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2003 Toyota Corolla Road Test

By CharlesOfria

Category: $13,000 - $20,000 Compact Sedan
Who should buy this car: A person who wants a small, economical, very reliable sedan that is also comfortable and peppy.
Comparable models in this class: Honda Civic, Saturn SL, Mazda Proteg, Dodge Neon, Ford Focus,Nissan Sentra, Hyundai Elantra, Mitsubishi Lancer,  Daewoo Nubira andSuzuki Esteem.
Thelast time I tested a Corolla, I was quite impressed with it.  Enough so that Irecommended it to my son, who was looking for his first new car.  Hiscriteria was for a car that got excellent gas mileage, was small, but notcramped, was exceptionally reliable and was easy on the environment. Performance didn't matter as long as it was safe and adequate for normalday-to-day driving.  

All verypractical concerns that would make a parent proud.  But my first reactionwas "Whose son is this??"  My first car was as powerful a girlmagnet as I could afford, one that would win all the stop-light drag races Iwould instigate in order to satisfy my macho ego.  But, alas, my wifehad more of an influence than I realized.  Instead of following in myillustrious footsteps, my son decided to become a college professor and do researchon the origins of life and how evolution works.  When I was growing up, my mother told me that when Ibecome a parent, I would find out what it's like to have a kid that does thingshis own way, and then I'll see what I put her through.  Okay mom, you madeyour point.

This is the 9th generation ofCorolla, which has earned the title of all-time best selling car in the world with morethan 25 million cars sold over the years in 142 countries around theworld.  

If you are the type of person who is patriotic and refuse tobuy anything thatis not made in the USA, I have two things to tell you: First, The Corolla is made righthere in the US of A, and Second, Toyota hasperformed a service for people who would only buy cars with American names.  BecauseToyotas have been so reliable, it has forced American manufacturers to improvethe quality of their offerings, so you can be sure to get a reliable car nomatter what you buy these days.  Thank you Toyota.

With the exception of the engine which is a carryover from lastyear with a few tweaks thrown in that bump the horsepower up by 5 ponies, the 2003 Corolla is all new fromthe wheels up. In fact, this is the first time that Toyota is using 5 boltwheels instead of the traditional 4-bolt wheels found on most compact sedans.  

The newcar is longer, taller and wider with more room all around, not to mention more usablestorage areas everywhere you look.  The console glove box in downright huge for a car in thecompact class.  Split folding rear seats are now standard across the board,exposing a good sized pass through into the trunk.  

Thoughtful touchesabound in the new Corolla, including two 12-volt power taps, one of which isinside the console glove compartment which is handy for powering your cellphone.  Other features include a standard outside temperature gauge, a clockwith its own display that is NOT part of the radio dial, rear windows thatretract all the way downinto the door, the list goes on and on.

The new Corolla is available in 3 models with prices that are actuallyreduced from last years offerings: The CE which is the price leader at $13,370,has more standard features than last year, the better equipped LE  comes in at $14,680 which is more than$1000 less than last years model comparably equipped, and the sporty S model at$14,515 which is $850 less than last year.  All are available in either5-speed stick or Automatic.

Factory A/C is now standard equipment on all corollas and includes a clean air filterto keep air pollution from seeping into the car.  Other standard features on all models include: power mirrors, power steering,tilt steering wheel, AM/FM/CD radio with 4 speakers, outside temperature gauge,tachometer, digital clock, 60/40 folding rear seat  and even color-keyedoutside door handles.  Making all this formerly optional equipmentstandard, helped Toyota reduce the cost of the features.

As is usual with Toyota products, fit and finish is exceptional.  Thebody gap lines are extremely tight, paint is flawless and all the hardware, suchas door handles, switches and levers,  feel like they belong on a moreupscale car.

Sitting behind the wheel of the LE, I felt like I was sitting in a Camry orAvalon.  The drivers seat was extremely comfortable and supportive. Manual seat adjustments were adequate for me to quickly find a suitable drivingposition.  For some drivers, a telescoping feature for the tilt steeringcolumn would have been welcome.  Rear seat room was quite good and theseats were comfortable.  The wood-look dash inserts that are standard onthe LE were of good quality and leather is available for the first time as afactory option.  The instrument faces are white with green markings on theLE and white with red markings on the S.  The CE had more conventional black facegauges with white markings.

For2003, the Corolla is both larger and heavier than the previous car giving it amore substantial feel on the road  The excellent Toyota 1.8liter 4-Cylinderengine was quiet and smooth, rarely letting itself be heard at anything lessthan half throttle.  The 4-speed automatic that was in our test car wassmooth and refined with barely perceptible shifts at light or moderatethrottle.  Acceleration is about the same as last year with the extra 5horsepower being used to handle the extra weight.  Gas mileage is anexcellent 32 mpg city and 40 mpg highway for the standard shift modelwith about 2 miles per gallon less for the automatic.  Not at all bad for a carwith this level of comfort and performance.

Toyota Corollas are world renowned for their reliability and this new modelshows every indication of continuing that reputation.  In this highly competitivesmall car market, Corolla's competitors have tried to counter that reputationfor reliability with extended warranties that go as high as 10 years, but peoplethat I have talked to who buy Corollas tell me that they would rather have a carthat doesn't break rather than a car that will get fixed for free.  

I told my son about this new Corolla and how much I liked it, but he saidthat his 2000 Corolla should last for at least 10 years with proper care andmaintenance. 

I'm working on him.

Do you have any feedback on the Corolla?  Any opinions or experiences ofyour own?  We would love to hear from you. 
Clickhere to send us your comments

 Clickhere for more pictures of the Corolla

How would I improve this car?

  • Add Seatback Pockets
  • Make a Navigation system available, like the one on the Matrix.
  • A Tilt and Telescoping wheel would be nice.

How does the Corolla fit yourdriving style? 

Conservative drivers will feel very comfortable and at-home in this car.  Its smooth and quiet demeanor, as well as its substantial feel will make you want to keep it for a long time.

Sporty drivers will like the nimble feel and more than adequate acceleration that this compact sedan provides.  The sport-tuned suspension on the S model would be more to your liking than the softer sprung CE and LE.

Fast drivers will be happier with a more sporty car like the Mitsubishi Lancer or Ford Focus, but you would be giving up an otherwise excellent small sedan.  This is probably the best, under $15,000 car I ever tested.


Engine Type 1.8-liter, 4-cylinder, in-line twin-cam, 16-valve EFI, aluminum alloy block and head
Horsepower 130 @ 6000 RPM
Torque 125 @ 4200 RPM
Fuel Recommended Regular 87 Octane Unleaded.
Transmission (std.)
Transmission (opt.)
5-speed manual transaxle
4-Speed ECT Automatic
Tires - Standard All-season steel belted radial 185/65R15 (CE) 195/65R15 (S, LE)
Overall Length 178.3"
Wheelbase 102.4"
Width 66.9"
Steering turns 3.36 Lock to Lock
Turning Diameter 35.2 ft Curb to Curb
Curb Weight
  CE  S LE
Std 2,502 2,524 2,524
Auto 2,568   2,590 2,590
Fuel Tank 13.2 Gallons
Miles Per Gallon EPA city 32, hwy 40 (Manual), city 30, hwy 38 (Automatic)
Acceleration 0 to 60 9.5 Seconds
Base Sticker Price
(Includes destination charges)
$13,370 $14,515 $14,680

2003 Toyota Corolla

Standard Equipment

Standard Equipment for the CE Includes...

  • Air conditioning w/Air Filter
  • Heavy Duty Rear Window Defogger
  • Deluxe AM/FM/CD w/Four Speakers
  • Color-keyed Door Handles
  • Power Mirrors
  • Intermittent Windshield Wipers
  • Tachometer
  • Outside Temperature Gauge
  • Remote Trunk Release
  • Power Steering
  • 60/40 Split Folding Rear Seats
  • Digital Clock
  • Tilt Steering Wheel

The S Has All the CE Features Plus...

  • Side Rocker Panels
  • Front Spoiler
  • Rear Under Spoiler
  • Sporty White Faced Meters
  • Leather-wrapped Steering Wheel
  • Sport Shift Knob
  • Smoked Headlamps
  • Fog Lamps
  • Vertical Seat Height Adjustment for Driver
  • Power Door Locks

The LE Has All the CE Features Plus...

  • Variable Intermittent Wipers
  • Silhouette Meters
  • Wood-like Trim
  • Power Windows
  • Power Door Locks
  • Remote Keyless Entry
  • Vertical Seat Height Adjustment for Driver

Major Available Options

  • Anti-lock Brake System (ABS)
  • SRS Side-Impact Airbags
  • Cruise Control
  • Upgraded Audio Systems
  • Tilt and Slide Sunroof
  • Rear Spoiler
  • Power Windows
  • Alloy Wheels
  • Leather-trimmed Seats and Doors
  • Electrochromatic Mirror w/ Compass

For more information on the Corolla, visit

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