Look at the Corolla Seca Levin when it's parked and you could be forgiven for thinking that it's a sporty thing.
Six-spoke 15 x 6 alloys, front and rear spoilers and sideskirts, front foglights and spunky new styling - well, it looks the part. Open the door and that idea still rings true - delightful steering wheel (it's equipped with an airbag but doesn't look it), supportive and comfortable seats and - hmmmm, an auto trans. Still, this is the car that Toyota in their advertising is trumpeting about having 100kW, so it's not like it's the gutless auto small car of old times. Is it?
Well, yes - unfortunately - it is.
We recorded a 0-100 km/h time in the mid-elevens, and often on the road it feels even slower than that. The all-alloy 1ZZ-FE 1.8-litre VVTi engine (it's got infinitely variable inlet valve timing) looks great on paper, but even when bolted to the excellent A245E auto trans, the driveline simply doesn't come together.
To allow the car to get anywhere, the trans has been programmed to change down one, two or even three gears at what feels like what are just minor touches of the accelerator. So the trans drops down a few gears, engine revs rise, noise and tingly vibrations coming through the steering wheel - and even when revved to its 6200 rpm redline, the performance is only quite average in this class.
It's hard to pick what is precisely at fault, for the Corolla is a commendably lightweight 1141kg and fundamentally there's not a lot wrong with either the gearbox or the engine. (In fact, in a manual gearbox sports car, this engine would be a lot of fun.) But even using Toyota's own performance figures, the problem becomes clear - the auto trans Corolla gets across the quarter mile in a snail-like 17.8 seconds!
Now, isn't that the slowest small-car 100 kilowatts you've ever heard of? And it's not like the engine has a low on-paper torque figure - at 171Nm at 4200 it's quite competent.
And what about going around corners? Handle like a go-kart, does it?
Er, well, no.
What we have is an average suspension which feels let down by a basic lack of tyre adhesion. The 195/60 Michelins squeal quite early, while without any form of traction control, power-on handling is characterised by lots of understeer. Lift off the 'go' pedal sharply and the back goes nowhere - so it can't even be readily steered on the throttle.
But hold on, hold on!
Stop viewing the Corolla through a 'sporting small car' prism, and then it starts to look a lot better. Still no class leader, mind, but yes, a lot better.
Firstly, the Japanese-built Corolla is beautifully put together. The doors shut well, the paint is excellent and the panels straight. The switchgear in the cabin feels straight out of a Lexus, while the optional sunroof is also a quality fitment, complete with its rolled roof panel surround. (However, the sunroof does have a downside - when it's open, the wind deflector sticks up too far, making it extraordinarily noisy.) Behind that delightful 3-spoke height-adjustable steering wheel there's another big-brother Lexus touch - the backlit instruments are clear and easy to read.
Being of the new-age tall body styling, there's also plenty of room in the cabin. Both front and back head- and foot-room are fine, while the wide-opening doors and upright body shape makes getting in and out very easy. Even the hatch opens high enough to avoid head impacts, and the load area (enlargeable with the traditional 60:40 split rear seat that doesn't fold quite flat) is quite adequate. Under the hatch floor you'll also find a full-size alloy spare wheel - no space saver skimpy steel rim here.
Inside the cabin the equipment level is competent rather than being brilliant. There are four airbags, manual air con and electric windows and mirrors. Noticeably in absence in this as-tested $31,500 car are cruise control and traction control. However, ABS is fitted.
The single-CD radio is mounted very high in the centre of the dash - for some it will be a long reach, although its placement means that the driver doesn't have to take his or her eyes so far off the road to see it. One curiosity resulting from the location of the radio is that the centre vent for the driver ends up being aimed at the back of the steering wheel rim rather than having a clear view of the driver's face; the outcome is an icy left hand when the air con is on... Another minor downer of the cabin is that storage space is at a premium - use the forward centre compartment as a cupholder (it comes with inserts to allow it to perform this function) and you can be struggling to find lots of extra storage: the glovebox is small and the door pockets very thin.
Driven gently on suburban duties like picking up children from school, doing the weekly grocery shopping and visiting local friends, the Corolla is fine. At small throttle openings the trans changes up early and so NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) is good, while in cruise this is a car that in fact is very quiet. It's comfortable, easy to drive and has a good ride.
But start pushing the envelope and the appeal plummets. Toyota mentions in its press release that the Corolla shares its platform and wheelbase with the Celica - but critically fails to mention that the Corolla doesn't actually use the very good Celica suspension - not at the back, anyway. On the Corolla you'll find MacPherson strut front suspension, while rearwards is just a torsion beam with an internal anti-roll bar.
In addition to being a determined understeerer, the Corolla has a slow turn-in. Additionally, mid-corner the steering can kick back, while over bumps the back can occasionally be felt to be skipping around. Any emergency application of the brakes when the car is unsettled like this sees the 4-channel ABS springing into action very early. In these sort of tough conditions the car feels uncoordinated and unwilling. Bottom line: in a swerve-and-recover around a child who has run out into the road, or if trying to claw back a driving mistake on a country road, the Corolla isn't very good.
Given the way in which the Corolla needs to be driven to perform, it's not a huge surprise that the fuel economy of the test car wasn't particularly good - we averaged 9.1 litres/100 km, while the AS2877 government test figures are 7.8 litres/100 (city) and a stunning 5.4 litres/100 (highway).
But is this a bad car? By no means. If you want a well-built hatch with a competent equipment level, four airbags and ABS, a roomy interior and what is likely to be typically Toyota good durability and resale value, the Corolla is fine. But you'll also get only average driving performance.
The new Corolla is certainly not the breakthrough car in its class that its appearance and on-paper specs could lead you to expect.
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