– Looks like a Camry
– Rides almost like a Camry
– Runs cheaper than a Camry
– Looks like a Camry?
– Handles almost like a Camry
– Runs slower than a Camry
There are numerous iconic cars which were created during the last century that changed the world in their own little ways. We are talking about bestsellers here, and specifically about cars which were so affordable that they became part of every average family. America had its Ford Model T. Britain had its Mini. Germany had the VW Beetle. And Japan had its Toyota Corolla. But while Ford is fighting bankruptcy, the Mini has become an expensive toy and the Beetle is now a weird chick-mobile. Only the Corolla has maintained its original philosophy to this day, and continues to be a favourite of many humble families.
Growing up in the Middle East, we must’ve travelled in every generation of the Corolla introduced since we were born. So we are actually in a position to say how much it has changed over the years. We got the well-featured version of 1.6-litre range from Toyota. The new-for-2008 car has apparently grown with us, and if you look at it with half-closed eyes from far away on a foggy day, you’d think it’s a Camry. It also tries to look more upscale than it really is, and yet it remains conservative enough to appeal to people who get a heart attack looking at the swoopy Civic. But don’t expect any additional respect on the road.
While the exterior offers nothing stand-out, the interior is a surprisingly nice place to be in. Unlocking the car with the remote, the interior lights include some blue mood lighting along the floor. The wood-lined dashboard design is elegant and all cabin textures exude quality. And the doors are moulded in unusual organic shapes that are pleasant as well as practical.
But we were quickly brought down to reality as soon as we touched the surfaces. The upper surfaces are made of the hardest “soft-touch” materials on the market, while there is only the slightest hint of padding on the cloth-covered door armrests. The central armrest, as with most of the lower surfaces, is simply hard plastic. The optional wood trim is fake, but that’s normal in even higher-priced cars. However, looking through the luggage trunk, the rear seat-back is patched up with only a cheap removable piece of cardboard, and the seat foam is still visible. The 1997 Corolla we grew up in is still in our family, running strong as ever, and while that old interior was sparse, it still had a nicely-padded cabin. Cost-cutting at Toyota is obviously taking a toll on quality.
But all is not lost, as useful features are part of the overall cabin design. There are two glove-boxes, even as standard dual front airbags take up space in the dash. The CD/MP3 stereo actually sounds quite decent for an economy car, with a hidden antenna too. And there are cup-holders and bottle-holders for at least four passengers, while the front cup-holders even have covers to hide them away. All this in a Corolla, when expensive American cars still offer non-retractable antennas and exposed cup-holders.
The five-seater Corolla offers good front space, while rear space is also good except for only average rear legroom. The cloth seats in our tester were manually adjustable at the front, with moderate side-bolstering, while the rear bench gets three headrests and a flat floor. The luggage trunk is pretty spacious for a compact car, and while our 1.6 tester had a fixed cardboard rear seat-back, the top 1.8 model gets split-folding rear seats to increase cargo area. Lots of useful storage areas are inside the car too.
Other features included in our tester were power windows, electric mirrors, clear LED brake-light on the optional spoiler, stereo buttons on the steering wheel, a strong manual a/c with front vents only, and rear parking sensors. The sensors worked fine, but they were too sensitive and were beeping hard when obstacles were still far away. At least it also came with an off button.
But the Corolla is still a very easy vehicle to drive. All-round visibility is good, the steering is buttery-soft, and the featherweight pedals are easy enough to modulate. But the 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine takes some prodding to get to its useful power band. With a peak of 107 hp coming in at 6000 rpm, around town we had to largely depend on the modest 145 Nm of torque that maxes out at 4400 rpm. It feels adequate in city driving, responding about the same as the larger-but-gutless Honda Civic engine in low-rev cruising.
But more importantly, while the larger Civic engine redeems itself with a massive payload of power at higher revs, this little Corolla engine never gets there. Our quickest 0-to-100 kph time was 10.8 seconds with the smooth four-speed automatic, although most of our runs took closer to 12 seconds, and we couldn’t really induce any wheelspin even when flooring the throttle while brake-launching. Passing on the highway is an even slower affair. It took so long to overtake at full throttle that we decided to measure the time, taking as long as 13.5 seconds to go from 100 kph to 140 kph. But we did calculate an approximate fuel economy figure of 9.48 litres per 100 km, which is slightly better than average in this class. The car burns so little fuel that we put in a half-tank of petrol at the beginning of the test, since Toyota handed us an empty tank, and we never filled up again over the next two days of hard driving. While we’d recommend upgrading to the 1.8 version, the 1.6 will keep any commuter happy.
What’ll also keep commuters happy is the comfortable ride quality. It rides on an independent-front solid-rear suspension setup, like an FJ Cruiser but with none of the off-road benefits obviously, though Toyota has still managed to keep the ride almost as good as that of a Camry. It also feels less floaty than the Camry over sharp bumps, but a mild bit of bounciness is still there. Engine noise at full throttle is less than that of a Civic, but more than the amazingly-quiet Ford Focus. Wind and road noise are also above-average, with the Focus being quieter on both counts.
The Civic and Focus also have the Corolla beat in the handling department, but the Corolla has actually improved on that front. Our optional 15-inch alloys were wearing 195/65 tyres, which did the job well enough in moderate driving. We had fun pushing this car to its early limit. It is easy to make the tyres squeal with safe understeer on tight corners, and body roll isn’t all that bad while doing so. We got overzealous and started zigzagging the low-feedback power steering to test maximum roll and stability at 80 kph. We stopped doing that after a few seconds because things started getting as jiggly as a sailboat in a hurricane. We didn’t lose any grip, but it would be easy to spin this car if we really wanted to pull off stunts. The brakes are good for safe linear stops, and we applaud the upgrade to standard four-wheel discs, although ABS remains optional. Overall, the Corolla is a safe-enough handler for a person who wants the safety-net of a car that will dependably take them to the office, and reliably avoid the occasional suicidal labourer who runs across the highway.
The 2008 Toyota Corolla has now moved up enough to be considered a “luxury” car in some countries, but it still remains within reach in terms of price. We were slightly taken aback by the small lapses in quality of some cabin materials, but we still expect it all to hold up for at least a lifetime. It is definitely better than the previous unremarkable model, and that should be enough for people who swear by the Toyota badge. It gets no respect on busy roads, as we bluntly found out when vans and taxis kept cutting us off, but its owners will be concerned about resale value and long-term reliability more than anything else. And we expect the new Corolla to continue delivering on those attributes.