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1998 Toyota Corolla

  • Choosing a car at dealership. Thoughtful grey hair man in formalwear leaning at the car and looking away

As far as I know, there's been nary a discouraging word written about the redesigned 1998 Toyota Corolla, so when I picked up the test car I expected a humdrum drive with no

jack-in-thebox surprises.

And I was right — almost.

In my other life, I trade in real estate. Real estate professionals consider their vehicles as extensions of their wardrobes (it's that image thing) so when you put your best foot forward on that gas pedal you'd better look good, bumper-to-bumper.

I thought the stylish Corolla and I made a great combo, two sleek young things with great bods, big hearts and somewhat conservative price tags.

I drove the base VE model (starting price $14,928) dolled up with some factory options including four-speed automatic transmission, tilt steering, CD player, remote mirrors, outside

temperature gauge, larger tires, rear spoiler, body side mouldings and more, bringing the price to $17,509.

Standard are driver and front passenger air bags, anchor points for kids' car seats, assist grips (kids love 'em) and childproof rear-door locks. As well, the usual Toyota front seatbelt pretensioners/force limiters and threepoint lap and shoulder belts.

Anti-lock braking is available only on the LE.

The styling has changed for 1998 with a sleeker, more aerodynamic look. It's only marginally longer and wider than its predecessor, but sitting beside a '95 model owned by Andrea-the-office-manager, to me, the new car looked much more elegant. I didn't want to bruise Andrea's feelings by telling her, since she loves her Corolla to bits and agreed that if she had to do it all over again, she'd buy the same car.

Andrea and I agreed that leg space in the back is limited, so chauffeuring clients might be a bit of a squish unless they have short legs or if you have single clients (as I do) who can sit

in the front where there's good room for legs and heads.

The fully cloth-covered seat and side surfaces passed the spill test. Whew!

I won't tell you how or where I made the spill, or what it was. Just know that with a quick swipe of paper towelling, not a trace was left.

It's too bad the insert fabric pattern is so '60's retro.

Seating is comfortable enough with the new heightened seatbacks up front, but still pretty basic — with head restraint and seatback recline as the only adjustments.

During the week I had the Corolla, the weather was mostly cool and dry, not exactly the most exciting for road testing. But client Judy and I decided to look at a half-dozen houses at 4

p.m. on the Friday afternoon of our first winter storm.

I hoped Judy wouldn't cancel because, although the driving would be hellish, it was a perfect opportunity to discover how the new Corolla handled in real-life winter.

Judy drives a Toyota Tercel and arrived at the office ready to look for the house of her dreams. We stuffed ourselves into the Corolla (a little tight-fitting when you're wrapped in winter

woolies) and set off.

She admired the design of the instrument panel — everything at your fingertips — and storage space not found in the smaller Tercel. The intermittent wipers cleaned the windshield easily

and the climate-control system kept all glass clear.

The heavyduty heater is one of my favourite features in this car. Quick and effective. A bit loud on high (not as noisy as the Tercel, according to Judy) but not really a concern since the ride itself is pretty quiet.

Quiet indeed, with a new 120-horsepower, 1.8-litre, four-cylinder, DOHC, 16-valve engine that takes off like a little rocket. There's lots of heart and strength, driving city or highway, and the ride is smooth.

There's some fearsome growling from the exhaust system when booting into quick traffic, but thankfully shortlived as it disappears when you're up to speed.

Handling was still quite responsive on slippery, slushy roads and unplowed side streets. The front-wheel drive and power steering were predictably dependable, especially when I managed

to stick us in an ice puddle hidden under a nasty pile of rapidly freezing wet snow.

Between the two of us, Judy and I had the Corolla pushed back on the road in minutes (truth is, Judy did all the pushing). A more heavily reinforced body construction hasn't increased the

car's weight.

The Corolla suffered no tragic incidents and few indignities while we househunted. We churned through the snow like a minitank and made all our appointments on time.

With enough snow on the car enough to require a clearoff, I opened the trunk to get my broom by using the key and not the remote release. Surprise! An avalanche slid right down the rear

window and plopped into the trunk. I couldn't believe it. There I was picking lumps of snow and ice off my daytimer, my files and everything else. Thankfully nothing was going to melt too

soon, so I cleaned off the car then shovelled out the trunk.

This didn't happen just once. Is this a design flaw?

I asked several salespeople in our real estate office for their opinions on the Corolla as suitable for our line of work.

That is, driving hither and yon with multisized and shaped clients in all kinds of weather and road conditions, keeping in mind the ever-present image.

Michael K. claims he's a Big Three man. His emphasis is on size, safety and comfort. The Corolla wasn't for him.

James thought the Corolla was cute and was a great colour (plum mist metallic) but is waiting to buy a year-2000 Camry.

Diana and Carol are happy driving German and Michael C. is confident behind the wheel of a fat Japanese competitor. Hey, maybe the Corolla isn't their work-style vehicle of choice, but

for baby agents on a budget, it's a practical consideration.

Judy seemed quite taken with the Corolla as a replacement for her Tercel. She could buy the '98 with the money she's saved for the downpayment on her house. Veronica Harvey is a Toronto-based freelance auto writer — and real estate agent.

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