(first posted 1/13/2016) To the average owner, the Toyota Corolla is a great car for someone seeking an affordable, reliable, and efficient small vehicle with a low cost of ownership. Of course to the enthusiast, none of these values take high priority, and the Corolla has become the stereotypical poster child of “boring” when it comes to cars. Yet despite this reputation which has only grown stronger in recent years, the Toyota Corolla wasn’t always the definition of boring – at least in the Japanese market.
With its premium Lexus-like looks, “just right” size, and significant refinement over its predecessor and competitors, even in everyday sedan form, the E100 Corolla (and related Sprinter; sold as the Geo Prizm in North America) was an appealing vehicle for its class and quite possibly the best Corolla ever.
Although North and South American only received the sedan and wagon, Europe and Australia/New Zealand also received hatchback and liftback bodystyles. But only in Toyota’s home market of Japan was where the one could have both the sporty Corolla Levin two-door coupe and the sexy Corolla Ceres/Sprinter Marino four-door pillar hardtops.
Although the four-door hardtop was all but extinct among American manufacturers, this bodystyle still enjoyed popularity in the Japanese domestic market in the 1980s through the mid-1990s. The surge in production of four-door hardtops was largely an outcome of the Japanese tax brackets for vehicles, stringently based on exterior dimensions and engine displacement.
Much like their bygone American counterparts, in Japan the hardtop bodystyle conveyed greater prestige and distinction over more pedestrian sedans. Offering four door hardtop counterparts was a way for Japanese manufacturers to sell more luxurious models while staying within a smaller vehicle class.
The Toyota Corolla Ceres (sold exclusively through Toyota Corolla Store channels) and the near identical Toyota Sprinter Marino (sold only through Toyota Auto Store channels) were part of a class of compact four dour hardtops based on economy car platforms that most notably included the Honda Integra (sold in North America under the Acura brand), as well as the Nissan Presea and Mazda Lantis.
Although never officially marketed as “four-door coupes”, as the term was a few years away from being coined, its interesting to note the similarities in design and market positioning to modern four-door coupes. The Ceres/Marino’s swoopy, elegant, and aggressive styling with long hoods, frameless windows, low roof lines and tapering deck lids, greatly evoke the hallmark qualities of today’s popular four-door coupe bodystyle.
Riding on the basic E100 sedan chassis, wheelbase was unchanged at 97 inches. At 171.9 and 66.7 inches, the Ceres’ exterior length and width dimensions were also virtually identical, although height was some two inches lower. All Ceres/Marino models featured a four-wheel independent suspension with a rear stabilizer bar, power steering, and front disc brakes. Over the base F trim, the midlevel X trim added a front stabilizer bar, while the high-end G trim added four-wheel disc brakes with standard ABS. Many of the performance upgrades from the Corolla Levin/Sprinter Trueno coupes, such as unique Super Strut suspension, were also available.
Powering the Corolla Ceres/Sprinter Marino was one of four naturally-aspirated DOHC inline-4s from Toyota’s A-family of engines, corresponding to three trim levels. Available over the entire run of production was the F-grade’s 1.5L 5A-FE and the X-grade’s 1.6L 4A-FE. Both with 16-valves, these engines produced 103.5 horsepower/100 lb-ft torque and 108.5 horsepower/110 lb-ft torque, respectively.
The top-spec G models were initially powered by a 20-valve version of the 1.6 liter, dubbed the 4A-GE. With variable valve timing and a higher compression ratio, the “Silver Top” (a name owed to its silver cam cover with chrome badging) engine initially made a healthy 158 horsepower and 119 pound-feet of torque. 1995 brought a modest horsepower increase to 163, due to an increased compression ratio. This latter version is known as the “Black Top”, as the cam cover changed to black.
A 5-speed manual was the standard transmission for the 5A-FE, 4A-FE, and Siver Top 4A-GE, with a 4-speed automatic available on each. The Black Top 4A-GE gained an exclusive 6-speed manual for the 1997 model year. As with most Toyotas of this period, these cars featured organically styled interiors, with high quality materials, lots of padded surfaces, and optimal ergonomics. Dash designs were also shared with the Levin/Trueno instead of the Corolla and Sprinter sedans.
Befitting of their somewhat upmarket positioning, all Corolla Ceres and Sprinter Marinos featured standard equipment such as power windows, automatic power door locks, deluxe full-cloth seat upholstery and door panels, tilt steering wheel, and projector beam headlights. Higher trim models added automatic climate control, with features such as alloy wheels, power moonroof, rear spoiler available.
The burst of Japan’s asset price bubble and ensuing economic recession forced all Japanese automakers to reduce costs and eliminate less popular models, more strictly focusing on their high-volume sellers. The majority of Japanese four-door hardtops fell victim to this, with the Corolla Ceres and Sprinter Marino included. Most competitors, as well as larger Toyota four-door hardtops such as the Carina ED, Corona EXiV, and Toyota Crown hardtops were gone by the year 2000.
A further side effect of Japan’s economic downturn was that new vehicles released in the ensuing years tended to be more simplistic, less premium, and highly conservative in styling. From big to small, late-1990s Toyotas in particular, fell victim to noticeable cost cutting and less emotional design language.
Toyota doesn’t widely-release its production figures, but due to this vehicle’s niche segment and availability limited to the Japanese market, total production figures were likely only a small fraction of Corolla and Sprinter sedan production. Had this car been sold in North America, albeit a slightly more luxurious interior, it would have made a logical sub-ES300 model for the Lexus brand. Just some food for thought.
Nonetheless, the Corolla Ceres and Sprinter Marino were discontinued without any replacement following a brief 1998 model year. Offering better performance, enhanced luxury, and superior style for a small price premium over their less interesting siblings, it’s a shame that this duo was never sold on international shores. Although examples have not been seen in the metal by many, they will live on in history as outliers to the norm that Corollas can’t be sexy.