The cars we loved.
It’s not often that a car comes around that nearly everyone everywhere likes. The Toyota Corolla is one such car. First introduced in 1966, the sub compact sedan, wagon and sometimes coupe gradually grew in size and sophistication while keeping close to its core values of being affordable, reliable and efficient. Almost 50 years later the Corolla has become the world’s bestselling car, surpassing the Volkswagen Beatle in 2007 on the all-time sales chart. It’s been said that one Corolla is sold (new or used) every 40 seconds somewhere on Earth! With production taking place in 19 locations across the globe, there’s a version of the Corolla for every market.
Complacent at the Top
In America the Corolla was not always THE top small car, but has outlasted old foes, like the Ford Escort. Being the elder statesman means its more difficult fighting off newcomers. Lately the heat has been turned up with the resurgent Ford Focus and a revamped Hyundai Elantra. In truth the only real competition to the Corolla in America has been Honda’s Civic. The two cars have matured to the point of becoming almost boring examples of mechanical perfection. The two share some of same arguments against them: that they have become complacent in a fast changing marketplace and may have lost their positions at the top of the subcompact market as a result. That may a slight exaggeration as the Corolla’s quality is still near the top of the charts. Is quality in itself enough in today’s more competitive market? The latest Corolla answers that question with a mixed message.
Evolution not Revolution
The tenth generation Corolla was introduced in America at a Specialty Equipment Market Association event in 2008. SEMA is usually associated with customized cars and the tuner crowd that comes with them. So for Toyota to show off its beefed up Corolla XRS at SEMA suggested that the automotive giant might be taking small car performance seriously (well, looks anyway). When the new Corolla went on sale in 2009, it had a new model line up with the XRS, true to SEMA form, as the top sport model.
The new look differed little from the previous design. The biggest change included a Yaris-like front end and slightly revised rear. The variants had become fewer also with the demise of Corolla Matrix production in 2009. Now there were five trims, all in sedan only form. A 1.8 liter four-cylinder was standard in the lesser models, but the XRS would get the 2.4 liter inline four from the base Camry. Visually, the XRS got a ground effects treatment similar to the previous “S” model. The aggressive ground effects and a sport tuned suspension were standard as well as 16 in wheels.
A Corolla with 158 hp did not sound like a sure-fire recipe for a small performance sedan in a world of small cars with nearly 200 hp. True to form, except for straight line performance, the XRS’s road manners were typical of most Corollas. A comparison test in 2009 from Motor Trend magazine pitted the then new Corolla against the likes of the Mazda 3, Subaru Impreza and Civic EX. Despite beating out all of them in the dash to 60 mph (7.9 seconds), it placed last in overall performance. That pattern would repeat itself as many in the enthusiast press would complain about the lack of road feel from the Corolla. Oddly enough, Toyota’s Scion branded xB sedan was similar to Corolla in many ways, but had better performance. Scion had managed to include all the safety equipment and most of the gadgets of the Corolla, but kept performance lively in spite of what seemed like escalating weight.
Stay the Course
One thing lost on most of the gearhead press was the fact that the Corolla was intended to be an appliance in the very best sense of the term. While the Civic or Focus may be more fun to drive, the Corolla is less likely to offend with controversial styling and has a long track record of being reliable. Only the Civic can come close to its record in that respect. Honda’s gamble with the Civic’s redesign has not paid off in the way it did for the Accord.
After all, the Corolla started out as an economy car and has not strayed far from those humble roots. In the evolution to becoming a more polished and well-rounded car, the Corolla has become a top safety pick. With anti-lock brakes and as many as 6 airbags in 2012 models, the Corolla has become safer than ever. It is also becoming lusher, although the ride quality gets mixed ratings, the level of kit has become increasingly higher and more sophisticated. Features like leather seats have been offered in small cars for some time now, but the Corolla offers parking assist in some models, an option usually reserved for more expensive cars.
Being entertained has also become far more important than performance to most drivers and the Corolla does not disappoint. In addition to having multiple audio options centered around being iPod friendly, the Corolla can be equipped with a audiophile quality JBL sound system with steering wheel mounted controls. These types of options are increasingly becoming common on all cars, regardless of price. This may be one of the reasons the Corolla is not as competitive as it once was because you can get a loaded safe and reliable car from almost anyone now. The Corolla’s high resale value and reputation for quality still carries a lot of weight, but many formally second-rate players like Hyundai and Chevrolet have stepped up to the plate with far more interesting designs.
Still On Top For Now
Just as the competition has stepped up, Toyota seems to be contracting the Corolla line. For 2012 only three models are available and all of them use the smaller 132 hp 1.8 liter four-cylinder. The 16 valve DOHC design uses Toyota’s VVT-I variable valve technology for as much as 34 mpg on the highway. The ‘S’ model formally a lower trim, is now the middle ‘sport model’ and can be had with leather seats and nearly all the options available to Corolla buyers. Over at Honda, the Civic has maintained its Si version for high performance, but the Civic line seems to be going through a kind of identity funk. The same may be true of the Corolla, which now looks like a small Camry, but has Yaris-like performance in all of its models.
The Corolla has maintained its leadership for all these years by staying true to the formula of quality, value and efficacy, but the Elantras and Cruzes of the world are rapidly approaching. The Mazda 3 is infinitely more fun to drive and look at while the Hyundi Elanta offers surprising style and considerable polish for less money. The Camry got a more daring redesign to keep up with the Accord. The Corolla will need nothing less if it wants to stay competitive with the competition that’s rapidly nipping at its bumpers.