The Toyota NZE: Powerful gearbox, but ‘nimble’ on the road

The car is unstable, sad to say. It is very light — and feels so — which means you could also call it nimble, which it is. But ‘nimble’ is not a synonym for ‘good handling’. The car was a bit nervous during hard cornering. Adjusting your line when sweeping round a curve causes an alarming scuttle shake, making the car wiggle a bit.

Analyse this: In 1997, the Toyota Corolla became the best-selling nameplate in the world, and 10 years later, they had reached a record 35 million units sold since inception in 1966.

To put things in perspective, there has been, on average, one Corolla sold every 40 seconds over the past 43 years. The name Corolla is in keeping with Toyota’s tradition of naming their cars “Crown” in various languages. There is the English Crown and the Latin Corona, while the Camry is anglicised Japanese for Kamuri (“crown”).

A car this successful deserves a crown of its own, as do the manufactures, because if you sell one of something, anything, every 40 seconds for 43 straight years, you must be doing something right.

So it was a foregone conclusion that out of curiosity, we should sample one of these 35 million-plus products. We chose the NZE 120 G Edition saloon car, part of the ninth generation Corolla line-up.

Our test car was beige, a common NZE 120 colour. The only physical enhancement it had was a set of after-market alloy rims. Opinions on the car’s looks are as polarised as they could possibly be.

There are those who think that the NZE is a pretty thing, and there are those who, like me, think that the designers must have smoked something illegal before they penned this car’s silhouette.

It is not decidedly ugly, but, in my view, the short boot is too tall and stubby, and the bonnet looks swollen, almost as if it was stung by a bee and is slowly recovering.

There was a small facelift in the middle of the car’s lifespan that changed, among other minor things, the headlamps; the originals were inoffensive and diluted the swell of the bonnet, while the latest ones are a bit too dramatic for my liking.

Mind you, this car looks almost exactly like the Toyota Camry from the same generation, the only difference being that the Camry is larger and has a longer, shallower boot that seems to fit the lines well.

There might be a division of views on the car’s exterior but, on the inside, it is hard to fault.

The cabin is bright and airy, like its Spacio cousin, though the Corolla has less glasswork both in the saloon and estate versions (the estate goes by the unlikely moniker of “Fielder”, which sounds more like an SUV than a small car).

Distribution of wood and chrome is tasteful and discreet, and a similar two-tone colour scheme to that of the Spacio is available too, although, in our test car, they avoided the sepia and stuck to beige and something that closely resembled mud.

We particularly liked the new four-spoke steering wheel, done in the same beige, although one can have it in black.

The new wheel boss is a far cry from the three-spoke affair available in pre-facelift cars, which, funny enough, obscured the instrument panel on any angle of lock that was not dead centre.

The four-spoke steering does not block anything from view. Head-room is a bit of an issue for those over six feet tall.

Vertically blessed individuals will find their scalps scraping the roof lining up front, and things are much worse in the rear. The Corolla 120 looks tall, but it is not, the height is deceptive.

The back seat is not a place for anyone over five-ten, if you intend to spend a long time in the car. In terms of leg-room, the front pews are passable, but the back seat again proves to be the weak link.

In terms of ease of cohabitation, this car will not disappoint, but it will not excite either. The fuel consumption is very low, even when driving with a heavy throttle foot.

The boot is big enough to swallow most forms of luggage and, being a Toyota, it will break down very few times (and, even then, getting it back on the road will not be painful).

In other words, this car does the Corolla act perfectly, as if reading from a 43-year old script. Driving it hard, however, caused some concern.

The car is unstable, sad to say. It is very light — and feels so — which means that you could also call it nimble, which it is. But “nimble” is not a synonym for “good handling”.

The car was a bit nervous during hard cornering. Adjusting your line when sweeping round a curve causes an alarming scuttle shake, making the car wiggle a bit.

The yaw rate is too high for a small car like this one, even more so when you compare it to its traditional rival, the Mitsubishi Lancer saloon. Its other rival, the Nissan Sunny, is now so terribly made nowadays it is beneath comparison.

The nervousness of the Corolla also manifests itself on corrugated roads. Keep your foot down, pile on the power, add the speed, and pray to God you do not hit a bump because if you do, there will be a hop, a skip, and, possibly, a crash.

The smallest amount of steering lock applied when the car loses its footing will cause a spin, which happened to us twice.

No amount of wheel-stirring redeemed the NZE from a quick rotation punctuated by the high pitched wail of rubber on tarmac and pale blue curtains of tyre smoke.

Frayed nerves and a deep sense of disappointment convinced us to make our test a little less exciting. The car is also not very comfortable, at least not like the Lancer.

The excessive yawing belies the fact that the suspension is not that soft. Toyota also seems to have skimped a little on the sound insulation (or maybe we should have closed the windows).

This raises the NZE’s NVH levels (noise, vibration and harshness), something Mitsubishi seems to have under control in the Lancer.
The gearbox, yet another automatic affair, worked well, a little too well in fact.

While most automatic units are slow and stupid, the NZE’s was excitable, like a little puppy. Kick-down was rapid and urgent, which made overtaking and hill-climbs easy and quick, but this meant that there was also plenty of hunting.

Gear-hunting is the continuous series of gear changes in search of the right ratio, common in automatic vehicles. The hunting turned the NZE into a wheezing, growling, purring thing, like an indecisive feline, but it made for good progress.

So, what does it take to own this cat? Seven hundred grand will get you a 1.5 litre 16-valve VVT-i like the one we drove. Bumping that figure up to eight will get you the Fielder estate.

Would we buy one? No, and this is where we have a problem.

While the NZE 120 is a huge leap forward for Toyota from their AE-era cars, it is less driver-oriented than its predecessors.

The AE 110 was a blast to drive, especially the little-known 110 GT. The AE100 comes a close second to the 110, particularly the twin-cam sun-roofed GT, also a bit rare.

They were stable, fast, and quite enjoyable at the helm, and these two are arguably the best vehicles in the Corolla’s history.

The NZE falls short in terms of driver engagement, and safety issues are starting to creep up.

One or two owners we talked to have also experienced problems with stability, and there are those who say that the NZE will kill if driven overzealously.

We did not enjoy driving this car; driven soberly, it was boring and anodyne and soporific; driven hard, it made two attempts on our lives.
So, would we buy one? No.

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