It had to be really, because the competition has become furnace hot. The Ford Focus sweeps most before it with quality in all areas and has not been compromised by its value pricing. While many poor cars have been Britain's best-seller, the Focus deserves its number one spot, and it sits atop the list imperiously (a fact reinforced with the Focus winning the Best Lower-Medium Car title at the 2002 Fleet News Awards).
The Honda Civic's re-invention runs along similar lines to the Corolla. In a previous life it was worthy but dull, but the latest model manages to keep its reliable blood coursing through a more inventive and spacious body.
From a number of angles the Corolla looks spookily like an Audi A3 that has had its edges shaved sharper, which is no bad thing. On the key area of carbon dioxide emissions all three of these test cars are nearly impossible to prize apart. The Ford Focus has CO2 levels of 165g/km, while the Civic fares really well at 157 g/km of CO2 with the Corolla very slightly higher than the others at 168 g/km.
This year all are in the 15% tax band, which means the Focus will cost a 22% tax-payer £407, the Civic £483, and the Corolla £417, so there's nothing much in it. But the Civic's low emissions give it the edge as the years roll by. By 2004/2005 the Civic will be taxed at 17% of list price while the Focus and the Corolla rise through a couple of grades to hit the 19% mark. That means the Focus will incur a bill of £516, the Civic £479 and the Corolla, £526.
One area Toyota is keen to push is crash repair pricing, claiming repair costs for new Corollas involved in low speed frontal accidents are about 50% cheaper than the outgoing model, and cheaper than many of its competitors.
Toyota also claims that the car is 46% cheaper to repair in a front-end crash than a Peugeot 307 and more than 52% cheaper to repair in a rear impact than a Vauxhall Astra. At the moment this looks good for the Corolla, although it is worth remembering this it is yet to be borne out through a thorough examination of fleet repair bills over a long period.
According to our figures, overall running costs leave the three rivals in this test very evenly matched. On a pence per mile basis over three- years/60,000-miles, the Focus is marginally more expensive to run at 24.16 pence per mile, the Corolla costs 23.9ppm and the Civic 23.41ppm.
Certainly our running costs do not yet envisage vastly cheaper service, maintenance and repair costs for the Toyota, despite the claimed reduction in parts costs, level-pegging the car with the Civic on 2.08 ppm.
The residuals of all three cars are almost exactly the same, and also pretty good, which shows just what a strong offering the Focus is, considering how many of them hit the streets in this country every year.
In CAP Clean condition the Focus is forecast to retain 36% of its new price, or £4,450, after three-years/60,000-miles, the Civic £4,800/37% and the Corolla £4,725/37%.
All three cars are very strong propositions and you can't really lose with any of them. Everything is so tight in this sector (especially when you include the Peugeot 307, Fiat Stilo, Vauxhall Astra, Volkswagen Golf and Renault Mégane) that in the end, perhaps one or two small differences could swing it either way for each fleet.
The Focus is a very good car and the most fun to drive out of the three, while the Civic is the most spacious and the Corolla has the most pleasant interior.
So, in the end, it comes down to what the driver is looking for. For me, that would make the Focus my favourite, but if I had a family or a lot of kit to lug about, the Civic would be the one to go for with its extra interior space.
Offer drivers all three, and there should be no grumbles about a lack of choice and quality.
Behind the wheel
The Corolla is fun to drive, mainly because of its willing, revvy variable valve VVT-i engine. It sounds tight and fizzes along, and at idle is impressively quiet. The gearbox complements it well through a light, easy shift.
Because of its variable valve technology, the car likes a driver with a heavy right foot, certainly higher up the rev range where the engine note, while not quite a Honda VTEC, wails and sings away happily.
However, I am not a fan of the driving position. The seat does not go low enough and the steering wheel only adjusts for rake, which, for taller people like me, means you feel as though you are perched up high, in a Driving Miss Daisy-style.
The high hip point of the front seats makes the car easy to get in and out of - something the old Corolla, with its ageing driving population, would have benefited from.
Of course, many drivers will like the commanding view of the road, so it's horses for courses, I suppose, and the seats are very supportive.
The dash layout is very sober, very sensible and rather lantern jawed and seems well constructed with plastics one step down from the best in the sector in the Volkswagen Golf.
Typically Toyota, all the buttons and switches are close to hand and clearly explained, and there would be no need for hours spent poring over the drivers' manual trying to get the radio or air conditioning working. The whole package has a driver-friendly flavour about it.
However, one area of concern is the brakes. The pedal needs a good hard push and even then the stopping power is poor, which with discs all round is surprising. The electronic power steering is light - not as light as the outgoing model though - and has that strange disconnected feel that Japanese manufacturers seem particularly adept at creating. It's as though the Corolla is based on one of those computer driving games.
However, the Corolla represents such a leap from its predecessor that it really does now compete against the best in the sector.
MUCH improved over its predecessor and with a new look which makes its stand out far more than the old model, the Corolla has a lot going for it.
The engine is lively and handling is as good as anything else in this sector, bar the Focus.
And this is the only way of prizing apart our three cars.
The Focus' handling and ride are excellent so it would be our driving choice here. MY colleague is right about the Corolla liking a spirited driver and during my brief drive I found myself giving the car its head and revving it right the way to the red line.
The gearbox is also very good, offering clean and quick shifts but the only area where the Corolla falls down is in steering feel.
The steering is over-assisted at speed, leaving you not able to feel what the wheels are doing underneath you, especially during cornering.