It's been said that Toyota created the upscale Lexus brand to reward all the Corolla owners for their loyalty and persistent penny-pinching over the years.
Lexus returned the favour in 2002 by giving the Corolla some lessons in poise and panache, not to mention how to wear a door with uniform gaps all the way around.
Introduced as the ninth generation of the Corolla since 1966, it filled out in every dimension, particularly in height, to broaden its appeal.
Hard to imagine its allure was ever in danger of waning. With some 32 million copies sold to date, the Corolla has been the world's best-selling automobile since the wheel clinched the Best Innovation award in 3500 BC.
Toyota redesigned its front-drive economy car as a seven-eighths-scale Camry, which dictated a conservative four-door profile. It arrived early in 2002 as a 2003 model â€” which suggests some '03 models are already six years old, not five.
Fresh styling was accompanied by a whopping 13.7 cm increase in the wheelbase and 11 cm in overall length compared to the outgoing model. That translated into a big improvement in interior space.
White-faced instruments, high-mounted audio system and ventilation controls, and multiple storage cubbies set off the handsome cockpit. Fit and finish were said to be Lexus quality, though some owners questioned that boast.
"The interior dashboard is flooded with annoying buzzes and rattles," blogged the owner of a '03 model.
Some owners found the seats a little uncomfortable (the bottom seat cushion was short for those long of leg) and the seat's orientation to the steering wheel was slightly odd.
"Steering wheel too far forward when seat adjusted properly for leg length," noted one. Another wrote that a telescopic wheel was sorely needed.
At least the back seat was commodious and usefully shaped for up to three passengers.
The Corolla was powered by a chain-driven DOHC 1.8 L four-cylinder that was carried over from the old model. It received some important updates, however, including a redesigned intake manifold and a larger-diameter throttle body to assist Toyota's intelligent variable intake-valve timing (VVT-i) system.
The changes were good for five additional horsepower, for a total of 130, plus a broader torque band with 125 lb.-ft. of grunt available at 4000 rpm.
Buyers could choose between a five-speed manual and four-speed automatic transmission. Engineers dropped the final drive ratio to help the little motor deal with the 90 kg weight gain over the old model.
That weight gain was put to good use: the 2003 Corolla had a beefier body structure to absorb impacts better. All models came with dual-stage airbags up front along with belt pretensioners. Side airbags were optional, as were anti-lock brakes.
For 2005 the Corolla got an imperceptible facelift and optional curtain side airbags. The big news was the addition of the XRS sedan to the lineup, with a high-revving 170-hp 1.8 L engine, six-speed manual transmission, sport suspension and 16-inch wheels.
As with its cousin, the Matrix XRS wagon, Toyota had lifted the drivetrain from the Celica GTS, although 10 hp was lost during the transplant. The boy-racer model was dropped in 2007.
The ninth generation Corolla was retired in February to make way for the all-new 2009 model.
On the road
True to its mission as the Lexus of econoboxes, the Corolla acquitted itself on the commuter circuit with aplomb.
"The Corolla is a smooth and quiet ride," reader Kevin Leung wrote to us. "During idle you can barely hear the engine sound, something more associated with luxury cars."
A five-speed-equipped model could sprint to 96 km/h in 8.2 seconds, making it the zippiest `box in a field of 10 economy sedans tested by a major magazine (add almost a full second for the automatic).
Braking was less than exemplary, requiring a longish 63 metres to stop from a speed of 112 km/h. Grip was mediocre as well, generating 0.74 g on a circular skidpad.
"Fair warning from a car enthusiast standpoint, this car is about as exciting to drive as a washing machine," read one blog.
The rare XRS trimmed a full second off the acceleration time, while the performance tires brought a different character to the car.
Run-of-the-mill Corollas won big kudos for their fuel-sipping habits.
With numbers like 7.1 and 5.6 L/100 km, the Corolla rivalled the miniscule Yaris for a spot on the government's list of the most fuel-efficient cars.
What owners reported
The Toyota Corolla got to be the best-selling car in history not because it was good-looking (for many years it wasn't) or because it was a populist icon like the VW Beetle.
It came to rule the world because it started every time you turned the key.
Added to that dependability were dollops of style, comfort, utility, economy and a brazen dash of luxury for 2003.
Like your faithful, outlaw beer fridge humming in the basement, the Corolla rarely needed service, owners told us.
Beyond the gripes about errant rattles â€” sometimes traced to the upper suspension mount, which is cured with insulating material â€” drivers pointed out a few concerns regarding loose weatherstripping, fussy door locks and short-lived wheel bearings.
Some disliked the "cheap" original-equipment tires and replaced them with premium rubber at the first opportunity.
World domination doesn't get any easier than this.
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