1998 Toyota Corolla

At first glance, you might be hard-pressed to see why Toyota is touting the 1998 Corolla as an all-new car.

It looks as if they've bolted Chevy Cavalier tail-lights onto the old car. The transversely mounted four-cylinder engine and

four-corner strut suspension scarcely raise a ripple of interest.

But, in fact, the 1998 Corolla features an all-new body slightly longer and wider, stiffer yet no heavier overall, and a new engine. It just doesn't look any different.

Toyota does a funky Corolla for Europe, with ovoid headlights, wire mesh grille, even a six-speed manual gearbox. But mindful of the success of former Corollas and the Camry, they've concluded that North Americans don't want to be excited by their cars. Quietly impressed will suffice.

The marginally larger body doesn't turn the Corolla into a wheeled SkyDome–a 200-pound friend had to manoeuvre adroitly to squeeze in the front door. I could barely sit behind myself in the back seat, and I sit fairly close to the wheel. Kids will be the usual occupants back there, so this is not a huge problem.

The interior is beautifully finished, however. As I've said before, the dash cap in a Corolla wouldn't look out of place in a $90,000 luxury car.

The front thrones are a bit short in cushion length, which is typical Japanese and typical small car, since there's not much room for anything larger. But the surfaces are firm and nicely contoured.

The dash is well designed, its round white on black instruments, dark gray numbers and red pointers on a lighter gray background on my tester perfectly legible.

My test car, an entry level VE model with optional Touring Package, includes the above mentioned instrument colour changes, plus a tachometer whose face incorporates an outside temperature gauge–unheard of at this price.

The tach, which is standard on middle (CE) and top level (LE) Corollas, also has an arrow pointing to the side of the car with the fuel filler door.

The climate controls are dials, easily worked with gloved fingers, and located above the very accessible but small buttoned radio.

Cubby bins abound.

Rare in this price range are remote fuel filler door and trunk releases, a dead pedal for the driver's left foot and tilt steering the latter standard on CE and LE and part of the VE's Touring Package.

Safety is on everybody's mind, and Corolla scores well, at least in passive safety.

Dual air bags are standard. Don't listen to detractors; these are a Good Thing, providing you're wearing your seat belt and your kids are in the back where they belong.

Corolla's front belts include pretensioners, to take up the slack in a big crash, and force limiters, so they can stretch slightly to reduce the risk of rib or breastbone damage.

All five riders enjoy a three-point belt. Again, all these features are a delight to discover in a car in this class. The new 1.8-litre twin cam 16-valve engine is standard on all Corollas; no more 1.6-litre on the cheaper trim levels. It produces a competitive 120 hp, 15 more than before, and 122

lb.-ft. of torque, up five from last year.

Toyota suggests it's about a second and a half quicker in the 100 km/h sprint, and nearly two seconds faster in the 80 to 113 km/h passing/merge ramp simulation.

Throttle response is excellent, so the subjective performance matches the improved numbers.

The engine runs smoothly, but is noisy. Most noticeable is a boomy resonance starting at 3,100 r.p.m. and continuing to 4,500 r.p.m., a concern when accelerating hard.

Fortunately, the gearing is tall enough to keep the engine in the quiet mid 2,000 r.p.m. range at typical freeway speeds.

My tester had the five-speed manual gearbox, with typical Toyota shift quality: light and precise enough, but scratchy and ultimately not very pleasant to use.

Three and four-speed automatics are optional on VE, while a four-speed auto is available on CE and standard equipment on the range-topping LE.

The ride is good, leaning towards the soft side of the spectrum, as Toyota feels Corolla customers are more interested in smooth ride than sharp-edged handling. Fair enough, but the car doesn't feel perfectly planted when you are forced to lean on it a little, such as when an offramp tightens up unexpectedly. The power steering is pleasantly light.

All Canadian Corollas get a front stabilizer bar, which the Americans don't.

Anti-lock brakes are an option only on the toplevel LE.

The Michelin MX4 tires emit an unusual sizzle when running over smooth patches, tar strips, even lane marking lines. It sounds like the pavement's wet, even when it isn't.

This and the engine note must be two frequencies that Toyota's otherwise effective noise suppression program missed.

Two big chocolate chip cookies to Toyota for fitting decent headlights to the Corolla: Eurostyle flat topped low beams, and bright, penetrating highs.

If you look only at base price, the Cambridge Ontario-built Corolla seems to have suffered a substantial price increase, from $13,968 for last year's base SD model to $14,928 for 1998's VE. But the new car has a whole stack of equipment that was optional or available only on up-level cars, and which most customers opted for.

Similarly equipped, the new car is better value than before.

The Touring Package fills in the few gaps the standard equipment list misses, and its $1,581 ticket looks a bargain.

Too bad it includes a trunk lid spoiler. These add ons look goofy enough on a car with sporty pretensions, which the Corolla clearly is not.

Want driving entertainment? Try a Civic, a Neon, even a Hyundai Elantra.

Want more room and standard ABS? Chevy Cavalier isn't Canada's best-selling car for no reason.

But if you're looking for a car that's tough, quick, beautifully built and has outstanding resale value well, can you expect drama too?

Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie prepared this report based on driving experiences with a Corolla provided by Toyota Canada.

You can catch Kenzie each Saturday on Talk 640 Radio at noon.

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