When you think of a Toyota Corolla, odds are you don’t imagine a World Rally Championship (WRC) car flying a foot off the ground through a Finnish forest. I know exactly where you’re coming from; I owned a 1990 Toyota Corolla station wagon in college and there was nothing rally-worthy about it. It was solid, practical, and overall a great car, but not exactly fun. And yet, Toyota’s performance engineers managed to turn the humble econobox into one of the best rally cars in the late 1990s.
The rally car was based on the two-door version of the European-spec Corolla hatchback, a model which looked significantly different than the sedan model sold in North America. It used an evolution of the Celica’s turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine tweaked to provide 300 horsepower and 376 pound-feet of torque.
The turbo four spun the Corolla’s four alloy wheels via a four-wheel drive system similar to the one used by the Celica GT-Four (ST205). The system was already fine-tuned, it was proven in competition because the Celica competed in WRC until 1997, and it fit the Corolla like a glove. The all-wheel drive turbo hatchback was a force to be reckoned with.
The Corolla made its competition debut during the 1997 edition of the Rally Finland, so more than halfway through the season. The following year it took first place in the Monte-Carlo Rally, and in the Rally Catalunya-Costa Brava. Toyota took second place in the manufacturer’s championship with 85 points, while first went to arch rival Mitsubishi with 91 points. Subaru came in a distant third with just 65 points.
Carlos Sainz came incredibly close to securing the driver’s championship but his engine blew about half a mile away from the finish line. Sainz and the rest of the Toyota team were back with a vengeance in 1999. Unfortunately, it wasn’t his best season and he ended up tying for fifth with Subaru’s Juha Kankkunen. Dider Auriol — the pilot who drove the second Corolla — finished third in the rankings. The good news for Toyota was that it took home the manufacturer’s trophy with 109 points. Subaru and Mitsubishi finished second and third, respectively.
Toyota stopped competing in WRC after the 1999 season in a bid to focus its attention and resources on returning to Formula 1. That was the end of the Corolla’s racing career, but the Yaris took over where it left off. Toyota held on to some of the Corolla rally cars. The one you see below was displayed recently in the brand’s showroom on the Champs-Élysées in Paris.