The cars we loved.
Sometimes the most popular things can be the most mediocre by the standards of others. Take the Toyota Corolla for instance. It’s been America’s favorite small car for longer than most people can remember. As such it tried to be all things to all people and has done a good job of being dependable transportation for millions of buyers all over the world.
Whether the Corolla is good or great depends on who you ask. Performance enthusiast’s complain of the lack of steering feel, a too soft suspension and blend-in-the-background looks. On the flip end of that equation the Corolla gets constant praise from non-enthusiast media like Consumer Reports and The J.D. Powers and Associates.
So when the 10th generation Corolla made its debut in 2006, Toyota hoped to appeal to both camps, at least cosmetically. Research suggests that most buyers of the Corolla were older females. To make the car more appealing to younger (males), Toyota sent a team of designers and engineers to Italy for a few months for inspiration.
The Italian exposure resulted in a bigger car for the American market. There were many types of Corolla available overseas, many of them offering far more performance that our rather limited model range. For the U.S., the middle “S” and top model “XRS” models featured ground effects that looked like stuck on appendages. The 1.8-liter four cylinder engine found in everything but the XRS, made 128 hp while returning up to 35 mpg with the five speed manual. A more powerful 2.3-liter 158 hp engine was available in the more upmarket XRS.
Like the sporty looking S model the XRS featured a ground effects kit, rear spoiler and fog lights. Larger 17 in alloy wheels made it look like some kind of small Lexus, especially if equipped with the leather interior. Despite having a few TRD performance items, the XRS and S models performed no better than regular models of the Corolla.
The basic look of the Corolla would be refined in 2009. Finally, the aero enhancements did not look so aftermarket as the car seemed to come together agreeably. With only minor cosmetic alterations, the Corolla continued to sell well.
That was perhaps deliberate as research still showed that buyers wanted some style but were not willing to sacrifice the reliability and dependability the Corolla was known for. So as in the past, the Corolla continued to live a double life. One of America’s favorite cars continued to be dissed by the performance media and loved by a certain magazine known for rating consumer appliances. The Corolla for all intents and purposes was the ultimate appliance. It started when its owners needed it to and floated them down the road quietly and comfortably, perhaps better than most anything in its class. There was no need for superb cornering as most Corollas were more likely to do parking lot maneuvers than SCCA events.
Even as the competition upped the ante, Toyota remain content to sell Corollas that had what many observed as lower quality interior materials. Despite the perceptual loss of material quality, the dash and control layout remained top notch and a model of stylish simplicity. Even as cars with lesser resale value from Ford, Dodge and Hyundai made tremendous gains, the Corolla continued to out sell them even as it fell further behind in some respects.
Toyota’s complacency lagged as a redesigned 11th generation car arrived for 2014. It was more fun to drive while maintaining the value proposition that the Corolla is known for. The old argument about the Corolla being designed as first and foremost a practical affordable car vs. a small and fun to drive car has been blurred somewhat with the new model, although its looks are more aggressive than its performance capabilities. Either way, millions of content drivers can’t be wrong right?