Cloth or leather, the seats are comfortable and supportive. Big heating and air conditioning controls, simple, straightforward radio controls, well-designed cup holders, and plenty of cubbies for storing stuff make for a convenient interior. Getting in and out of this four-door sedan is easy and the back seat is surprisingly roomy and comfortable.
The four-cylinder engine revs smoothly and delivers good acceleration performance. Corolla earns an EPA-estimated 32/40 mpg City/Highway when equipped with a manual transmission. Both the manual and the automatic transmissions offer smooth shifting, and the manual is very easy to operate. All models have a smooth, comfortable ride and offer response handling. Corolla earned the New Car Test Drive editor's choice for best compact sedan for 2003 and is likely to retain that title for 2004.
Redesigned and re-engineered for 2003, the Toyota Corolla is relatively unchanged for 2004.
CE ($13,570 or 14,370 with automatic) comes standard with air conditioning (with an air filter), AM/FM/CD stereo system, power steering, tilt steering column, tachometer, intermittent wipers, digital clock, outside temperature gauge, trunk lamp, and a dome light with delay.
S ($14,515 with manual gearbox, $15,315 with automatic transmission) features sporty styling cues such as smoked headlight lens extenders, integrated fog lamps, and an aerodynamic body package with color-keyed front and rear underbody spoilers, rocker panel extensions, and rear mud guards. It also gets wider 195/65R15 tires. Inside, the S gets a unique cloth interior, a sporty tachometer, chrome accents, and a nice leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob. The S model gets a vertical seat-height, power door locks, power mirrors, and mirror-mounted map lights. Power windows with keyless entry are available as an optional package.
LE ($14,780 manual; $15,580 automatic) adds remote keyless entry, power windows, halogen headlamps, and variable intermittent wipers. The LE gets body-colored door handles, lacks the sporty body cladding of the S and looks the better for it. In place of the S model's sporty interior finish, the LE gets wood-like trim and upgraded cloth seating surfaces. An optional leather package ($900) is available for the LE that gives the car a luxurious feel and includes cruise control. Aluminum wheels ($390) are available, which improve the appearance of the LE and may improve its handling slightly.
Options you should be sure to get are the anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution ($300) and side-impact airbags ($250), both of which can save lives and reduce injuries in an accident. Other options include cruise control ($250) and a sunroof ($750).
Corolla comes standard with 15-inch steel wheels, but looks like it could do with larger wheels and tires that would fill out the wheel wells more effectively. Aluminum 15-inch wheels ($390) are an option for LE models.
At the rear, the Corolla has a high trunk line in keeping with the car's high belt line. The taillights match the shape of the headlights nicely. Part of the taillight module is actually mounted in the trunk lid. This is fine except that the design causes the trunk lid to be narrower than it might be.
The doors have reasonably wide openings, which makes getting in and out easier. That's a benefit of the long wheelbase, which also means that the rear wheel wells do not protrude into the rear door as much as they do on some cars. Another benefit of a longer wheelbase is shorter overhangs at the front and rear (the distance from the wheels to the ends of the car). Short overhangs improve the car's looks, and the handling.
Redesigned for 2003, Toyota Corolla is longer and taller than previous models. (It is four inches longer and has a 102-inch wheelbase that is more than five inches longer than pre-2003 models. It's more than three inches taller while having the same width as the old model.)
Exterior trim sets the S apart as the sporty model, with body-colored side rocker panels, rear skirt, and front spoiler with integrated fog lights. These aerodynamic aids suggest added downforce for improved cornering, but they look tacked on and we think they degrade the appearance of the Corolla S.
There's plenty of front legroom and headroom and there's a decent amount of room in the back for two average-size adults. Although there are seat belts for a third rear-seat passenger, there's definitely a shortage of space for that person.
Materials used in the seats appear classy with nice fit and finish. The driver's seat has a much more substantial feel than in many cars in this price range, which makes it more comfortable for long journeys. Even the doors shut with a pleasant thud thanks to sound deadening felt mounted inside the door panels.
Take a look inside a Corolla LE with optional leather seating and you could easily imagine you're looking inside a luxury car instead of a $17,000 compact. The leather seats have a luxurious soft pleated finish, while the center console and door panels have a wood-like veneer trim. Okay it's fake but it's so well made that it looks more realistic than some real wood found in luxury cars. Both the LE and S models get a sporty leather-wrapped steering wheel that adds to the enjoyment of driving the Corolla.
The dashboard layout is the same on all models. It is nicely laid out with exemplary ergonomics and a finish comparable to that of more expensive cars. Its top surface sweeps across the width of the car in a slight S-curve and wraps into the door trim. Each side of the center console seamlessly blends up to the lower portion of the dash. Four small vents are nicely inlaid into the upper part of the dash.
The radio is located high up so it is easy to reach while the three large round knobs for the heating and air conditioning system are located below. The handle for the parking brake is located on the left of the center console so there's room for a small storage cubbyhole on the right. Storage spaces are quite generous with small pockets in each door and the glove box is large. Map lights on Corolla S and LE are mounted on the rearview mirror, not the ideal location.
Three overlapping round gauges in the instrument pod contain a large speedometer, a smaller tachometer to the left and a water temperature gauge and fuel gauge mounted in a matching circle to the right. They incorporate red lettering on a plain white background and are easy to read at night. There's also an outside temperature readout on all models.
The rear seats split 60/40 to allow access from the trunk, though the opening is not that large, limiting pass-through with large cargo. The trunk is one of the biggest in this class. The gooseneck hinges intrude into the cargo space and can crush fragile items if they are in the way. Many auto manufacturers have switched to the scissor-type hinges that are located outside the storage space, though this design often results in a smaller trunk opening.
All in all, the interior has a high level of refinement beyond what one expects in a low cost sub-compact.
On the safety side all Corollas come with multi-stage front airbags, while side-impact airbags ($250) are offered as an option on all models. All seat belts are not created equal, and those in the Corolla are equipped with pretensioners and force limiters, which can help further reduce injuries in an accident.
Okay, it's only got a 130-horsepower four-cylinder engine so its acceleration performance is not scintillating. But it accelerates briskly onto freeways and we never found ourselves beating on the steering wheel, wishing for more power. The engine is quiet, however, and feels smooth and refined. It has a fairly broad power band, making for nice, linear acceleration. There is no difference in engine, transmission or suspension between the three trim levels; despite the S model being designated a sporty trim level.
The electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission is nicely matched with the engine. It includes a shift logic system that helps hold a gear longer than it might otherwise if it senses the car is going up an incline or the driver wants plenty of power while passing. For those who enjoy doing their own shifting, the five-speed manual allows for more performance as the engine's power can be better utilized. It shifts easily via a relatively tall shifter. Both the gearbox and clutch are smooth and easy to operate. The manual transmission earns an EPA-estimated 32/40 mpg City/Highway, while the automatic gets 30/38 mpg.
The power steering is just right, providing a nice feel without being too stiff or sloppy. The suspension has been tuned to give a smooth ride, which is helped by a relatively long wheelbase. Body roll (lean) is minimal and the car feels secure and stable at all speeds. The suspension is soft and does a good job of soaking up bumps and road vibration, giving the Corolla a nice, smooth ride that we really liked. The Corolla handles well, though those who enjoy the crisp handling of a sports sedan may want to opt for the Matrix, which has a stiffer suspension.
The Corolla boasts a high-quality, ergonomically excellent interior with comfortable, supportive seats. The interior is particularly well suited for shorter drivers. The rear seats are roomy and relatively comfortable and the trunk is big for this class.
The Corolla rides and handles well with a relatively soft suspension. It isn't a sports sedan, but the engine is smooth and sophisticated and delivers good acceleration performance. In short, the Corolla is arguably the best compact sedan for non-enthusiasts.