Curbside Classic: Toyota Corolla E100 – Saito’s Mini-Lexus

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It took a while but Toyota, like all who get to the top, began to get complacent and stopped trying so hard. The date in which this happened is up for debate. Personally I think that the 1997 Camry is a good indicator, on the basis that there’s absolutely nothing on it that was improved apart from manufacturing costs and a reduced MSRP. Which was admittedly crucial now that the Japanese economy had collapsed. It also meant that the 1991-1998 Corolla may well be the best Corolla to date.

By 1991 when the E100 Corolla was released, the battle between America and Japan for automotive dominance had long passed its zenith. Despite America’s best efforts at compacts and mid-sized vehicles (and some very decent fighters still duking it out), the Japanese’s expertise at building them more efficiently and with superior mechanical reliability meant only one thing. An ever-increasing number of buyers going to the Toyota/Honda/Nissan/Mazda/Mitsubishi dealerships first (probably in that order) and not even bothering trying to check other brands because they were bound to find something that they liked there. Now the Japanese could stop going on the offense and start defending their place by refining their cars even more.

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The quote from the top of the article refers to Dr. Akihiko Saito, then working as the development chief for the Corolla, in regards to what he wanted to develop in the seventh-generation Corolla. Saito himself joined the company in 1968, getting involved in chassis design and vibration testing before being promoted to acting Development leader in the middle of the fifth-gen Corolla’s development cycle. It seems corporate agreed that he had done a hell of a Job because he was tasked with overseeing all of the Corollas up to this one, his crowning achievement in Corollas.

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So what do we have? For one, it was bigger than its predecessor gaining 1.3 inches in wheelbase and 2 inches in overall length. It was also wider and taller and heavier, so much so that it stopped being a subcompact and moved up a peg to compact class. As with any Toyota of the era, it was beautifully screwed together and built to the highest of specifications. Saito believed “The impression that a car makes is first developed when its essential functions and performance significantly exceed expectations.”

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The ride and handling were given special attention and were developed in Toyota’s Shibetsu City proving grounds. Said test track would later be used to develop the rather more performance oriented Lexus LF-A. The American market would only get a 4-door sedan and a wagon for a lineup, while Europeans would also get a three and five door hatchback. The Japanese (naturally) had a considerably more ecletic lineup.

Apart from the option of four-wheel drive on the sedan and the wagon there were special variants, such as the pretty 2-door Levin Coupe.

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And the Corolla Ceres faux-hardtop.

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On a more practical front there was also the Toyota Corolla van. Based on the wagon, it was completely stripped out and sold to commercial users.

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Engine-wise you could have either a 1.6 or a 1.8-liter engine depending on the model in America. Other markets had the option of smaller 1.3 and 1.5-liter gas and 2.0 or 2.2-liter diesel engines.

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But inside is where the Corolla earned the most of its accolades. Very simple and straightforward, with high quality materials everywhere and soft-touch plastics even in places you’d rarely touch. Also, the ubiquitous green LCD clock that was seemingly required by law on all Toyotas at the time was also present and correct.

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Naturally, it was a hit, people had to form orderly queues to buy it and to prove that Dr. Saito had succeeded, Car and Driver called the Corolla wagon “An econohauler with Lexus trickle-down.” Even today, around 20 years since they were released and now officially in the bargain-basement of used cars, you can pick one up and assuming the previous owner parked it on the shade every so often and remember to top the oil and the water every now and then you’ll get a perfectly serviceable, competent runabout. I see them constantly as members on the ranks of the Terrifying Tegucigalpa Taxis and even if being mercilessly beaten on for 15 hours seven days a week isn’t doing their longevity any favors, they just soldier on dutifully. And when they break down (which happens even to the best of cars) the parts are cheap and the car is easy to work on.

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I must admit, regretfully, that I was never fond of the Corolla as a kid. It wasn’t because my school’s vice principal owned one like the one you see above. Or my English teacher, or my Spanish teacher, or my Civic Studies teacher, or my Social Studies teacher…you get the point. It was because it wasn’t limited to them, like I couldn’t walk a block without seeing three or four of the damn things. So I kinda pushed them aside as an example of what people who don’t know what they’re doing buy. In hindsight, turns out they bought it because it was exactly what they were doing. Getting their money’s worth, plus some added value. Sadly, it would be the last time I could say that about the Corolla.

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It’s almost cathartic to write an article singing the praises about a vehicle I had nothing but indifference for until recently. Like clockwork, in 1997 the new Corolla was released. A Corolla that was not developed by a Japan that went further and spared no expense in…anything really. The economy was, as described by Toyota themselves on their heritage site “sluggish”. Efficiency and making the most of less were they new directives. In place of Dr. Saito we had Takayasu Honda, known in some circles as “Mr. Corolla”. In regards to the eigth-generation Corolla he said he wanted to “…maintain the status of ‘the best’ compact car…”. Do you see the key bit there? The name of the game wasn’t to push the envelope anymore. As a kid unburdened with the thought of foreign economies and new safety regulations leading the way in car design, all I knew was that the new Corolla looked smaller and a bit older than the old one.

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The seventh-generation Corolla was, in your author’s opinion, not only the best vehicle in its segment at the time but the best, most well-rounded vehicle to have ever carried the Corolla model name. Sure the AE86 and the Corolla FX were better lookers and handlers. But for the populace that wanted a Corolla to be their jack-of-all-trades. It didn’t get much better than this.

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N.B. Featured blue Corolla photos obtained from the Curbside Classic Cohort, courtesy of Triborough; gold Corolla courtesy of Brendan Saur.