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A Look Back at the Toyota Corolla

The Toyota Corolla might rightly be called the Japanese VW Beetle. Introduced in 1966, the Corolla has sold more than 40 million copies, beloved by people around the globe for its no-nonsense approach to affordable and reliable transportation. Over its 11 generations, the Corolla sometimes strayed from its original mission but never forgot its roots and the customers who helped make it Toyota’s most successful-selling car of all time.

Taking America by Storm

The first Corolla rolled onto our shores in 1968. It was a rather unassuming car, at least by American standards. The tiny Corolla rode on a diminutive 90-inch wheelbase and was powered by an 1,100cc engine that sent power to the rear wheels by way of a 4-speed manual transmission. Body styles included a coupe, sedan and wagon. Sturdy and priced well under $2,000, the Corolla was affordable, but not quite up to the standards of size and power Americans had come to expect from cars.

All that changed with the second generation, launched in 1970. This Corolla grew one inch at the wheels and received a more powerful 1,600cc (1.6-liter) 102-horsepower engine. Through Toyota’s process of constant improvement (a process known as “kaizen” in Japan), the second-generation Toyota Corolla added the type of optional features expected by American consumers, such as an automatic transmission, an AM/FM stereo and air conditioning. By the mid-1970s, the Corolla lineup began to expand, adding new styling and the introduction of the sporty SR5 trim that featured a 5-speed manual transmission, sport bucket seats and sporty wheels.

1975 saw the launch of the third-generation Corolla. Improvements to the Corolla’s engine, braking, steering and overall comfort helped propel it to the top of the sales charts. Of course, high gas prices and a public wary of the trouble-prone American cars of the day didn’t hurt sales, either. A 3-door wagon liftback model joined the sedan, coupe and wagon. While the Corolla showed marked improvement over the last generation, many critics of the day felt that it had been overtaken by less-expensive and better-handling cars such as the Honda Civic and Datsun 210.

Toyota Comes Out Swinging

1979 saw the introduction of the fourth-generation Corolla to the U.S. market — and the changes were monumental. The 1979 car was larger and featured squared-off styling, a larger interior and attractive option packages. A coil-spring suspension replaced the previous generation’s leaf setup, and a new 75-hp 1.8-liter engine was offered. The 3-door liftback model proved particularly popular with younger buyers, many of whom saw it as a less expensive equivalent to the base Ford Mustang.

A fifth-generation Corolla debuted in 1984 and offered the most diverse and wide-ranging model lineup in the car’s history; it would also mark the first time a Corolla was built in the U.S. at the joint GM-Toyota NUMMI plant in California. The sedan’s drivetrain switched from rear to front drive, although the liftback, coupe and wagon remained rear drive. In 1984, Toyota developed a 16-valve version of its 1.6-liter engine. This sporty dual-overhead-camshaft powerplant gave rise to the Corolla GT-S liftback, which was followed in 1986 by the sporty Corolla FX hatchback. Both cars were taking aim at the popular VW Rabbit/GTI cars and therefore offered such upgrades as sport seats, unique alloy wheels, a stiffer suspension, a 5-speed manual transmission and custom paint and decals.

1988 brought the sixth-generation Corolla to market by moving all models and trims to the front-drive platform. The Corolla again gained a bit more size and power, plus more upscale features and a larger price tag. The most significant change to the Corolla line was the addition of the all-wheel-drive All-Trac wagon and the discontinuation of the FX hatchback. Power for the GT-S coupe jumped to 135 hp, while an All-Trac sedan was offered for one model year only. 1991 also saw the introduction of a special 25th-anniversary Corolla edition (marked from the 1966 introduction of the car in Japan).

1993 saw the introduction of a larger but more conservative seventh-generation Corolla. Model trims consisted of a base, DX and LE, with the latter two trims using a more powerful 1.8-liter engine. The Corolla coupe and all-wheel-drive wagon were banished from the line, a move that, in the minds of many, turned away younger buyers. By 1997, even the wagon was gone, leaving only the Corolla sedan to carry on. 1997 also marked the year in which the Corolla booted VW’s Beetle as the best-selling car on the planet.

Older, But Not Necessarily Wiser

While the Corolla line started as a fun, youthful car with multiple variations, the eighth generation was reduced to a single compact sedan competing mainly with the Honda Civic, Nissan Sentra and Ford Escort. Sharing much of itself with the Chevrolet Prism (the two cars were built alongside each other at the NUMMI plant), the 1998 Corolla retained the upper hand in both sales and resale numbers.

1999 saw the ninth generation continue down the path started by the eighth-generation car: a single sedan body style with multiple trims ranging from basic CE to the sporty S and the upscale LE. Feeling the pinch from sedans such as the VW Jetta and Mazda3, the 2005 XRS trim debuted, offering a sportier appearance, a 170-hp 2.4-liter engine and a sport suspension. But younger buyers just weren’t interested, and Toyota dropped the XRS after a short 2-year run. The ninth-generation car also began to suffer some quality issues previously unknown to Toyota.

The 10th-generation Corolla saw little improvement from the ninth-generation car, at least in the areas of excitement and design. Quality was improved, and while fuel economy and resale figures remained high, competition from Hyundai, Ford, Honda, Mazda and VW demanded more from the world’s largest automaker and the world’s most successful nameplate.

The Comeback of Sorts

Introduced in 2014, the 11th generation to wear the Corolla name returned a sense of youthful vitality. Although still offered only in sedan form, the current Corolla is far more competitive than the car it replaced. In truth, only the Corolla’s styling and interior are new; its engine and most of its suspension are pretty much carried over from the 10th-generation car with a few tweaks. Still, it’s enough to hold the Corolla’s position as the best-selling compact on the planet — even if it no longer can be called the best car in its class.

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Joe Tralongo
Joe Tralongo
Joe Tralongo is a longtime contributor who started in the industry writing competitive comparison books for a number of manufacturers, before moving on in 2002 to become a freelance automotive journalist. He’s well regarded for his keen eye for detail, as well as his ability to translate complex mechanical terminology into user-friendly explanations. Joe has worked for a number of outlets as... Read More about Joe Tralongo

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