2003 Toyota corolla LE
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Story by Greg Wilson
Photos by Grant Yoxon

The top-of-the-line 2003 Toyota Corolla LE starts at $19,865, a reduction from last year — but it now comes with a standard manual transmission instead of an automatic. Standard LE features include power windows with automatic driver’s down feature, simulated wood trim, and cruise control, and the LE is the only Corolla model available with ABS and side airbags.

Roomier cabin, bigger trunk, improved quality

More interior room, a higher seating position, a bigger trunk, an improved ride, a lower price, and improved build quality (if that’s possible in car that has won the CAA Pyramid used car performance award five times) are the highlights of the redesigned 2003 Toyota Corolla.

Built in Cambridge, Ontario, the 2003 Corolla shares an all-new platform with the Matrix hatchback which is built in the same plant. Corolla’s are also built in a Toyota/GM plant in California, but Canadian Corollas are sourced exclusively from Cambridge.

Like the recently-redesigned Toyota Camry, the new 2003 Corolla has a taller bodystyle and a larger cabin with a higher seat hip point for easier entry and exit and improved outward visibility.

As well, the 2003 Corolla’s wheelbase has been stretched by 135 mm (5.3 in.) substantially increasing rear legroom and trunk space. Note how the windshield has been moved forwards closer to the front wheels and how the rear window has been moved further to the rear, creating a longer passenger cabin without a huge increase in vehicle length. Toyota says there is 36 mm (1.4 in.) more rear legroom, slightly more rear headroom, and up to 32 mm (1.2 in.) more rear shoulder room.

2003 Toyota Corolla LE
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The trunk has grown from 343 litres (12.1 cu. ft.) to 390 litres (13.6 cu. ft.), now the biggest trunk in its class. As well, 60/40 folding rear seatbacks are standard equipment on all trim levels, a change first made in the 2002 model year.

Despite the fact that this is an all-new vehicle (except for the engine and transmission), suggested retail prices for all trim levels have decreased. The base CE model has an MSRP of $15,290, $475 less than the 2002 model. The Corolla Sport has an MSRP of $19,650, $990 less than the 2002 model. The top-of-the-line LE carries an MSRP of $19,865, $500 less than the 2002 model. However, the LE model now comes standard with a manual transmission – an automatic transmission is a $1,000 option.

Interior quality impresses

2003 Toyota Corolla LE
Photo: Toyota Canada
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I was very impressed with the fit and finish of the Corolla’s new interior. My top-of-the-line LE had the optional leather seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel, two-tone beige dash colouring, and walnut woodgrain trim on the lower console and doors – all of which made it feel warmer and ‘richer’ than the standard CE model. The quality of the dashboard materials, the small gaps between panels, and the simple, pleasant design were all very eye-pleasing.

The controls and gauges are generally well laid-out with unusually large buttons and numerals, but there were some caveats: the radio is situated high up on the centre dash area, and unlike most centre stacks these days, is not angled towards the driver. As a result, I found I couldn’t reach the far right Tune dial without leaning forwards.

The driver sits higher than in the previous Corolla, and outward visibility is very good in all directions – the hood can’t even be seen from the driver’s seat and the high driving position makes it easier to see out the back window. However, as my colleague Grant Yoxon pointed out in his review of the 2003 Corolla Sport, headroom is the same as last year and front legroom is actually slightly less. This didn’t bother my 5′ 9″ frame, but was a concern for his 6′ 2″ stature. My car had the manually height-adjustable driver’s seat which raises or lowers the rear of the seat cushion, but it necessitates adjusting the seatback rake angle in order to get comfortable. It’s optional, and I recommend it for shorter drivers.

2003 Toyota Corolla LE
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Unlike Grant, I found my leather-covered front seats quite comfortable with a good balance between support, firmness and comfort – my smaller, lighter frame may be the reason for the difference here. But I lamented the lack of seat heaters.

The new gauge cluster consists of white gauges with large green numerals and orange indicators. The gauges, which include a tachometer, are backlit, like a store sign, and though a little unusual, are very easy to read. There’s also a handy LCD outside temperature gauge in the instrument cluster.

The small, leather-wrapped three-spoke steering wheel (optional) looks and feels sporty, and includes attractive perforated leather on the hub and centre spokes, and raised grips at the 10 and 2 positions to more easily hold the steering wheel. The steering wheel has a tilt up and down function.

Just to the left of the steering wheel is a useful flip-down storage bin that can be used for coins, garage door openers, keys, or what-have-you.

2003 Toyota Corolla LE
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The centre stack includes an AM/FM/CD player at the top with an obvious blank where an optional cassette player would go. Just below that is a green digital clock, and three large buttons for A/C, defrost, and recirculation. The heater includes three big dials for temperature, ventilation and fan, and below that are two handy covered storage compartments with lacquered simulated walnut trim.

The bottom of the centre instrument panel includes a rectangular slot for a juice box and two round cupholder slots. For smokers, a built-in ashtray fits into one of the cupholders.

The attractive leather-look floor shift lever for the optional automatic transmission is easy to reach and includes an on/off overdrive button. LE models are now offered with a standard manual transmission – previous models weren’t. Between the front seats is an armrest which includes a two-level storage compartment that’s big enough for CD’s and cell phones. The bottom bin includes a 12 volt power outlet for charging appliances.

My test car had the optional moonroof which includes a sliding sunshade, and a glass sunroof that tilts up at the rear, or slides back. It was also equipped with the optional auto-dimming rearview mirror with a built in compass.

One oddity: the front driver’s visor has a covered mirror on the back, but the passenger’s visor offers a mirror without a cover.

2003 Toyota Corolla LE
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The rear seat has three 3-point seatbelts and two height adjustable head restraints, and is most comfortable for two rather than three adults. There is is a generous amount of footroom underneath the raised front seats, and headroom is quite adequate for people up to about 6 feet tall. Two pull-out cupholders flip out from the back of the centre console. I noted a lack of rear storage space – there isn’t a folding centre armrest, or door pockets, or seatback pockets.

Standard Corolla safety features include dual-stage driver and front passenger airbags, five three-point seatbelts, front seatbelts with pretensioners and force limiters and height-adjustable shoulder anchors, rear ISO-FIX child restraint seat anchors and child door locks, and four height-adjustable head restraints. Front seat-mounted side airbags are optional, but only on the Corolla LE.

2003 Toyota Corolla LE
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The Corolla’s trunk has a wide opening, and as mentioned is big for a small car. The floor and walls are covered in a fibre underlay type material that protects the steel underneath from being scratched. One thing I didn’t like: my car had the optional security system, and if the car is locked and you open the trunk with a key, the alarm goes off! You have to unlock the doors first.

The standard 60/40 split folding rear seats are released by levers inside the trunk so that thieves can’t access the trunks contents from inside the car. The folding seatbacks fold down, but not quite flat. You don’t have to remove the head restraints.

Driving impressions

2003 Toyota Corolla LE
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The two best features of the Corolla’s performance, in my opinion, are its comfortable ride and smooth automatic transmission. The previous Corolla’s ride was already pretty good by small car standards, and the new car’s longer wheelbase is the main reason it has improved. The ride is slightly stiffer than before to compensate for the car’s higher centre of gravity, but overall it’s notably smoother than cars like the Mazda Protegé and Nissan Sentra.

New for 2003, Corolla LE models come with a standard five speed manual transmission, but my test car had the optional four-speed automatic transmission which proved very smooth. When it shifts, it can be heard, but barely felt – there’s virtually no shift vibration and the transmission shifts well under all circumstances whether it’s a long uphill grade or creeping in city traffic. An on/off 4th gear button on the floor shifter allows the driver to hold the car in third gear for more aggressive hill-climbing or when driving slowly around town – but this is unnecessary for most drivers.

2003 Toyota Corolla LE
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The Corolla’s 1.8 litre four cylinder engine with twin overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder and Toyota’s VVT-i (Variable Valve Timing with Intelligence is carried over with some minor modifications. For 2003, horsepower was increased slightly by the use of a larger diameter throttle body and a new, large plenum plastic intake manifold.

Performance hasn’t increased substantially because the 2003 Corolla’s five extra horsepower is negated by its 40 kg (88 lb.) extra base curb weight. In addition, the 2003 engine achieves maximum horsepower and torque at higher engine revs: the 2003 Corolla develops 130 horsepower @ 6000 rpm and 125 lb-ft of torque at 4200 rpm compared to 2002 Corolla’s 125 horsepower at 5600 rpm and 126 lb-ft at 4000 rpm.

0 to 100 km/h is in the 10 second range, about average in this class, and could be described as perky around town, and comfortable on the freeway. Cruising on the freeway, there is virtually no engine noise, but some road noise and wind noise. I noted an engine speed of 2,400 at 100 km/h and 2,800 at 120 km/h in fourth gear.

2003 Toyota Corolla LE
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Under hard acceleration, the sound of the Corolla’s engine is less pleasing than the Civic or the Protegé – it’s more industrial than sporty, and could be improved with a tuned muffler. A new catalyst design gives the revised 1.8 litre engine new ULEV (ultra low emissions vehicle) status.

Fuel consumption with the automatic transmission has actually increased by about 5%, but it’s still at, or near the top of its class: 8.1 litres per 100 km (35 mpg) in the city, and 5.8 litres per 100 km (49 mpg) on the highway. Fuel consumption with the manual transmission is even better than last year: 7.1 l/100 km (40 mpg) city, and 5.3 l/100 km (53 mpg) highway.

I found the Corolla’s power-assisted rack and pinion steering, which includes a new stronger mounting, a little bit stiff at slower speeds and comfortably firm at highway speeds. The Corolla’s tight turning circle of 10.7 metres (35.2 ft.) makes it easy to manoeuvre in confined spaces.

The Corolla’s handling is nimble and a bit firmer than the previous Corolla, but it feels slightly more top-heavy – probably because the car is 95 mm higher. The suspension is independent in front: MacPherson struts and an anti-roll bar in front; and semi-independent at the rear: twist-beam with anti-roll bar in the rear. Many of its competitors have independent rear suspensions which offer superior control over bumpy pavement, but the Corolla’s suspension offers sufficient control and stability in typical city/highway situations. I found it neutral up to its limit when it invites a gentle understeer. The tires on my LE test car were Goodyear Integrity 195/65R-15 inch all-season tires with standard six spoke alloy wheels.

All 2003 Corollas are fitted with new, larger front ventilated discs and rear drums, but only the Corolla LE offers anti-lock brakes and Electronic Brake Force Distribution (EBD). ABS is not available, even as an option, on the CE and Sport models. This seems like a major oversight to me.

Price and features

2003 Toyota Corolla LE
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The base Corolla CE model starts at a reasonable $15,290 with a manual transmission – an automatic transmission is an extra $1,000. Standard equipment includes body-coloured bumpers, 185/65R-15 inch all-season tires, dual front airbags, fabric seats, 60/40 split folding rear seatbacks, AM/FM/CD with four speakers, fixed intermittent wipers, tilt steering wheel, tachometer, outside temperature gauge, digital clock, front and rear cupholders.

Air conditioning is available in the CE as an option, but only as part of a package ($2,010) which includes keyless entry, power door locks, and dust and pollen filter. Still, that means you can get a Corolla CE with automatic transmission and air for $18,300.

The Corolla Sport, a sportier looking model with additional standard features, starts at $19,650 with a manual transmission, and $20,650 with an automatic transmission. Over and above the standard features on the CE, the Sport model includes standard alloy wheels and slightly wider 195/65-R-15 inch tires, front fog lamps, rear spoiler, side skirts and body-coloured side mouldings, and body-coloured mirrors. Inside, there are white backlit gauges with red numerals and pointers, leather-wrapped steering wheel, chrome door handles and vent knobs. As well, the Sport model comes with standard air conditioning, height-adjustable driver’s seat, variable intermittent wipers, power door locks, keyless entry, and two additional speakers for the stereo.

An optional Sport Package ($1,695) includes power windows with driver’s automatic down feature, power moonroof, and cruise control. Inexplicably, ABS is not available as an option on the Sport model or the CE model.

2003 Toyota Corolla LE
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The Corolla LE is priced at $19,865 with a standard five-speed manual transmission, and $20,865 with a four-speed automatic transmission. It offers most of the standard features available on the Sport model, but loses the spoiler, side skirts, fog lamps, leather-wrapped steering wheel, and chrome door handles. The LE adds standard anti-lock brakes, power windows with automatic driver’s down feature, simulated wood trim, and cruise control.

An LE option package ($2,890) includes leather seats, side airbags in the front seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel, power tilt/slide moonroof with sunshade, chromed interior door handles, anti-theft system, automatic dimming rearview mirror with built-in compass, and front fog lamps – bringing the total to $23,755.

Stand-alone options available on all models include a block heater ($154), floor mats ($100), rear spoiler ($572), trunk cargo net ($71), dash accent kit ($287), security system ($498), rear hitch ($196), rear hitch bike adaptor ($189), and rear hitch ski adaptor ($174).

Toyota Canada’s web-site, www.Toyota.ca, includes calculators for leasing and financing, and a used car appraiser for your trade-in.

Competitor overview

Competitors for the Corolla LE (in roughly descending order of importance) include the Honda Civic LX sedan ($19,100), Mazda Protegé ES ($18,210), Nissan Sentra GXE ($17,998), VW Jetta GLS ($23,850), Hyundai Elantra GL ($15,295), Suzuki Aerio SX sedan ($18,985), Saturn SL2 ($18,125), Chevrolet Cavalier LS ($21,275), Pontiac Sunfire SLX ($18,090), Ford Focus ZTS ($20,780), Chrysler Neon LE ($18,505), and Kia Spectra LS sedan ($16,595).

Of these, the Civic, Protegé and Sentra are the closest in terms of quality, size, horsepower, price and warranty. The Elantra is notably cheaper in price and bigger and more powerful; and the Aerio is also a noteworthy new competitor with a tall bodystyle.

The Corolla is not quite as sporty as its major competitors, and not as attractive either in my opinion. It’s also not the most powerful or best handling car. But it is roomy, easy to drive, competitively priced and comes with an enviable record of reliability: it has won the CAA Pyramid Award for Overall Vehicle Ownership Satisfaction five times.

Technical Data:

2003 Toyota Corolla LE
Base price $19,865
Options $2,890
Price as tested $22,755
Type 4-door, 5-passenger compact sedan
Layout transverse front engine/front-wheel-drive
Engine 1.8 litre, 4 cylinder, DOHC, 16 valves, VVT-i
Horsepower 130 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque 125 lb.-ft. @ 4,200 rpm
Transmission 4-speed automatic (std. 5 spd manual)
Tires Goodyear all-season radials, P195/65R15
Curb weight 1,175 kg (2,590 lbs)
Wheelbase 2,600 mm (102.4 in)
Length 4,530 mm (178.3 in)
Width 1,700 mm (66.9 in)
Height 1480 mm (58.3 in)
Trunk space 390 litres (13.6 cu. ft)
Fuel consumption City: 8.1 L/100 km (35 mpg)
  Highway: 5.8 L/100 km (49 mpg)
Fuel regular unleaded
Warranty 3 years/60,000 km
Powertrain warranty 5 years/100,000 km

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