Now in its ninth generation, Toyota wanted to make the new Corolla at least equal to the class benchmarks for driving enjoyment and quality, which at present are the Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf. Toyota is also keen on a slice of the thriving mini-MPV market and has produced a rival for the Renault Scenic and Citroen Xsara Picasso in the new Corolla Verso.
Spurred on by the success of the Yaris in Europe, Toyota decided to design the Corolla for the European market on the basis of what is successful in Europe succeeds elsewhere.
So the Corolla will be on sale from the beginning of next year in Burnaston-built three- and five-door hatchback format, and a Japan-built Verso and estate. Later in the year, a Turkish-built four-door saloon will join the range, but while sedans and estates are essential for some markets, Toyota has only limited sales aspirations for these models in the UK. Most UK sales will be taken by the hatchbacks and the Verso model, and Toyota fully expects to steal fleet sales from rivals with its new model.
Toyota has also ditched the existing S, GS and GLS model designations in favour of something different. The entry-level car will now be T2, with the higher-spec volume seller as T3, while the 'luxury' model will be called T Spirit. This will take some getting used to for customers, and although T Sport is already established as the racy variant in some Toyota models, it is a mystery to us why the company couldn't have kept the others simple with T1, T2 and T3 or some other sequence.
With a range that includes a high-performance 189bhp Corolla T Sport, Toyota Fleet will be hoping to win over user-choosers as well as essential users. About 10,400 new Corollas will be sold to fleets in 2002 - about 2,900 of these will be the Corolla Verso - accounting for 35% of all Corolla sales in the UK. In 2003 this is expected to rise to 14,400 with more than 40% of Corollas going to fleets.
Toyota concedes that the previous Corolla underperformed in the UK because of its difficulty in competing in the desirability stakes, and in 2000 it achieved a 3% share in the fleet market.
The manufacturer expects the new Corolla to be a stronger performer, and increase Toyota's overall share of the fleet market from just under 2% to at least 4.3% by the end of 2003.
Toyota also predicts best-in- class running costs for the new Corolla with improved residual values over the current car — early indications reveal they should be close to the Volkswagen Golf — and low SMR costs.
Some of Toyota's biggest fleet customers have already had a chance to sample left-hand drive versions of the car and the company says initial feedback has been good.
Jon Pollock, general manager for Toyota Fleet, said: 'We pitched the new Corolla directly against some of the best in the segment, such as the Volkswagen Golf and Peugeot 307. Reaction to the car was very positive, and the revised styling and quality wowed the audience, in particular the clever features of the Verso such as integrated toddler seats and dual sunroofs.
'The car also demonstrated Toyota's renowned driving credibility in a dynamic test, bringing home the advantages of the Corolla over its closest competitors.'
Behind the wheel
THE new Corolla seems to have followed the lower-medium car fashion started by the Honda Civic and Peugeot 307. It is tall, maximising headroom and the seats are higher so it's much easier to get in and out.
There are also some interesting aspects to its styling — the Toyota badge on the grille is emphasised by a bulge at the front of the bonnet, and the broad-based C-pillar in the hatchback hint at a rigid body shell.
Toyota has been keen to push aspects of perceived quality with this car, and if it has any hope of competing with the Volkswagen Golf on price these are key issues.
Quality is evident in the interior, where dashboard materials are of the softer variety, while grab-handles are damped in a Golf-like manner.
All models come with four airbags and ABS with electronic brakeforce distribution as standard, features which still have yet to become the norm in this class. Turn-by-turn satellite navigation is optional across the range and can be used in conjunction with an intelligent route guidance system which can warn of traffic problems and recalculate the route. Alternatively, top models are also offered with full-colour map navigation.
The Corolla dashboard display is neat while the permanently back-lit instruments (called Optitron) in some models are a nice touch. Toyota has also spent time researching seat comfort and in the Corolla the seats were always comfortable.
Our first foray in the Corolla was the 89bhp diesel hatchback which proved relatively muted on the move, although not as quiet as one of Peugeot's HDi engines.
But the most noticeable change in the new Corolla is in the way it drives. Despite the odd fidget over rippled surfaces, ride quality for the most part was supple and refined. Bumps in the road had little impact inside the cabin, but this has not been achieved at the expense of agility.
The Corolla feels the equal to the Ford Focus in terms of its handling, remaining composed when challenged with a series of sweeping bends, with plenty of feedback from the steering.
The Corolla Verso mini-MPV also copes well with twisty roads, with virtually no body roll at sensible speeds, and the 1.8-litre version we tried had ample torque to tackle a 25km uphill and downhill mountain road in third gear. Power was delivered smoothly and the engine note remained subdued up to about 4,000rpm.
Both versions were roomy, particularly in the rear, and the Verso's rear-seat removal operation was refreshingly simple. Driving verdict
TOYOTA knows it has a car which offers genuine driving enjoyment and the quality expected to compete at the top of the class. It could take some time for people to swallow the new price scheme - it is significantly more expensive than the current Toyota - but when they drive the car and see what it offers for themselves, they will be happier to part with their money.