Corolla Ascent Wagon

Now you'll have to forgive us if in this article we immediately descend into techno-babble. But we think it necessary - very necessary in fact. Otherwise, how are we going to be able to justify saying in this test of the Corolla Ascent Wagon quite a lot which appears diametrically opposed to what we said only recently about the Corolla Seca Levin?

Because we must state just this: the manual transmission Corolla wagon (and, we assume, the other manual trans Corolla body shapes as well) drives completely and utterly unlike the automatic trans Corolla that we previously sampled.

Yes, sure, auto transmission cars are different to manual transmission cars - we know that too. But normally not like these two...

Take the 4-speed auto transmission Seca Levin. Its top gear ratio (ie 4th) uses a 0.892:1 ratio, and this works with a final drive 2.962. Multiply those together and you get a top-gear number of 2.64. Pretty tall-geared - that means the engine spins only 2.64 times as fast as the wheels.

Hmm, now let's move to the 5-speed manual transmission cars. Top gear (ie 5th) is 0.815:1, while the final drive ratio is 4.312. Again do the multiplication and you end up with 3.5.

So? Well, the manual trans cars are geared an incredible 33 per cent lower than the auto trans cars!

Don't see the significance? Well, in the manual car at 110 km/h in fifth gear the tacho's showing 3500 rpm. Now that just so happens to be pretty close to peak torque from the 1.8-litre engine (171Nm at 4200 rpm). So when you put your foot down at this speed, there's immediate response, even without changing gear. Same when you climb hills - no gear change's necessary.

And while in the much more highly geared auto making the same right foot movement will still result in acceleration - the gearbox will just change down a few ratios - it's just not the same. Nowhere near it.

And it shows very clearly in the acceleration figures. On Toyota's own data, the auto Corolla gets to 100 km/h in 11.4 seconds and does the standing quarter in 17.8. And, with just the same power and body mass, the manual (much lower geared cars) do these performance times in 9.1 and 16.5!

Some difference, eh?!

And on the road it feels like the manual car's got something like 30 per cent more power than the sluggish auto. (And in the performance times you can see why!) But even that's an unfair statement - the auto's not actually 'sluggish', because it can change down a gear (or two or three) as required. Nope, it's more than that. The sheer throttle response and useability of the engine is simply so much better in the lower-geared manual cars. Like, it feels as if there really is a VVTi engine of modern design under the bonnet...

The hugely different gearing also means that on the way through the 'box, the torque multiplication is much higher. Like, you just race through 'em - and changing from first to even fifth is no big deal...

So what's the downer? Why doesn't every manufacture gear their cars so that they can reach the redline in fifth? Well, they used to do just that. Back in the 70s both this tester's BMW 3.0Si and his AlfaSud Ti were geared in exactly that way - max revs equalled max speed. However, these days, carmakers almost always trade off revs for better fuel economy (a slower turning engine is generally a more economical engine) and lower NVH (less revs equals less noise).

And so yes, the incredibly low-geared Corolla is quite noisy - within the context of $30K cars, anyway. After all, that's how much the previously tested Corolla Seca Levin was. In fact, to be accurate, quite a lot over $30K.

But take out some interior fancy bits (and less flippantly, the two side airbags) and the pictured Ascent Wagon - still complete with the optional ABS and passenger airbag - tips the scales at $21,390. And even with the engine revving hard all of the time, in this (revised) pricing class, the noise and vibration are not too bad.

And the handling? If you remember, we criticised the handling of the auto Seca quite strongly. And we won't try to kid you into thinking that changing the transmission alters the suspension... which in fact is identical across the Corolla range. But what it does do is alter the throttle control - and quite markedly. With the engine always having a bucketload of revs on board, steering on the throttle becomes far simpler - and in the test wagon, the extra mass over the rear wheels also made the back feel a bit more movable with the right foot as well. And that's even with the skimpy (and skinny) Dunlop 175/70 tyres on 14-inch steel rims!

Bottom line - the auto Corolla felt like it was trying to be something it wasn't. It was pretending to be a semi-luxurious and refined car, suitable for the young-woman-about-town (stats show that this is the predominant buying group) and instead falling into the category of the sort of car driven by only the very elderly (and stats also show that lots of old people buy Corollas). But the as-tested 32 per cent cheaper Ascent wagon fits its category like a glove - in the context of smallish wagons, it's cheap, cheerful, sophisticated and roomy.

So let's get away from the auto-trans Seca comparison: how well does the Ascent 5-speed manual wagon stand on its own feet? Pretty damn well!

The interior of the test car was a sombre black - seats, dash, doortrims. This makes it look smaller than it is - for this is a roomy small car. Rear head, knee and footroom are all excellent, while front space is fine. The seats are good, while the switchgear works - as we said about the much more expensive Seca - with genuine Lexus quality. The equipment highlights of this slightly optioned car included twin airbags, air, a decent radio cassette and ABS. The windows are wind-your-own, but electric mirrors are provided. There is driver-door central locking but no radio remote.

Step around the back and lift the wide-opening tailgate and the good story continues. The load area is capacious, and includes excellent design touches like a cargo cover blind that stores beneath the rear floor. You'll also find a second shallow compartment under there, in addition to a full-size spare wheel. The rear seat folds down on the traditional 60/40 split, with the backrests ending up not quite flat.

Three head restraints and lap/sash seatbelts are provided in the rear, with the centre sash being able to be rewound right to the roof to clear the way for seatback folding and to give an open load area.

Like the Seca, the Ascent is beautifully built with excellent paint, good door shutting, and a quality interior. You won't find the cheap and nasty plastic mouldings that the car's price could lead you to expect.

On the road the Wagon is responsive and eager; the short gearing means that you're always using plenty of revs but the variable valve timed engine is happy to run to its 6400 rpm redline without becoming breathless. However, the lack of traction control is obvious - in the wet the car will easily spin its wheels and power-on handling is characterised by lots of understeer. However, as touched upon earlier, the extra mass over the rear wheels and the delightful throttled controllability lets the enthusiastic driver place the car very well.

In fact, on a winding country road it's very easy to forget that this is just a low cost wagon: heel and toeing as the short-throw gearlever gets flicked through the box, engine constantly between 4000 and the 6500 rpm rev cut, precise and well-weighted steering letting the car be fluidly guided.... Well, you could almost be driving a sports car.

The ABS - working with four-wheel discs - shows good resolution (it works effectively even at a walking pace - great for negotiating steep driveways) and emergency braking pulls the car down in speed hard and securely.

Given the way in which the car was driven, fuel economy on test was excellent -- with a figure of 7.9 litres/100 recorded. The AS2877 government test figures are 8 (city) and 5.8 litres/100 km (city).

The manual wagon scores points for its quality, driveability and capaciousness. It's just the sort of car that is budget-and-practical-family-truckster in status, but also can be great fun to drive.

Note that you can buy this car in an auto model: please don't...

Corolla Ascent Wagon Manual 5-speed Fast Facts...
  • Low gearing gives eager acceleration and throttle response
  • Beautifully built inside and out
  • Roomy and well designed interior
  • Handling characterised by understeer
  • Good value

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