1998 Toyota Corolla

By November 10, 1999
1998 Toyota Corolla

Building and selling inexpensive cars is a tricky business. It's a balance between a reasonable price and meeting customer demands for safety, sophistication and upscale features. The new Toyota Corolla walks this tightrope well.

One step up from the entry-level Tercel, one rung down from the popular Camry, the new Corolla will only enhance Toyota's reputation for meeting the needs of its customers. With an all-new body, engine and interior, the Corolla blends existing virtues with new strengths into an appealing whole.

As a model name, Corolla has been around for some 30 years, evolving from a tiny imported sedan of slightly odd appearance into a made-in-America compact that sells well and is routinely praised for its refinement.

Naturally, there are numerous companies looking for a big slice of this market. Honda, Nissan, Volkswagen, Dodge, Chevrolet, Ford and Saturn all offer their own interpretations of what a compact car should be. And they all build good cars.

Walkaround

Toyota, which seldom opts for startling style, has once again brought forth a conservative, clean shape that doesn't call attention to itself. The new Corolla is, in fact, one step away from being plain.

But the sole body style currently offered, a four-door sedan, is nicely proportioned, trim and efficient. A couple of details set it apart from other designs. The body sides are indented and the rear lamp clusters look similar to those of the Lexus GS with small trunk-mounted segments. But as a whole, the Corolla does without superfluous ornamentation.

The Corolla comes in a choice of three trim levels. VE is the plainest, a low-price car with all but the most basic amenities optional. Most people opt for the mid-range CE or the well-equipped LE. None are exactly luxurious unless extras are ordered, but they fulfill transportation needs well.

Frankly, Toyota's VE to CE to LE strategy is a little bit difficult to fathom. Even a digital clock is extra on a VE, which gets the plainest interior fabrics; it's hard to imagine anyone but fleet customers will go for a VE without air conditioning and a radio. Add much equipment to one and its price begins to climb to that of the CE.

A CE can be equipped to be a virtual twin to the LE (except for the latter's optional sunroof and alloy wheels) while both antilock brakes and side-impact airbags are options for all three versions.

But Toyota has long been wedded to this approach. Its primary drawback, aside from confusion over which car gets what features, is an element of sticker shock. The VE's base price appears to put the Corolla squarely in the bargain category, right down there in rock-bottom land with many competitors. But by the time you've driven away in a fully equipped LE–like our test car–the tab has climbed into midsize-car territory.

Interior Features

Toyota has done a fine job of squeezing maximum passenger space out of a small overall package. Generous room is provided for the driver and front-seat passenger, both of whom sit on comfortable seats. The rear seat, as is common to cars in this class, is rather less commodious. With two occupants it is a reasonable habitat–lacking in both leg- and headroom for taller passengers–but three riders had best be good friends. Cupholders, storage boxes and a center-console with a lidded bin are provided for convenience.

The interior design matches the exterior insofar as it's attractive and well-finished but little different than that of most cars in the class. Instruments are housed in a curved dashboard; a tachometer is added in an optional Touring Package. Controls are laid out for easy use.

Materials and workmanship are above average, though a few of our passengers found the cloth seat material, which looks attractive and should be durable, rather scratchy on bare skin.

Our LE model carried just about every conceivable option, which gave us use of a good four-speaker sound system, air conditioning, power windows, mirrors and door locks and a glass sunroof. Opinions were divided on the white instrument faces that are part of the Touring Package.

In back, luggage can be stowed in a very usable trunk, accessed via a large lid that opens right down to bumper level.

Driving Impressions

Among the many changes made to the latest Corolla, the new engine, revised suspension and use of higher-quality sound insulation materials will be most evident to driver and passengers, who will come away with mixed impressions.

Toyota touts the new 16-valve four-cylinder powerplant as being lighter, more powerful and more economical than its predecessor. Right on all counts. The all-aluminum engine does give the Corolla sprightly performance, even when teamed with a four-speed automatic transmission as was the case with our test car. Yet it sipped fuel at a commendably miserly 30 mpg average during our test.

But it is a noisy little beast, buzzing away loudly when accelerating. It is somewhat more muted at cruising speeds, though a resonance at 3000 rpm–possibly a quirk with our test car–was intrusive. The gearbox, on the other hand, shifts smoothly and responds quickly when called upon to downshift for hill climbing or passing maneuvers.

Judged by class standards, the Corolla handles well, especially when equipped with the slightly upgraded suspension included in the Touring Package. Light but precise power-assisted steering helps as well. Ride quality, given the short wheelbase, is very good. Nothing short of potholes will disturb the Corolla's occupants. The rocking-horse motions sometimes caused by freeway expansion strips were too muted to notice on the Corolla. The brakes stop the car quickly even after repeated hard use; they are, naturally, at their best when equipped with optional ABS.

The economy-grade tires were less than ideal, however. They make a noisy nuisance of themselves when asked to carry the car around corners at anything beyond a casual pace, they transmit tread noise into the cabin on the highway, and they lack grip under hard braking. Without first-hand knowledge, we'd expect the smaller tires on lesser Corollas will be even less satisfactory.

One final irritant will affect some drivers. My wide feet found the brake pedal on our Corolla equipped with the automatic transmission too close to the accelerator. On numerous occasions, I inadvertently applied the brakes while accelerating, and caught my foot under the brake pedal when attempting to slow down. Anyone who wears a size 12 or larger shoe will need to pay special attention to pedal usage. This is not a problem with Corollas equipped with manual gearboxes as a different brake pedal is used.

Summary

The Corolla redesign can be considered a near-total success. Despite the few minor problems noted above–awkward pedal placement may be seen as more than trivial, but won't affect the majority of drivers–it is a better car than the previous version, which was itself one of the better offerings in its class. The 1998 Corolla is comfortable, rugged and well-built, a solid little machine that delivers what it promises. In the ride and handling department, it is better than expected.

By shopping carefully, a customer can drive away in a nicely appointed Corolla without spending much more than $14,000. As such, it represents good value.

Be warned, however, that a loaded Corolla intrudes into Camry territory, so a decision has to be made: Do you want a larger car with minimal extras, or a smaller car loaded with everything? We'd opt for a Camry over a loaded Corolla.

But a moderately equipped Corolla merits serious consideration. The CE model, for example, when equipped with optional side air bags and ABS, is a very good buy.

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