IF YOU WANT a car that makes you feel good the moment you sit in it and one that relieves the agony of its purchase, you want the 1988 Toyota Corolla GT-S sports coupe.
Forget about Japan-bashing for a moment. Forget about foreigners "taking American jobs." You're in the market for a new set of wheels, where politics takes a back seat to bucks.
What matters here is driving off the dealer's lot with a machine that won't be back the same week for repairs. You can do that with a Corolla GT-S.
What's important is buyer confidence -- the feeling that the people who made the car really cared about their work. You get that feeling with the Corolla GT-S, and, oh, what a feeling it is!
Yeah, I know. U.S. car quality has improved over the last decade, and much of it is world class. But the exemplary quality of the test car invites more than a Japanese-American comparison. Europeans had better take note, too.
The Corolla GT-S beats a lot of pricey British, French, German and Italian models where it counts: It simply does a better job of taking care of the basics.
Complaint: Inadequate rear cabin space for adult passengers. This is a common failing in two-plus-two (two seats up front, two in back) sports coupes. The Corolla GT-S offers a bit more rear space than many of its competitors, but back-seat passengers still are are forced to ride too close for comfort.
Praise: It's an absolute pleasure to sit in a car where all of the seams are perfect, where all controls function exactly as designed, and where nothing -- repeat, nothing -- rattles.
The 1988 Corolla GT-S is a remake of the GT-S coupe Toyota introduced in the United States in 1985. The new car has a slightly longer wheelbase, a centerline distance of 95.7 inches between the front and rear wheels; and it has a wider stance than previous models.
Toyota has replaced the old rear-wheel-drive GT-S with a front-wheel-drive version for 1988, with no discernible loss in handling ability. In fact, handling has improved.
Also, the car's 1.6-liter, fuel-injected, 4-cylinder, 16-valve engine has been reworked to crank out a tad more horsepower -- 115 hp at 6,600 rpm versus 112 hp at the same engine speed in the 1987 model.
Kudos to Toyota for making the revisions without dropping a screw or bungling a lever.
Head-turning quotient: Attractive, flippant without being adolescent.
Ride, acceleration, handling: Terrific. Low-pressure gas shocks and McPherson struts front and rear help to produce remarkably smooth small-car ride and precise handling. The Corolla GT-S reaches median highway speeds of 65 mph without whining.
Sound system: AM/FM electronic stereo radio and cassette by Toyota. Excellent.
Mileage: About 28 to the gallon (13.2- gallon tank, estimated 360-mile range on usable volume), running driver only, heater on, mostly highways and back roads in Virginia and Maryland.
Price: $13,928, including $1,600 in options and $330 destination charge. Dealer's invoice on tested model (five-speed manual transmission) is $11,564. (Note: The appreciation of the Japanese yen has added an average $2,000 to the price of Japanese cars sold in this country since September 1985. Considering that development, I would refuse to pay any additional dealer markup on the Corolla GT-S, regardless of its value.)
Warren Brown covers the auto industry for The Washington Post.