Whizzy? The Corolla?

ROAD TEST Toyota Corolla

Get this. The new Toyota Corolla has, according to the blurb, "visual excitement and emotional appeal". There must be a mistake. Massive following though the world's best-selling nameplate enjoys, Toyota's ubiquitous Escort-basher is a head-before-heart car noted for its value, practicality and build quality. Independent customer-satisfaction surveys confirm user- friendliness and reliability, too. In a game of word association, however, "bland" and "boring" come to mind before "excitement" and "emotion".

Let's put the record straight. For a start, it's misleading to describe the Corolla as the world's best-selling car. True, more than 24 million have poured from plants around the globe since 1966. But the latest, eighth- generation front-drive models, soon to be made at Burnaston in Derbyshire, have nothing in common technically or aesthetically with the original rear-drive ones. There's no continuous lineage or shape - as with VW's Beetle, still being made in Mexico - to unite the theme variations genetically. The Corolla handle simply carries all Toyota's mainstream lightweights, whatever their orientation.

Not all previous Corollas have been dynamic duffers, either. At least one GTi variant was richly endowed with driver appeal. There's no hot- hatch in the new line-up - though there is a six-speed 1.3 called the G6, aimed at younger drivers - but Toyota says it has improved the Corolla's bland image by injecting more fizz and fun. In what's described as a "radical departure" from its world-car strategy, Japan's number-one car maker has developed three strains of Corolla: one for Asia, another for the US and a third for Europe, each pandering to local tastes. Differences focus on styling, cabin decor and suspension settings.

I rather like the Corolla's smiling face. Bug-eyed headlights flanking a simple cheese-grater grille do at least create a distinctive visage. Styling that's otherwise modern conformist - all sensuous curves and no chisel edges - embraces four body styles: saloon, estate and three- and five-door hatchbacks, ranging in price from pounds 10,995 to pounds 15,195. Engines come in three sizes: 1.3 and 1.6 petrols, and a 2.0 (non-turbo) diesel, though only the five-door hatch - "Liftback" in Toyota-speak - is available with all three. Trim and equipment packages start with the misleadingly named Sportif, followed by GS and CD.

The pounds 12,665 1.3 GS on test came across as a pleasant, easy-to-drive, quality compact, lacking in flair but high on value. As a typical Corolla, in fact, it comes complete with air-con, remote locking/alarm/immobiliser, twin airbags and decent stereo. A powered sunroof, too. Short in tail, the three-door is the least accommodating of the series, even though it has the same (unchanged) wheelbase as the rest. The longer Liftback provides more room for luggage but not long legs; all the new Corollas are a bit cramped in the back. Despite talk of "lively architecture and visually appealing trim", there's nothing innovative about the conventional cabin or two-tone dash: cover the badge on the steering wheel and you'd have no idea what make of car you were driving.

If still short on personality and pizzazz, the 1.3GS is reasonably nippy (power is up from 74 to 85bhp) and respectably secure on the corners. Although the springs have not been stiffened, the anti-sway bars have, so roll and lurch are kept in check. Steering is light and easy, if not especially precise, and the clutch and gearchange are as idiot-proof as they can be on a manual. It's the quality of the Corolla's ride, the smoothness with which it banishes bumps, that most impresses. Few class rivals feel as supple in the suspension department, though several handle more crisply.

A new sort of Corolla, then? Hmm, not really. I like the snazzy new label and the shape of the bottle, but the wine, palatable rather than memorable, has matured very little.

TOYOTA COROLLA

Specifications

Price (1.3GS three-door): pounds 12,655. Engine: 1,332cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 85bhp at 5,400rpm. Transmission: five-speed manual, fwd. Performance: top speed 105mph, 0-60mph in 12.2 sec, fuel consumption 40.9mpg combined.

Rivals

Fiat Bravo 1.4SX, pounds 11,745. Cheaper, but lacks Corolla's reputation for dependability. Goes well, handles nicely.

Ford Escort 1.4LX, pounds 12,670. Getting long in the tooth, but competitive after last makeover.

Nissan Almera 1.4SX, pounds 11,600. Nicely made, fairly roomy, rides and handles well. Peugeot 306 1.4XL, pounds 11,960. Good looks improved by recent face-lift. Still the class benchmark dynamically.

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