Junkyard Find: 2002 Toyota Corolla CE, Last of the 3-Speed Automatics

Murilee Martin
by Murilee Martin
junkyard find 2002 toyota corolla ce last of the 3 speed automatics

Not long ago, I became curious about the production longevity of the good old three-speed automatic transmission in North America. The first really successful true automatic had four forward speeds and the two-speed Powerglide delivered the slushbox to the masses, but the three-speed Detroit automatics of the 1960s truly converted the continent to the two-pedal religion. During the last couple of decades of the 20th century, the three-speed got sidelined by more sophisticated transmissions. What was the final new car you could buy with a three-speed transmission in North America? That’s today’s Junkyard Find: a 2002 Toyota Corolla CE, found in Denver last week.

My search for the last three-speed-equipped new car (yes, car — three-speeds stayed in trucks a bit longer here, and that’s a story we’ll discuss later) took months of poring over sales brochures, EPA data, reference books, and online comments from your enraged uncle who clearly remembers his neighbor buying a 2005 Cavalier with a three-speed. In the end, the winner of the Keep That Reliable Hardware In Service Forever trophy goes to — of course — Toyota. The 2002 Corolla CE and the base version of its NUMMI-built twin, the Chevrolet Prizm, had three-speeds, a year after Chrysler went to four-speed automatics in the Neon and Caravan and GM abandoned the three-speed in the Metro and Cavalier.

Toyota believes in selling stuff that works, regardless of current fashions and/or the derision of automotive journalists, which is why you’ll see that near-identical cruise-control stalk in so many Toyotas and Lexuses from the early 1990s through a few years ago. It’s also the reason that Toyota was the last holdout selling new cars with four-on-the-floor manual transmissions here (the 1996 Tercel). I’m working on pieces about the final three-on-the-tree and three-on-the-floor cars you could buy new, so check in later for those.

Toyota USA probably says “CE” stood for “Cheerful Edition” or “Competitive Edition,” but I’ve always believed that the C in this badge stands for Cheap. The CE-badged Toyotas lacked the luxury features of their upscale brethren, but they were Toyotas and they would do that Point-A-to-Point-B thing like no-hassle clockwork, for decades. Sure, you could get an ’02 Daewoo Nubira for much less than a Corolla CE, but then you’d have a Daewoo.

That said, the fact that the CE got a 200-yen block-off plate in the spot where the overdrive button lived on the higher-end Corollas … well, it must have been a depressing sight when coupled with the view of that grim, forklift-seat-grade upholstery. Note the little rectangular indentation where the OVERDRIVE label would have gone in a Corolla S or LE or Prizm LSi.

I think most of these cars were sold to fleet operators, not individual buyers torn between the Nubira CDX and the Corolla CE, and so the Super Indestruct-O gray interior was a strong selling point.

Maybe a few years operating out of the Budget counter at DIA, then auctioned-off to a commuter who just wanted cheap, dependable wheels.

Speaking of wheels, dig these Nissan rims! Thanks to the magic of the ubiquitous 4x100mm bolt pattern, every junkyard offers dozens of affordable aluminum wheel choices to Corolla CE owners tired of their grimly utilitarian steelies.

The most annoying failure on the low-end Corollas and Prizms of this era was the finger-slicin’ busted door handle. Always the driver’s door, of course, and I’ve seen some innovative field-expedient repairs of this problem in junkyards.

What’s this? Air conditioning? 2002 Corolla CE buyers could get the “Extra Value Package,” which added A/C, a cassette deck, and a digital clock. Since rental-car customers were getting soft by the early 2000s, Budget Rent-a-Car must have felt compelled to fork over a few extra bucks on this car.

Even with its gray-on-grey-on-gray interior and 1965-technology transmission, this bargain-basement car got the job done for 18 years before getting discarded.

My fingers are stuck together!

Drive your dreams.

I’m pretty sure only the Budget Town Cars got the aromatherapy candles.

They had good drugs in those late-1990s Budget brainstorming sessions.

You sure this high roller wouldn’t prefer the Corolla CE and its bulletproof three-speed, rather than risking a Jaguar breakdown?

For links to 2,000+ additional Junkyard Finds, visit the Junkyard Home of the Murilee Martin Lifestyle Brand™.

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3 of 70 comments
  • MyerShift MyerShift on May 16, 2022

    Don't any of you people dare forget that Toyota used its 3-Speed automatic LONGER than Chrysler did theirs!

  • Brian hysten Brian hysten on Dec 31, 2022

    I see this segment, and literally just bought a 02 Corolla CE for $300 and I'm in love with this thing

    • 28-Cars-Later 28-Cars-Later on Jan 01, 2023

      You sound you like you did very well for three bills... any running car is worth scrap value.

  • Dusterdude @El scotto , I'm aware of the history, I have been in the "working world" for close to 40 years with many of them being in automotive. We have to look at situation in the "big picture". Did UAW make concessions in past ? - yes. Do they deserve an increase now ? -yes . Is their pay increase reasonable given their current compensation package ? Not at all ! By the way - are the automotive CEO's overpaid - definitely! (That is the case in many industries, and a separate topic). As the auto industry slowly but surely moves to EV's , the "big 3" will need to be producing top quality competitive vehicles or they will not survive.
  • Art_Vandelay “We skipped it because we didn’t think anyone would want to steal these things”-Hyundai
  • El scotto Huge lumbering SUV? Check. Unknown name soon to be made popular by Tiktok ilk? Check. Scads of these showing up in school drop-off lines? Check. The only real over/under is if these will have as much cachet as Land Rovers themselves? A bespoken item had to be new at one time. Bonus "accepted by the right kind of people" points if EBFlex or Tassos disapproves.
  • El scotto No, "brothers and sisters" are the core strength of the union. So you'll take less money and less benefits because "my company really needs helped out"? The UAW already did that with two-tier employees and concessions on their last contract.The Big 3 have never, ever locked out the UAW. The Big 3 have agreed to every collective bargaining agreement since WWII. Neither side will change.
  • El scotto Never mind that that F-1 is a bigger circus than EBFlex and Tassos shopping together for their new BDSM outfits and personal lubricants. Also, the F1 rumor mill churns more than EBFlex's mind choosing a new Sharpie to make his next "Free Candy" sign for his white Ram work van. GM will spend a year or two learning how things work in F1. By the third or fourth year GM will have a competitive "F-1 LS" engine. After they win a race or two Ferrari will protest to highest F-1 authorities. Something not mentioned: Will GM get tens of millions of dollars from F-1? Ferrari gets 30 million a year as a participation trophy.