is that the car exhibited huge amounts of road noise.  Although we have some guess that it’s the Goodyear NCT3s at fault, some cars such as the Honda Civic do not seem to suffer from this problem.  Moreover, the Corolla has a noticeable degree of wind noise, especially at 100 km/h and above.

The Corolla cannot win stoplight duels, but touring around town, especially in traffic is a strong point of the car.  Aside from a smooth 4-speed gearbox, the car has ample ride that could absorb the bumps and little road imperfections around Manila.  Although the Honda Civic still comes out king in this division, the Corolla still takes honors for both front and backseat passenger comfort.

For cautious types, the Toyota Corolla is a safe bet.  It has all the features one could wish for: dual airbags, ABS and a GOA-standard body construction.  In fact, the only thing lacking here is disc brakes all around (a problem solved by the all-new 2001 Toyota Corolla—already out in the Japan and some parts of Asia). With the new Corolla still in limbo when it comes to its Philippine launch, Toyota Philippines have also added rear-parking sensors and extended bumpers as standard on Altis models, which makes a safe car even safer.

At this point, it is curious to note that when it comes to passive safety devices, the Corolla is up there with the likes of the much-bigger 2.0-liter and above class, but could we say the same thing about active safety?  What is meant by active safety is the ability of the car to avoid accidents even before it happens, thus things like panic braking, handling and control are put into question.  Unfortunately, the Corolla fails miserable in this category.

Although the car is chuckable in to corners, it does so with a degree of hesitation and huge amounts of body roll.  What’s more the steering wheel doesn’t communicate anything to the driver, which means that the car might have already met its limit and the driver doesn’t even know this.

Putting the Corolla in a skid-pad type test revealed that although the car showed great agility, the car’s tires were already screeching—and indication that traction was already being lost.  The problem is the steering still felt dead and without the tire lock-up sounds, we wouldn’t have known that this was the limit of the car.

The braking test also had the same result.  Putting the car into a dead stop was like trying to stop the racecar from the video game Daytona USA—it was a deadening experience!  Again, the car didn’t exhibit any signs of it being on the limit except for the fact that the ABS system was already madly pumping the brake fluid (you could hear it) to prevent lock-up.  Mind you, this was braking from only about 50 km/h on dry concrete and the car was already complaining.  We wouldn’t want to imagine how this would feel at 100 km/h on a wet road.

Again, it must be pointed out that this is the Corolla at very extreme situations.  For the everyday traveler, the Corolla is one great car: reliable, durable, cheap to maintain.  However, for the driving enthusiast, the Honda Civic or Ford Lynx are better buys because they are as reliable, durable, cheap to maintain and more fun than the Toyota.  Thus, in this changing world, the Toyota Corolla will have to settle behind the likes of the Honda Civic and Ford Lynx—the new market leaders.

With the news of the all-new Honda Civic coming to the Philippines in January 2001, Toyota must make the move to bring in the all-new Corolla as well—at least to level the battlefield.  If this we not to happen, then Toyota will lose all hope in catching up with the challenger from Tochigi.

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