2003 Toyota Corolla

0202 Toyota Corolla 01

Kamuela, Hawaii - Like every maker with each new model, Toyota is chasing younger buyers with its all-new Corolla. We say, leave that role to the new, Corolla-based Matrix, which is much better suited to battle the Ford Focus and the Honda Civic for the attention of sport-compact-car enthusiasts. Instead, Toyota should revel in the Corolla's position as the world's highest-quality small car.

The seventh-generation, '93-model Corolla, along with its twin, the Geo Prizm, established itself as a miniature Camry, both in the way it drove and in the sensory perceptions it created. The decontented eighth-generation car fell off course and is now finishing its lackluster tenure as a brief 2002 model. (The Prizm is just plain finished.) The longer, wider, and taller 2003 Corolla rides on an all-new platform and marks a return to the Corolla's former glory.

That's not to say that the Corolla is the best small car to drive, because the Focus still wears that mantle. The Corolla's 130-hp, 1.8-liter engine carries over, and the supposedly sporty S model sports only side rocker panels and other body addenda of questionable taste.

Still, the Corolla marks an improvement over its predecessor, thanks to its firmer steering, better-damped ride, and bigger brakes, allowed for by the fifteen-inch wheels that are now standard across the board. Once again, the car not only feels like a miniature Camry, it looks like one, too, with a more substantial exterior and new optional leather upholstery. ABS is available on all models, something that can't be said for the Civic, and reliability is unlikely to be in doubt, something that can't be said about the Focus.

Quality, rather than performance, is the hallmark of the Corolla. This is nowhere more evident than in the new instrument panel, which is not only well designed but incredibly well crafted. The tolerances for interior panels are to the same standards previously used for Lexus.

With the demeanor of a Camry and the fit and finish of a Lexus, Toyota's new Corolla is a fine piece, regardless of how it plays with the Clearasil set.

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