With the recent reveal of the Toyota GR Corolla we look back to the last hot Corolla that we drove, the GT from 2003
From South Africa comes the first Toyota Corolla GT for 12 years. Putting the ‘Grand Touring’ in this toy-motor is a born-free 141 kW engine, a six-speed ’box, and subtle tweaks to the chassis
Think back to the last time you could buy a Corolla GT from your local Toyota dealer – the last time the All Blacks were world champions, that’s how long it’s been. But hang about, so after a long wait, the Corolla GT returns – could that be an omen for the All Blacks, the mighty set to return to the top of the class? The boys in black have shown form that could see them lifting the Webb Ellis trophy in November and soon you will be able to go down to your local Toyota show room to order a brand new Corolla GT. Exciting stuff.
The GT is a mix and match of Toyota inventory with the coming together of the Celica’s 141 kW engine and gearbox with the Corolla’s more practical body shell. Add on a body kit and some alloys, dress up the interior, and it’s a Corolla GT that is true to its roots. The first New Zealand-new Corolla GT was much the same: transplant the MR2 engine into the ordinary Corolla; beef up the suspension; add some mags, a body kit and a plush interior – and you’ve got it. The GT carried on into the new body shape for 1988 but was discontinued in New Zealand in the early nineties.
Save for the Celica and MR Spyder, the Corolla GT is the most interesting car to come from Toyota in a long while. And thank god! While the Toyota line-up is a sales success with all its reliability and quality, there’s not much to appeal to the sporting buyer requiring more than two doors.
The Corolla GT starts life in South Africa; there it’s assembled. Next it’s shipped across the Indian Ocean to Australia where the special GT body kit is added, then it’s finally imported to New Zealand. On the surface it seems like any other dressed-up Corolla, but look closely and the deeper front and side skirts hint at something more sinister. It would have looked devilish had Toyota lowered the ride height; there’s enough space under those arches to host the entire Rugby World Cup. The 16-inch 10-spoke alloys look good but need to be closer to the guards to gain the street cred of a hot hatch. And the five-door body may not be the coolest configuration but this adds a lot of practicality to the buyer’s equation.
Look inside and you’ll find full leather trim, a leather-bound tiller, and shift lever with a chromed helmet that reveals six forward gears. Thrown into the mix is a six-stacker CD head-unit with reasonable resonance, dual front airbags, electric windows and mirrors, and climate air conditioning. The back-lit instruments glow red and the 9000-rpm tacho also drops hints that this is no ordinary Corolla. There’s no cruise control or steering wheel-mounted remotes for the stereo, but that’s getting picky. The driving position is too high but otherwise the seats do a good job of supporting, although not to the same great comfort level as those in the Mazda6. Expect the usual high Toyota standard of fit and finish, and you won’t be disappointed. The five-door model offers the space and practicality that ‘Mum and Dad’ buyers will want – and which all of the GT’s rivals lack. The boxy design allows good head- and legroom in the rear, but the centre-rear passenger makes do with a lap belt. The GT’s boot space also gives it an edge over its rivals, with the rear squab having a 60/40 split to aid cargo carrying.
The exciting bits lie under the bonnet. Slotting in the Celica’s 2ZZ-GE 1.8 litre has given the GT a 41 kW power advantage over the standard 1.8 litre Corolla. This Corolla is big on letters, not only ‘GT’ but also ‘VVTLi’ (Variable Valve Timing and Lift-intelligent). Toyota’s ‘VVT’ operates throughout the rev range to beef up the torque as well as improving engine efficiency and emissions while the ‘L’ of the long-winded acronym acts similarly to Honda’s hard-edged, performance-oriented VTEC. As the engine winds past six grand, the big lobes of the bump stick kick in, offering increased valve lift and duration through the remaining rev range before the engine hits the limiter at 8200 rpm. The extra power results in a welcome surge in momentum, especially when you are overtaking. Not only does the extra kick stimulate your power glands but your aural senses are also filled with the forceful rasp of the valvetrain. It reminds you of that Beach Boys’ song: I can hear music, sweet valve music…
We bettered the manufacturer’s claim for the run to 100 km/h when we tested the GT with the VBOX. After a few haphazard attempts without enough revs, the GT busted out a 7.6-second run as it hooked up from launch with a loaded tachometer. Flat shifting into second, the Corolla squeaked to the legal limit before the limiter intervened.
The overtaking time was impressive for a five-door hatch; a quick shift from second to third, and the GT will reel it off in 4.8 seconds. Any overtaking manoeuvre is best and most safely achieved by snapping the gearbox into second to take advantage of the extra power above 6000 rpm. But be ready to snatch third before the engine spins itself out as you reach 100 km/h.
The manic power unit shreds the Corolla’s middle-of-the-road persona and has you reaching for the red line whenever possible. In the lower gears the surge of power would be totally grin inducing if not for concentration required to keep the car in a straight line. Blasting through the countryside, the screaming power unit shatters the serenity and sheep run for cover. There’s a raucous rasp as it conjures up more power, and a welcome surge of muscle that makes you wish it would stay in ‘high lift’ mode all day. But grab another gear and you’re quickly back into the engine’s mundane mode as the needle sweeps back below 6000 rpm. Build the engine up to the magic mark and, bang, you’re off again, screaming to the red line until you pull fourth – and by then you’ll be facing a hefty fine if nicked by the fuzz. On tight roads you are willing the straights to remain short so as not to have to change up and fall out of the power band. By no means does the engine struggle for torque further down the rev range: it’s just that the surge up top makes you hungry to chase peak revs where the power and torque are maximum.
The GT goes without a limited slip diff, its absence noticed in tight corners. Exit a slow-speed turn with the throttle nailed and the power goes spinning out through the inside wheel. Also missing is any form of traction control but it would be needed only to curb insane throttle effort in lower gears or tame wet-weather getaways.
Steering is light and the GT responds well to input. It’s not in the league of the superb Focus ST 170 but as good as the others in its class. There’s no kick back through the wheel but also it lacks communication.
Toyota has fettled the suspension with variable damping technology that beefs up the handling over the standard ’Rolla. But the GT is still soft – not girl’s-blouse soft but more like Ron Cribb: they could both give so much more if they were a bit harder. The good old torsion beam rear axle doesn’t bless the GT with fabulous rear-end dynamics, especially when over-committing yourself to a tighter than expected corner. Expect some beyond-the-limit oversteer if you’re a cowboy. Otherwise it works well, for all of its unsophisticated design.
Overall the suspension could use a good seeing to, especially that ride height, to bring the chassis more in line with its stonking engine. The front end is more adept and has to be pushed hard to induce understeer. Cornering ability is reduced when the driving wheels are asked to transmit too much power as well as steer, and encountering the engine’s power band midway through a long corner will push the nose wide. The suspension setting does give the Corolla ride quality around town where some of its harder-set rivals, with their low-profiled big rubber, will make you feel every inconsistency in the road.
Rapid progress is fun because of the effort needed to keep the engine on the boil. With the pedals well placed, you’ll find yourself blipping the throttle for the downshift while braking for the corners, ensuring the engine can deliver its maximum punch. While not inspiring a great deal of confidence in the driver to launch a maximum attack on an unknown road, the GT is fun and flickable – and did I mention that sound track?
The GT’s brakes are up-specced to larger-diameter discs with ABS, and receive help from electronic brake distribution and brake assist. The Corolla’s light weight lets you dive deep into the corners before ramming on the beefed-up anchors, but they do need a good stab to scrub off the speed. When we had finished with the Corolla, the front alloys were a distinct shade of brake-pad grey.
The shift action of the gearbox is easy to use but requires a refined touch when slotting the gears speedily. Second to third is the trickiest to master; fluffing it will ruin your progress. In town, the clutch activation from standstill can be tricky, and a smooth transition from first to second also takes some getting used to, but the six-speeder helps return good fuel economy. All the gears are useful in suburbia as sixth is relatively low, 100 km/h equating to 3200 rpm in top. Engaging reverse requires a hefty push across to left, and then there’s an annoying beeper to let you know you’re reversing.
Toyota expects to have the GT on sale by the last quarter of 2003, with a price tag under the $40,000 mark to keep it competitive. Considering the most expensive Corolla is $36,150, the GT would be well worth the extra cash for someone with sporty driving aspirations.
Put together the Corolla and GT nameplates, and Toyota is again onto a good thing. With more space and power than its immediate hot-hatch rivals, the Corolla could be the best weapon to cover all the bases if you forgive its slight dynamic shortcomings. Let’s hope the arrival of the Corolla GT will again coincide with another four years of the All Blacks on top of the world.
|2003 Toyota Corolla GT
|1796cc, IL4, EFI
|6-speed manual, FWD
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