Road test: Toyota Corolla GT

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Earlier this year, Toyota extended its Corolla range by adding a series of fwd hatchbacks to be sold in addition to the existing rwd series. At the top of the new range is the Corolla GT which has the same engine I transaxle assembly as the mid­engined MR-2 sports car.

At the time of the launch, a Toyota press release explained the thinking behind the new models: “We do not see the front and rear drive GT Corollas competing or distracting from each other. . . The existing rwd Corolla Coupe will continue to appeal to the out-and-out clubman and motorsport buff who wants a very fast car, which is also capable of quick and inexpensive conversion into a Group A rally machine.

“The new fwd Corolla GT will appeal to the young enthusiast driver of any age who wants a fast but civilised road machine that will match the hot hatchbacks from France, Italy and Germany.”

I am sure it was an unfortunate oversight which left Britain out of the countries producing hot hatchbacks. Even if you discount Ford on the grounds that it is a multinational, the MG Maestro 2.0 EFi is not only a true Brit it is also a very good car, and the best 5-door hot hatch currently available. This is a digression but it’s a point worth making.

Toyota’s press release is quoted because it puts the Corolla GT into perspective. I have enjoyed every mile of the thousand or so I have driven in one but it is to be found wanting in terms of absolute performance.

The chief defect, indeed the only major defect I discovered, is the car’s inability to transmit its 119 bhp satisfactorily through the driving wheels. Wheelspin is not difficult to induce in first gear in dry conditions, and some wheelspin can be induced in second gear. In even mildly wet conditions, however, wheelspin comes very easily.

In the dry, when accelerating hard from rest, the front wheels tramp as the tyres fight for grip. Driving reasonably quickly in the wet gives the same effect as driving very hard in the dry.

Imperfect traction, particularly in the wet, is something one often encounters with Japanese cars and much of the blame probably lies with the original equipment tyres. The fitting of, say, Goodyear NCTs (a tyre which transformed by Golf GTi when I waved goodbye to original Semperits) might go a long way to improving matters.

In all other respects, however, the tyres worked well and one particularly impressive feature of the car was its ability to turn in.

Driving on the Bruntingthorpe test track, and using a couple of tight chicanes, the Corolla revealed itself as a real “point and squirt” car, and in that respect comes second only to the Midas among fwd cars I have driven. One’s sense of control is helped by Toyota’s advanced fuel-injected 16-valve 4A-GE engine which revs freely up to 7 ,600 rpm, there is always power on hand.

This is an engine which I can hardly praise enough. It is noisier than some, true, but it’s an honest noise, a noise of bustling components all working hard on behalf of the driver. Though the maxi um torque is “only” 103 lb/ft at 5,000 rpm (a good figure but not particularly high in its class) the Corolla’s fifth gear is just that, it is not a disguised overdrive.

While the engine does bustle at over 4,600 rpm (which is over the legal speed limit in fifth gear), road and wind noise is low. It’s possible to drive at 90 mph with the sunroof open without aural discomfort and you need to be going over 100 mph before wind noise becomes a little obtrusive and then it seems centred on the door-mounted mirrors.

I’ve always liked Toyota’s precise five­speed gearbox but the one on “my” car felt sloppy, it was clearly in need of a little adjustment. Another thing which was not right on the test car was the handbrake. It started off in a dodgy state but within three days would not hold the car on the mild slope outside my house. Crawling up High­gate Hill in the rush hour was an interesting experience but, with only 6,000 miles on the clock, it is something which would normally have been fixed under warranty.

The dual-circuit, servo-assisted disc brakes which are fitted all round (ventilated at the front) are superb.

Japanese cars are often wanting in the area of seating from a European point of view for the average European is larger than the aver­age Japanese. While we normally receive a different specification to that specified on the home market, one is often left with the feeling that the seats have been designed at second hand which, generally, they have been. It is, however, hard to imagine the shape which could fail to achieve a comfort­able compromise with the Corolla’s seats for there are pneumatic adjustments for the thigh and lumber regions while the side supports are adjustable for width. The steering wheel tilts, too. While the driver and front passenger are well catered for, a passenger 5 ft 10 in tall complained he could not sit upright in the rear without his head touching the roof.

Toyota’s instrument layouts have won praise from me before. The Corolla con­tinues the tradition.” To remind the driver that he is in a sporting car, the steering wheel and gear knob are leather covered. Driving in June meant I encountered a lot of rain and I would have appreciated an inter­mittent rear window wiper, the slippery shape of the car (it has a cd of 0.35) keeps the rear window fairly clear so the wiper has to be constantly turned on and off by a dash­mounted switch which I found awkwardly placed. In bright sunlight there is some reflection from the instrument binnacle onto the windscreen which was unwelcome.

The level of equipment is high for the price, £7,441, with electric windows, elec­tric sunroof, alloy wheels, interior levers to open the boot and petrol filler and pleasant little touches such as a warning light to warn of an incorrectly shut door. Seat belts are provided for up to five passengers, the rear seat splits and the boot is of a sensible size.

At low speeds, the steering is a little on the heavy side but once one has steam up it is crisp and precise. Ride and handling are of a high level and while, as Toyota itself concedes, the roadholding is not for the out­and-out motorsport buff, the car is on a par with any other fwd hot hatch.

Toyota claims 0-60 mph acceleration in 8.7 sec, the best the Motor Sport test team was able to achieve was 8.9 sec. While quoting 0-60 times serves as an easily identifiable standard, I wonder about its usefulnesf. How many times does anyone ever accelerate from 0 to 60 mph? I certainly would not subject my own car to the sort of treatment which is necessary to post these times which everyone is so fond of quoting. We’d welcome comment from readers on the subject.

In much the same vein, Toyota claims a maximum speed of 122 mph and I have no reason to doubt that this could be achieved eventually. We use the two mile straight at Bruntingthorpe to get our readings with Leitz “Correvit” electronic equipment. We can hit the straight at about 60 mph and, in my book, a car’s practical top speed is that which it can achieve after another two miles. In everyday life we do not all drive around banked tracks or come across 10 miles of clear autobahn. Our best two-way run under the conditions described was a mean of 113 mph. There was obviously more to come, so we cannot describe that as the car’s maxi­mum speed but it is the top speed which most owners are likely to realise under most driving conditions.

I became very attached to the Corolla during the week I drove it. The marvellous response of the engine never failed to give pleasure and with the exception of dubious traction on take off, the car felt crisp under all conditions with the excellent brakes giving an added degree of security. It is slightly smaller than some of its immediate rivals, such as the Golf GTi and MG Maestro 2.0 EFi and is available only with three doors. At its price, though, it offers a high level of equipment and refinement (an all-white version is available for a couple of hundred pounds more). It represents good value for money and should be on the short list of anyone contemplating the purchase of a hot hatch. -M.L.