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First Oz drive: Corolla hits back

Expanded: Corolla now comes in hatch, sedan and wagon variants.

Toyota launches its ninth generation Corolla with more choice and keen pricing

5 Dec 2001

TOYOTA has made a fresh assault on the Australian small-car segment with its ninth generation Corolla range launched this week, starting from $19,990.

Under enormous pressure from several fronts this year, most notably Holden with its Astra, the once all-conquering Japanese constructor has responded with a comprehensive line-up comprising no less than 18 models across sedan, five-door hatch (Seca) and, for the first time since 1994, wagon body styles.

The obvious aim is to broaden Corolla's appeal as far and wide as possible, with the familiar Ascent, Conquest, sports-focussed Levin and range-topping Ultima grades all being offered - and in some instances starting below the recommended retail price of the equivalent outgoing model. The Ascent sedan and hatch, for example, previously started from $21,680 (now $19,900).

"Toyota has made a massive commitment to Corolla and to the small-car category," said Toyota Australia senior executive vice-president John Conomos.

"Considering the technology and the specification in the new Corolla, the pricing is beyond expectation."Following the trend set by the Honda Civic, the new Corolla makes a radical departure from its predecessor with a tall, short-nosed "cab forward" design that keeps the external dimensions tight but brings greater interior space and significant improvements in crash performance.

There are visual cues to the European-influenced Echo mini car with large, angular headlights and a steeply sloping bonnet, while the rounded rump on the hatch bears more than a passing resemblance to the Audi A3.

Up to 85kg lighter than its predecessor, the new generation Corolla is based on the Celica platform and shares with the sports coupe the same 2600m wheelbase (up 135mm), front track and front (strut) suspension hardware with L-shaped lower arms. An all-new torsion beam is used at the rear.

Engine performance has improved significantly, a new-for-Corolla 1.8-litre VVT-i four-cylinder engine powering the entire range and lifting power from 85kW to 100kW and torque from 154Nm to 171Nm. It also meets the stringent Low Emission Vehicle (LEV) parameters set by the Californian Air Research Board.

Transmission choices are either a five-speed manual or ($1730) four-speed automatic. Standard equipment across the range includes a driver's airbag, four-wheel disc brakes, power mirrors, power steering, central locking, driver's seat height adjustment and a 60/40 split-fold rear seat.

The Conquest grade adds air-conditioning ($1640 on Ascent), 15-inch wheels, remote locking, CD player and power front windows.

Levin introduces important safety features such as a passenger airbag, front seatbelt force-limiter and ABS brakes (now with electronic brake-force distribution and brake-assist) as well as an uprated stereo, electric rear windows, alloy wheels and other sports adornments.

The Levin hatchback and Ultima go a step further with side airbags for front seat occupants.

All models have the option of touch-screen satellite navigation, either as a factory option of Ultima or as a dealer-fit accessory.

While both the sedan and wagon have lap-sash seatbelts all-round, the hatchback has only a lap centre-rear belt. It's a safety issue that Toyota Australia hopes will be rectified in the new year.

Toyota anticipates two-thirds of all new Corollas delivered in Australia will be hatches, with the sedan and wagon variants making up 28 per cent and 8 per cent respectively.

The vast majority will be sold at the entry level Ascent grade to primarily younger buyers.

Officially, Toyota is shooting for 30,000 Corollas in 2002, making it the top selling Toyota in Australia. But executives also admit they anticipate as many as 36,000 sales next year.

While the new range is built in Japan, there are plans to import a sports version of the five-door from South Africa within 12 months, powered by a 1.8-litre, 140kW engine combined with a six-speed gearbox sourced from the Celica.

Ascent $19,990
Conquest $23,590
Levin $28,290
Ultima (a) $30,990Sedan
Ascent $19,990
Conquest $23,590
Ultima $30,99Wagon
Ascent $21,390
Conquest $25,190
Levin (a) $29,090Automatic transmission is $1800 extra across the range and standard on Ultima.


AS you would expect from a Corolla, the driving experience is safe, dependable and robust, without complication or real excitement.

The engine is a re-tuned version of the unit first seen in the MR2 and does not quite have the same sparkle as that application. However, it's still got reasonable urge, even when mated to the automatic transmission.

In five-speed manual form it gets livelier with real impetus and in Levin form becomes quite a fun little car to punt along.

The chassis behaviour of the hatch we drove is more than adequate, the ride quality is only challenged by major imperfections and constant stuttering bumps, and the grip levels are good enough for understeer and wheelspin to only become noticeable when pushing hard in tight corners. Around town, that will surely never be an issue.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect is the noise levels penetrating the cabin, with some tyre roar generated on coarse chip surfaces, wind whistle off the A-pillar and some engine noise when the revs rise.

Inside, this is a clean, neat and logical execution, with something of a tall-boy feel thanks to increased headroom. Perhaps most importantly, there's dramatically improved rear seat leg space, a real handicap of the old model.

While the basic architecture of the interior is unchanged from model to model, the specification levels do make a major difference to cabin feel.

Unsurprisingly, the Ascent has the cheapest feel with grey plastics the dominant characteristics, while the Levin has the most sporting pretensions with its leather-wrap steering wheel and some metal-look plastics.

Overall, the new Corolla is an improvement over its predecessor in terms of engineering and styling.

The fact that Toyota has been able to keep pricing relatively stable can only help it achieve its ambitious sales target as well.

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