BY 2001, Toyota’s eighth-generation Corolla, launched back in 1996, was under threat in the South African marketplace. Although the model had continued its predecessors’ domination of saloon car sales, several newer, more exciting rivals were whittling away at its lead, slowly but surely reducing its market penetration. Prices had also escalated as Toyota South Africa, without the benefit of the export credits being totted up by its rivals, struggled to keep pace.
As regular readers of CAR will know, the solution to the latter problem lay in the locally-owned company selling off some of its equity to Toyota Motor Corporation (TMC), giving the Japanese a majority stake in a revitalised, renamed company, Toyota South Africa Motors. That allowed the South African operation to become a fully-fledged member of the TMC global supply network, and opened the door to the introduction of generation nine Corolla, which was to be produced not only for the South African market, but would be exported to other markets, starting with Australia.
The corporate shuffle happened to coincide with a change in direction for Corolla. Although the world’s best-selling nameplate since the ’60s, the model has never made significant inroads on the European market. With the ninth generation, the decision-makers in Japan intend to set this right, having decreed that the car should have the character, quality, performance and handling to challenge European rivals such as the Peugeot 307, Ford Focus, Opel Astra and VW Golf /Jetta.
Although “international spec” versions are to be made for export, Toyota South Africa Motors hasn’t lost sight of the fact that the local market has specific demands. So the recently launched South African saloon models – a hatchback version, badged RunX, is also to become available next year – cover a wide range. If you want a basic no-frills car, there’s the entry-level 140i, priced at R103 175.
Opt for the full house, and you can order the top-of-the-range 180i GSX, priced at R180 120. Our first test car, the R136 760 140i GLS, is a few steps up from entry-level, offering items such as air-con, an integrated radio/CD player, ABS and a single airbag for the driver. As with all other models in the range, the list price also includes the newly-introduced ToyotaCare service plan, which covers maintenance for 90 000 km or five years.
Based on the Celica platform, with a longer wheelbase and shorter overhangs than Corollas of the past, the newcomer is longer, wider and taller than its predecessor. Smooth, Euro-style lines, with integrated bumpers and sharply raked front and rear screens, result in a Cd of 0,29 – and a silhouette vaguely reminiscent of the Lexus IS200. While all CAR staffers praised the purity of styling, some bemoaned the loss of individuality, commenting that the car was not as recognisably Corolla as its forebears.
Bumpers are finished in body colour on all models, but lower-rung versions such as our test unit have black plastic exterior mirror covers, side protection mouldings and bootlid finishers. The 140i GLS comes with 14-inch steel wheels shod with 170/70 R14 rubber. Though they look good, the plastic wheeltrims on this model fit slightly proud of the rims, and could be vulnerable to chipping and scratching.
The svelte new panels cover a state-of-the-art unit construction body with crumple zones and passenger safety cell produced according to Toyota’s GOA (Global Outstanding Assessment) programme. Among the basic passive safety features are door impact beams and a collapsible steering column. As mentioned above, the GLS spec level also provides a driver’s airbag. The driver’s seatbelt also features a pretensioner and force-limiter.
Inside, all Corolla models have taken a step forward in both style and quality. Not Golf standard, perhaps, but certainly a match for other Euro products. GLS versions don’t get the distinctive two-colour facia and door-coverings of more upmarket models, making do with monotone black, but fit and finish are excellent. The facia (including the laminated upper section), centre console, door coverings, instrumentation and seats are all locally made, helping to achieve an impressive 53 per cent local content level (by value) at launch, with the promise of higher levels to come. We particularly liked the handy central storage bin and the pair of cup-holders under a flip-up lid. The door bins, however, are very narrow, only able to accommodate the odd magazine. The green-on-white analog instrument dials are clear and easy to read, though one dissenter felt they were “too bright” at night.
Controls are generally well positioned and easy to use. The steering column is adjustable for rake, and the stubby gearlever falls nicely to hand. Departing from tradition, the ventilation system now uses sturdy rotary switches, though a slide is retained for the re-circulate function. The column stalks retain the Japanese positioning, with lights and indicators on the right and wipers on the left. Unlike some of the Europeans, there is no satellite control for the sound system, and the on/off and volume button, located on the left of the unit, is a bit of a stretch for the driver. Exterior mirrors feature stalks for manual adjustment from inside the car, and front windows are powered, with a one-touch facility for driver.
Seats are faced in ribbed velour, and the front buckets are supportive and comfortable.
The longer wheelbase gives the Corolla extremely good legroom front and rear, and the taller roof also allows good head clearance. The folding rear seatback, with its 40/60 split, allows a variety of loading configurations, and luggage capacity is useful. Available volume, measured by the ISO-block method, is 360 dm3 in the boot, and 1 008 dm3 with the seatbacks folded down.
Underpinning it all is a conventional suspension layout, also derived from that of the Celica. Front springing is by MacPherson struts, supplemented by a stabiliser bar, with a torsion beam and stabiliser bar doing duty at the rear. All shock absorbers are oil-and nitrogen-filled. Ride quality is extremely good, the long-travel suspension soaking up bumps with aplomb. Its “magic carpet” ability is complemented by high levels of grip in cornering, though the 140 GLS, with its relatively skinny rubber, doesn’t hold on for as long as the bigger-tyred, more expensive versions. Understeer sets in at the limit, with a throttle-lift sufficient to tighten the line. Steering is light, but precise, with sufficient feel. Handling ability is top-drawer, the ability to cut-and-thrust reminding one of a Honda, and roadholding is a match for the best European rivals.
Brakes are four-wheel discs (the front units ventilated), and GLS models have ABS and EBD. The system survived our tough emergency braking test with no sign of fade, averaging 3,25 seconds for the 10 consecutive stops from 100 km/h.
Mounted transversely under the bonnet of the 140i GLS is a 1 398 cm3 4ZZ-FE power-unit, one of a completely new range of engines introduced with the new Corolla. Featuring twin overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder and Toyota’s VVT-i (variable valve timing – intelligent) technology, the new units are assembled locally at Toyota’s Prospecton plant. Peak outputs of the 1,4 are 71 kW at 6 000 r/min and 127 N.m at
4 800, figures that allow the 140i to fight above its weight. Drive is taken to the front wheels hrough a five-speed manual gearbox. With its cable actuation, the shift is similar in feel to that of the outgoing model.
Out on the test strip, the 4ZZ-FE did a manful job, propelling the roomy saloon to 100 km/h in 12,16 seconds and on past the kilometre mark in 33,74 seconds. Two-way average top speed was 186 km/h, at which stage the speedometer was reading an optimistic 202 km/h. Thanks to VVT-i, the engine is more flexible than other 1,4s. But performance-oriented gearing and the large body/small engine combination does take its toll on fuel consumption, the test car recording 6,96 litres per 100 km at 100 km/h in our steady-speed flowmeter test, a result that corresponds to a CAR fuel index (expected overall fuel thirst in enthusiastic driving) of 9,74 litres per 100 km. A drive over a mixed route resulted in a figure of just over nine litres per 100 km.