Lately the marketing types of the world have been calling it "brand equity," but in the real world it's always been plain old reputation. Carmakers don't get a good reputation just by showing up, they develop one over years by delivering either great or lousy products, treating customers right or like cattle and building cars people either want or ignore. Great word of mouth is a manufacturer's best asset, while a lousy rep is almost impossible to overcome.
No manufacturer is better known for building stalwart, reliable cars than Toyota. And the car that built that reputation was the Corolla.
Just about everyone seems to have a Corolla in their past. Maybe it was the beater you drove through high school, never once changing the oil, cleaning the interior or asking the squirrels to move from their nest in the trunk. Perhaps it was the first new car you bought with just 60 easy payments, or the car your grandmother drove when she decided to simplify her life in retirement. Corollas have been practically ubiquitous and never terribly exciting.
Except for the Land Cruiser, the Corolla name is the oldest in Toyota's current inventory of American products. It's also the first car Toyota made in America. And with over 30 million Corollas sold worldwide, it's the most popular car line in history.
Extreme simplicity was at the core of the first Corolla's engineering. Introduced during 1966 in Japan, the first Corolla came to the United States in the summer of 1968 riding on a 90-inch wheelbase in two-door coupe, four-door sedan and two-door wagon body styles. It was the smallest car Toyota had sold in America up until that time. A 60-horsepower, 1.1-liter overhead valve four-cylinder mounted longitudinally in the engine bay sent power to a four-speed manual transmission and then to a solid rear axle. An automatic transmission wasn't yet on the options list.
The first Corolla's unibody structure had a strut front suspension and mounted the rear axle on a pair of leaf springs. There was nothing sophisticated about the first Corolla and it wasn't pretty, but it was so simple that there were almost no parts to break.
Toyota worked hard through the '60s to overcome the then common perception that Japanese products were shoddy. And cars such as the compact Corona did an effective job of making that point. The Corolla, with prices starting under $1,700, showed that even when Toyota built a smaller, cheaper car, quality didn't suffer.
As good a car as the first Corolla was, it was really too small and underpowered for North American tastes. The second Corolla showed up for the 1970 model year with a wheelbase stretched to 91.9 inches and power coming from a new 1.2-liter version of the OHV four making 73 horsepower. The strut front and leaf spring rear suspension carried forward.
Slight though the nearly two-inch wheelbase stretch may seem, and with minimal styling changes, the 1970 Corolla was a significantly more comfortable and confident machine than the '69 version, and an automatic transmission was now offered to widen its appeal. It quickly became the second best-selling car on the planet.
The Corolla got even better during the 1971 model year as the engine grew to 1.6 liters and output expanded to 102 horsepower. The grille was redesigned for the 1972 model year, becoming fussier to no great aesthetic advantage. There were few changes for either 1973 or 1974 other than larger bumpers to accommodate federal regulations and the introduction of sporty SR5 models with five-speed manual transmissions.
Rather bizarrely styled, the 1975 Corollas featured a raised center section in the grille that carried back to more angular bodies. But then again, a lot of cars from the '70s were bizarrely styled.
A total of five Corolla models was available for 1975. The price leader, a two-door sedan powered by a 1.2-liter engine, was joined by a four-door sedan, a two-door hardtop, a sport-oriented SR5 hardtop and a five-door station wagon all powered by the 1.6-liter four. The standard transmission in all models, except the SR5, was a four-speed manual. A five-speed manual was again standard in the SR5 and optional in the other Corollas. A three-speed automatic was also available. Emissions standards were stiffening during the mid-'70s and a catalytic converter was included in the '75 Corolla for the first time.
A new three-door hatchback was added to the Corolla line for 1976. Called the "Liftback" by Toyota, it looked a bit like a sporty two-door station wagon instead of a traditional fastback or economy car like a Ford Pinto. With a split fold-down rear seat, Toyota hoped the Liftback would account for up to 30 percent of Corolla sales in the United States.
Also introduced for '76, and sharing its front-end styling with the Liftback, was a new Corolla Sport Coupe in both standard and SR5 configurations. The fastback styling of the Sport Coupe gave Toyota a sporty car to sell that was slightly less expensive than the larger Celica.
Front-end styling of the sedans and wagons was modified for 1977 with a more conventional grille but these were never particularly attractive cars; they were overwrought in their details and undistinguished in their shapes. But they seemed to run forever.
The third-generation Corolla played out its life virtually unchanged during the 1978 model year.
With a new chassis, the 1979 Corolla was a more sophisticated and satisfying car than any Corolla before it. But before this generation was through, it would get better still.
The 1979 Corolla finally dispensed with the rugged but primitive leaf spring rear suspension in favor of a more compliant coil spring system (the station wagon continued to use the leaves). The new unibody above that suspension was larger (the wheelbase was now 94.5 inches), stronger and more attractive in a boxy, clean-cut sort of way. A new 75-horsepower, 1.8-liter version of the OHV four powered the new Corolla with four- and five-speed manual and three-speed automatic transmissions available.
Particularly attractive during this generation was the SR5 in Sport Coupe, Hatchback and Liftback semiwagon configurations. With their effective use of detailing, they looked more expensive than they actually were.
While the 1980 and 1981 Corolla lines carried over from 1979 intact, in 1982 the automatic transmission was upgraded to a four-speed unit a rare level of sophistication for an economy car of the era.
The big Corolla news for 1983 was a new 1.6-liter overhead cam engine that was both smoother and more powerful than the previous 1.8. But it was only a hint of what was to come next.
Toyota finally succumbed to the emerging front-drive orthodoxy of the '80s with the introduction of the front-drive Corolla sedan for 1984. However, the SR5 Coupe and Liftback and the station wagon continued atop the previous-generation Corolla's rear-drive chassis.
The front-drive Corolla was as conventional as it had been in a rear-driver layout. The same 1.6-liter, SOHC engine used in the rear-drive Corolla sat transversely in the front-driver's engine bay feeding either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. The rear was held up on coil springs. A few early fifth-generation front-drive Corollas were powered by a four-cylinder diesel.
Midway through the 1984 model year, the rear-drive Corolla coupe and Liftback were offered with a new dual-overhead cam, 16-valve version of the 1.6-liter four rated at a robust 124 horsepower. The resulting Corolla GT-S is now a classic of sorts, a highly tossable, fun-to-drive vehicle that has attracted a cult following of "drifters" who slide their vehicles through corners as a motorsport form in Japan. This DOHC engine, along with the front-drive Corolla's five-speed transaxle, also served as the drivetrain in the midengine MR2, which came to America in early 1985.
Through 1985 and 1986, the Corolla lineup stayed pretty much intact. Then in 1987 a new front-drive Corolla "FX" coupe was introduced. Produced at the NUMMI joint venture production plant in California (run by both Toyota and General Motors), the FX was a conventional hatchback in the Volkswagen Rabbit mold and was available with either the SOHC or DOHC, 1.6-liter engine. When equipped with the DOHC engine, it was known as the FX16. The FX also marked the start of Corolla production in North America.
With the 1988 redesign, the rear-drive Corolla coupe and Liftback were replaced with a new front-drive coupe. While enthusiasts wept, the new Corolla coupe and Corolla GT-S were in fact significantly more refined and capable than the rear-drivers they replaced. They just weren't as much fun.
More conservatively styled than the ultraboxy fifth-generation sedan, the sixth-generation sedan was now built at both the NUMMI plant in California and in Japan, while the coupes and wagons came only from Japan. The station wagon was available with either front-wheel drive or full-time All-Trac all-wheel drive. Trim levels were base DX and better-equipped LE for the sedan, DX and SR5 for the wagon and SR5 and GT-S for the coupe. The FX hatchback was still part of the mix, though it was discontinued after a year.
The sixth-generation Corolla was built using the same 95.6-inch wheelbase as the fifth, but it was almost an inch wider. A slightly different version of the Corolla body (sold in Japan as the Sprinter) with identical mechanical pieces would be built at the NUMMI plant and branded the Geo Prizm. Sedans, coupes and front-drive wagons rode on a fully independent strut suspension, while the All-Trac wagons retained a solid rear axle with coil springs.
All engines were DOHC, 16-valve inline four-cylinders the sedans, front-drive wagon and SR5 coupe got a carbureted 90-hp motor; the All-Trac wagons got a fuel-injected 100-hp version and the GT-S won the day with a 115-hp EFI version. Transmission choices were familiar a standard five-speed manual with the option of a three- or four-speed automatic, depending on the trim level. Thirteen-inch wheels were standard, though the GT-S got 14-inch wheels, as well as four-wheel disc brakes and a six-way adjustable driver seat with sport bolstering. Otherwise, equipment levels on the sixth-generation Corolla were a bit spartan by today's standards as most conveniences, like air conditioning, power steering, dual outside mirrors and a stereo, were optional.
There were no changes for 1989, except for the addition of an All-Trac sedan to the lineup; it lasted only a year. All Corollas benefited from fuel injection in 1990, and the base engine was now rated for 102 hp. Meanwhile, the GT-S enjoyed a significant bump in horsepower now measured at 130 and five additional lb-ft of torque for a total of 105. In addition, an entry-level standard sedan was added to the lineup it had all the basic Corolla equipment, including cloth upholstery, but wore a skinnier set of tires and could only be optioned with the three-speed automatic if you didn't want to shift your own gears.
The coupes were discontinued after the 1991 model year. Aside from a few new paint colors, the only change for 1992 was that you could only get the highline LE sedan with the four-speed automatic.
Significantly larger than the car it replaced (it rode on a 97.0-inch wheelbase), the 1993 Corolla sedan and wagon moved up a size classification from "subcompact" to "compact" according to the EPA. But there were no more Corolla coupes or all-wheel-drive wagons. Sedans were offered in standard, DX and LE trim, while a front-wheel-drive wagon was offered in DX trim only. All cars rode on a fully independent suspension, though DX and LE models benefited from an additional stabilizer bar in front.
Power for the basic Corolla sedan came from the same 1.6-liter engine used in the sixth-generation car (output was 105 hp, except in California, Massachusetts and New York, where it was rated for just 100 due to more stringent emissions requirements), but a new 1.8-liter, DOHC, 16-valve four making 115 horsepower was offered in the ritzier Corolla DX and LE models. A five-speed manual was standard, with a three-speed autobox optional on the base sedan and a four-speed optional on all other models. All cars came with 14-inch wheels and front disc/rear drum brakes; ABS was optional across the line. Height-adjustable seatbelts and a driver-side front airbag were standard in '93; the front passenger got one, too, in 1994. Also new that year were locking retractor seatbelts in passengers' positions and CFC-free refrigerant for cars with air conditioning.
The DX sedan got new upholstery, all audio systems were redesigned and the 1.8-liter engine lost 10 horsepower for 1995 in order to comply with stricter emissions regulations, but it did get a smidge more torque for a total of 117 lb-ft (versus 115 previously). The LE model was discontinued for 1996. Additionally, the front grille received a color-keyed frame and the taillight panels were revised with the DX getting a full-width treatment (the base sedan got gray cladding). Inside, the interior trim was revised, and an integrated child seat was added to the options list. Upgrades to the manual transmission yielded shorter throws, improved feel and more positive gear engagement.
In 1997, the DX wagon was dropped, but a special CE (Classic Edition) sedan was offered and it incorporated a number of popular features in one value-priced package. Among the standard goodies were power windows and locks, A/C, power steering, a four-speaker stereo, manual remote mirrors and special floor mats and exterior badging. All models received additional side-impact protection to meet new federal standards. And for the first time, during '97, all the Corollas sold in the United States were built in North America at the NUMMI plant in California and the TMMC plant in Canada. By the end of the 1997 model year, the Corolla had become the best-selling nameplate in automotive history, overtaking the VW Beetle.
The Corolla grew again in its eighth iteration, but it managed to lose some weight and increase its fuel mileage thanks to a new engine and a generally more efficient drivetrain. The big chunk of that weight savings and drivetrain efficiency came in the form of an all-new, all-aluminum 1.8-liter DOHC four-cylinder engine rated at a healthy 120 horsepower exactly twice what the engine in the first Corolla was rated back in 1968. Fuel economy was improved by 10 percent over the previous generation; with the standard five-speed manual, a Corolla could pull down 31 mpg in the city and 38 on the highway.
Only a sedan was offered this time around, and there were three trim levels base VE, midlevel CE and highline LE. The VE was stuck with an optional three-speed automatic, while CE and LE buyers qualified for the four-speed unit. Equipment levels were much the same as on the previous generation, though base cars now came with power steering and dual exterior mirrors. ABS remained optional on all models, and there were new extras like side airbags and a CD player.
With its simple yet elegant exterior, and handsome interior, the 1998 Corolla was a mature machine among such adolescent competitors as the Honda Civic and Nissan Sentra. It was also comparatively expensive and short on rear-seat legroom, but sales remained strong, with Toyota putting 248,195 Corollas into customers' garages during 1998. The nearly identical Prizm (now badged as a Chevrolet) continued to be built alongside the Corolla at NUMMI.
Changes for 1999 were minor. The VE model was given a cassette stereo, and the LE now came standard with last year's Touring Package items, including a front stabilizer bar, wider 14-inch tires, a tachometer and various exterior cosmetic enhancements. In 2000, the company added its VVT-i variable valve timing system to the 1.8-liter engine, which boosted output to 125 horsepower, made for a fatter torque curve and allowed the Corolla to achieve low emission vehicle (LEV) status. New front and rear fascias, headlights and taillights appeared in 2001, as did a quasisporty S version of this popular compact. S models came with unique wheel covers, foglights, intermittent wipers and color-keyed moldings, mudguards and grille. Inside, it offered sportier upholstery, a tachometer and a faux leather-wrapped wheel. In sum, the S was more about cosmetic upgrades than actual sport. Meanwhile, the base VE model disappeared the CE took its place, along with its unloved three-speed automatic. For 2002, the Corolla line was unchanged, though Toyota lowered the prices for the optional value packages.
While Toyota claimed its 2003 Corolla sedan was designed to attract younger buyers, it actually looked like a shrunken Camry. It could be argued that its inability to attract the youth of America led to the creation of Toyota's Scion brand.
Like every Corolla before it, generation nine was built to provide years of trouble-free driving. It was more comfortable, powerful, spacious and built to a higher quality than before. Still, we were never enamored with this Corolla given the rising quality of its competition. "If you're looking for nothing more than basic transportation," we wrote, "the Corolla — particularly a loaded-up version — seems a bit like overkill. There are a number of sedans that offer equivalent accommodations, features and performance for considerably less money."
The ninth-generation Corolla rode on a 102.4-inch wheelbase, which was more than 5 inches longer than before, and just 0.7 inch shorter than the contemporary Honda Civic sedan. But at 178.3 inches in overall length, it was 3.7 inches longer than that Civic. In fact, this Corolla had exactly the same wheelbase as the original 1983 Camry and stretches out 2.7 inches longer than that car.
The engine was an evolutionary development of the all-aluminum 1.8-liter, DOHC, 16-valve engine from the previous Corolla and was rated at 130 hp (later downgraded to 126 hp because of a change in horsepower measurement procedure). The five-speed manual transmission's shifter was precise, while the available four-speed automatic was smooth and cooperative. Either powertrain provided the unlikely combination of above-average performance along with class-leading fuel economy. The Corolla still wasn't as sharp a handler as more athletic rivals such as the Ford Focus, Mazda Proteg´ and Nissan Sentra, but that didn't matter to the primary audience who appreciated the Corolla's light steering and soft, quiet ride.
Equipment levels were also up in the original three trim levels: CE, S and LE. Even the base CE came with air-conditioning with micron filtration, a CD player, power mirrors and 15-inch wheels. The S basically added a body kit for a sportier appearance. The LE went the opposite route, with a luxury ambiance provided by fake wood accents and optional leather upholstery.
Changes were few during this Corolla's lifespan. For 2005, the XRS trim debuted boasting a 170-hp 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and sport-tuned suspension. That year also saw a minor exterior refresh, as well as side curtain airbags, stability control and a JBL upgraded stereo added to the options list. For 2007, the XRS trim was discontinued along with the LE's leather trim option.
The tenth-generation Toyota Corolla was introduced for 2009 offering evolutionary changes from its predecessor. Toyota stayed the course with its bread-and-butter economy sedan, offering styling that blended into the crowd. Not only was it similar in appearance to its predecessor, but the 2009 Corolla was virtually the same size — only its added width provided a bit more hip- and shoulder room.
Under the hood, the 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine got a boost in horsepower up to 132. A five-speed manual was standard, while a four-speed automatic was optional. This new generation saw the return of the sport-tuned XRS trim level, although this time it came equipped with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder good for 158 hp. It came attached to a five-speed manual or five-speed automatic transmission.
While the Corolla's size didn't grow much, its trim level selection did: base, LE, S, XLE and XRS. The base car had air-conditioning and a CD stereo with auxiliary audio jack, but for power windows and locks you'd have to step up to the LE. As before, the S was a quasi-sport trim with appearance items rather than the XRS's actual performance and handling upgrades. The XLE gained some additional niceties, but items like navigation, leather and a sunroof were options reserved for the XRS. For 2010, stability control became standard across the board.
Sadly, with the last few generations, the Corolla seemed to take a few steps back in terms of interior quality. A slew of dramatically improved competitors from Mazda and Hyundai had something to do with this, but the quality of materials and fit and finish were far from the class-leading levels the Corolla was once known for. Space was still good, though, with rear passengers benefiting from the new car's added width.
From behind the wheel, the Corolla was unremarkable. It once again had a comfortable, quiet ride, but provided little confidence behind the wheel. As Chief Road Test Editor Chris Walton wrote, "To say the Corolla's steering feel is vague would be to credit it with any feel, of which it has none. Practically no information is transmitted from tires to the driver's hands, leaving you to guess and approximate how much turning is needed. We understand that people like low-effort steering for parking lots and low-speed maneuvers, but it shouldn't come at the expense of car control."
While the tenth-generation Toyota Corolla will likely keep its status as the world's best-selling car nameplate — especially in these days of fuel-economy consciousness — its popularity won't necessarily be because it's the world's best compact sedan.