By Chris Chase

2006 Toyota Corolla CE Special Edition
Photos: Toyota Canada. Click image to enlarge

Not long after the current generation Toyota Corolla was launched back in 2002 as a 2003 model, I met someone who’d just bought one. He was really proud of his new car, and told me that Toyota had set high standards for this ninth generation of its popular compact, and had used its Lexus luxury division as the benchmark for the Corolla’s fit-and-finish. I had my doubts. After all, this was a sub-$20,000 compact car we were talking about, not a luxury vehicle.

When I recently spent a few days behind the wheel of a 2006 Corolla, I thought of that guy. I still don’t know if what he said was true, or if it was just a line the salesman had used to seal the deal, but now I had a chance to see how much of Lexus’ attention to detail had actually trickled down to the Corolla.

My test car was a 2006 Corolla SE (Special Edition), a trim level introduced mid-way through the 2005 model year. The Special Edition takes a base CE (which includes tilt steering, CD stereo, power mirrors and height adjustable driver’s seat) equipped with Toyota’s “B” option package (air conditioning, keyless entry, power door locks and a cabin air filter) and adds a power sunroof and unique alloy wheels, all for $18,855.

You’re still stuck with wind-em-yourself windows, but that’s the only additional feature I would expect in a car that costs almost $19,000. If value for money is at the top of your list, Hyundai will sell you a manual-transmission Elantra sedan equipped with power windows, locks and mirrors, air conditioning and cruise (but without the sunroof and alloy wheels) for almost $1,500 less. But Toyota diehards won’t care too much, because they’re still getting a great small car at a reasonable price.

2006 Toyota Corolla CE
Corolla CE with option package ‘C’ pictured. Click image to enlarge

Not much has changed inside the ninth-generation Corolla since its 2002 debut, which is good. The driver gets nice, big gauges with white numerals on a black background. The radio is mounted right up top in the centre stack where it’s only a quick glance away from the road. Right below that are three big rotary controls for the ventilation system, and at the bottom of the centre stack are two handy storage compartments. This is a nicely-screwed-together interior, with small gaps between dash components and no squeaks or rattles. All the controls work smoothly too, with no scratchy movements from any of the buttons or knobs. My one quibble with the interior is that while the instruments are backlit by bright white LEDs, the radio and ventilation controls light up green, which gives the interior a mismatched look at night.

2006 Toyota Corolla CE Special Edition

2006 Toyota Corolla CE Special Edition
Click image to enlarge

The height-adjustable driver’s seat and tilt steering wheel should accommodate drivers of a variety of shapes and sizes, but taller drivers may not appreciate how the sunroof cuts into front-seat headroom by at least an inch. What all drivers will appreciate, though, is the well-placed “dead pedal” left-foot rest. The front seats are quite comfortable, offering good lateral support, and front-seat space is generous for a small car.

Rear seat passengers get spacious accommodations, too. Headroom back here isn’t affected as much by the sunroof, and the rear seat is plenty comfortable for two people. If you want to put three passengers back there, as with most compacts, you may want to make sure they all like each other.

Toyota didn’t change the Corolla’s on-road behaviour, which should please those who value this car’s calm demeanour. The engine’s power numbers are a little lower for 2006 — 126 hp at 6000 rpm and 122 lb-ft of torque at 4,200 rpm, down from 130 hp and 125 lb-ft — but there’s still lots of meaty torque right in the middle of the rev range, which makes for excellent driveability around town. Acceleration is brisk — that base motor will haul the Corolla from a standstill to 100 km in a little more than 8 seconds — which is great considering that tall gearing, and the car can reach that speed in second gear, albeit just barely.

2006 Toyota Corolla CE Special Edition

2006 Toyota Corolla CE Special Edition
Click image to enlarge

For those who rarely explore the upper reaches of the tachometer, that tall gearing translates into quiet highway cruising. Shift into fifth gear at 100 km/h and the motor turns at a sedate 2,500 rpm. The other positive side effect of those long legs is the Corolla’s terrific highway gas mileage: a manual transmission Corolla uses just 5.3 L/100 km on the highway according to Natural Resources Canada, and its 7.1 L/100 km city rating shames most other compacts. Fuel consumption for automatic-equipped models is slightly higher, at 7.8 L/100 km city and 5.6 L/100 km highway.

My test car went 911 kilometres on a full tank of fuel (50 litres) in a recent fuel economy challenge, which works out to 5.5 L/100 km. That’s not quite as good as the car’s rated highway consumption, but it’s an excellent real-world result considering the car was driven far less conservatively than the technique Natural Resources Canada uses to achieve its numbers.

Depending on how picky you are about manual transmissions, you may want to go for the optional four-speed auto instead. The manual shifter is clunky and makes unpleasant sounds when moved from gear to gear. Clutch effort is nice and light, however. One other gripe is that when the engine is cold, it idles quite high — close to 2,000 rpm — which makes it tough to pull away smoothly.

2006 Toyota Corolla CE Special Edition

2006 Toyota Corolla CE Special Edition
Click image to enlarge

When you need to stop, the Corolla’s brake pedal goes to work on front discs and rear drums to provide safe and secure braking. Pedal feel is good, and it’s easy to modulate for smooth and confident stops. ABS and Electronic Brake Force Distribution (EBD) aren’t available on the Corolla CE. They’re options on the Sport model and are standard on the LE. Steering feel is okay, but doesn’t transmit a lot of road surface information back to the driver.

The Corolla’s ride strikes a nice balance between big-car smooth and small-car firm. Only the worst roads are unpleasant for the car’s occupants, and the shocks keep the body’s motions well in check. Road noise is good, too, for an economy car.

Handling is another story. It’s by no means unsafe, but the Corolla is a tall car, and you can feel it lean hard in corners, a feeling accentuated by the high seating position. The tires (185/65R-15s on the CE, 195/65R-15s on Sport and LE models) aren’t shy about telling you when you’re working them too hard, squealing early and often when you bend the Corolla into a turn.

Little about the Corolla’s exterior has changed since 2003. Aside from new wheel cover designs and clear rear turn signal lenses in place of amber ones (changes that were made for the 2005 model year), it’s tough to tell these later cars apart from earlier ones.

2006 Toyota Corolla CE Special Edition

2006 Toyota Corolla CE Special Edition
Click image to enlarge

For 2006, the Corolla maintains a few other key changes that were made for the 2005 model year: the front airbags are advanced dual-stage units that deploy differently depending on the severity of an impact. (Front-seat side airbags are available only as part of an option package for LE models.) The Corolla’s 1.8 litre engine — known inside Toyota and to car geeks as the 1ZZ-FE — carried on largely unchanged into 2005 except for a new electronic throttle control and an engine immobilizer to deter thieves. Also, Toyota dropped the manual transmission from the Corolla LE spec sheet in 2005, leaving the automatic as the only choice for those who opt for this more luxurious trim level. Inside the car, there’s a centre rear-seat headrest that wasn’t there before 2005. These changes also apply to 2006 models.

If you want an exciting and engaging four-door sporting a Toyota badge, the Corolla XRS will better fulfill your need for speed with its high-revving motor, six-speed transmission and tighter handling, but you’ll pay a premium for its performance. A Mazda3 offers a sportier and more expensive feel with a more relaxed motor than that in XRS for about the same cost as my Corolla tester.

But different folks demand different strokes, and lots of those folks love the Corolla’s mature attitude. While it’s certainly no Lexus — much to the chagrin of that guy I met a few years ago — it’s about as close as you’re likely to get for less than $20,000.

Technical Data: 2006 Corolla CE Special Edition

Base price $15,715
Options $3,140 (Corolla CE Special Edition package – alloy wheels w/ wheel locks, air conditioning, cabin dust and pollen air filter, power moonroof, special edition badging, keyless entry, power door locks)
Freight $1,060
A/C tax $100
Price as tested $20,015 Click here for options, dealer invoice prices and factory incentives
Type 4-door, 5-passenger compact sedan
Layout transverse front engine/front-wheel drive
Engine 1.8 litre four cylinder, double overhead cam, four valves per cylinder
Horsepower 126 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque 122 lb.-ft. @ 4,200 rpm
Transmission 5-speed manual
Tires 185/65R-15
Curb weight 1145 kg (2530 lbs)
Wheelbase 2600 mm (102.4 in.)
Length 4530 mm (178.3 in.)
Width 1700 mm (66.9 in.)
Height 1480 mm (58.3 in.)
Cargo capacity 385 litres (13.6 cu. ft.)
Fuel consumption City: 7.1 L/100 km (40 mpg Imperial)
  5.3 L/100 km (53 mpg Imperial)
Fuel type Regular unleaded
Warranty 3 years/60,000 km
Powertrain warranty 5 years/100,000 km

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