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Corolla and Sirion - Downsizing to reduce consumption


Mike Stock tests two small used cars

They weren’t used cars as such – although both had been well-used, even abused in the case of one of them. Both were rental cars and in due course they’ll be coming to a used car dealer near you – or at least others like them will. One of the interesting things about going away to cover motor racing is guessing what rental you’ll end up with.

With the last generation Toyota Corolla, it was with something of a groan that I greeted the news that I’d be driving a Corolla for a couple of days. That car did nothing for me, not styling-wise, nor performance-wise, nor dynamics-wise. I first encountered the current model Corolla when I got it as a rental to cover the Manfeild summer racing series round. It proved to be chalk and cheese compared with its predecessor. It looked good, had a classy feel about the interior, good seats, lively performance, secure handling and good steering – and an excellent, slick-shifting gearbox. I didn’t get a real handle on its cornering ability – there are about three high-speed corners between Palmerston North and Feilding.

So I was happy to have another Corolla for the Timaru meeting. I picked it up at Christchurch and drove it on the dreary run from the garden city to Timaru (a town I love, though everyone seems to think I’m mad for doing so). Again I got little sense of its cornering abilities – there are only about half a dozen real corners ion that 160km-plus run – but it felt solid, ran smoothly and quietly and had a good turn of speed. Again the gearshift impressed with its smoothness and quickness.

On the run south when I reached the challenging Ess bends where the highway crosses the railway, I got stuck behind campervans or those irritating people who go at 100kph on the straighaways and then almost stop to go around corners. Still I got a good idea of the Corolla’s braking ability – very good. On the home run to Christchurch I got a clean run through a couple of these rapid-direction-change bends, and the Corolla behaved impeccably.

Turn-in was crisp, the roadholding strong and the car was unfazed by the bumpy rail crossings. I came away thinking: “I could live with one of these cars. It would be a good used car buy when it comes to downsizing as the price of petrol keeps going higher and higher.” Now, I’ve been driving a Corona for a decade or more – I’m not sure how long – and I’ve got used to the more solid feel of a 2.0-litre class car. Yet the modern Corolla feels every bit as solid on the road as the Corona does, and a class bigger than its market niche. It would make a worthy – even desirable – replacement for the old warhorse.

Which brings me to the Daihatsu Sirion I had as a rental in Invercargill last weekend. This is the size and type of car that Aunty Helen and her bureaucrats, not to mention the Greens, would like us all to be changing to. Get out of that gas guzzling Ford Falcon – or for that matter ageing Corona 1.8 auto which struggles to do any better than 26mpg in mixed city/motorway running, and get into one of these little honeys.  After two and a bit days with one, the answer is an unequivocal “no thanks.”

I like the way the Sirion looks – I liked its predecessor’s looks too. A colleague had one and had a good run out of it. But in an era when small cars are increasingly feeling like much bigger cars – Kia’s tiny Picanto is a case in point – the Daihatsu feels decidedly like an old-style small car. It’s not exactly “tinny” but it feels Spartan and lightly constructed.

The rental suffered from some noisy rattles from somewhere in the back which may have had more to do with the car being abused by renters than with any intrinsic weakness in the way the Sirion is put together. What it felt like, really, was a mid-1980s Corolla, a car for getting from A to B. It handled well, had good roadholding, crisp steering, though the gearshift was a little rubbery. It seemed to sip fuel, so it would doubtless please the environmental lobby. But though it has thoroughly chic and up-to-the-minute styling, it feels like a traditional small car at a time when small cars are feeling increasingly grown-up.

I’d had an eye on the Sirion as a possible used car buy for when the petrol price crunch bites deeper – after all, Toyota dealers have been offering good deals on new ones, let alone as used cars. But not now. The Corolla, yes. It’d still be in the frame. But if we’re forced to downsize the cars we buy – new or used – I think I could do better than a Sirion.  I’m sure a Sirion would be economical and reliable and maybe I’d even grow to love it in time; but right now it strikes me as a rather stripped-down small car with an old-fashioned feel and a level of refinement that hasn’t kept pace with other small cars.

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