The Toyota Corolla is the best-selling nameplate, globally, in the history of the automobile, having moved well over 40 million cars into the hands of owners.
This is, in part, because Corolla is one of the nameplates with the greatest longevity, having existed continuously since its introduction to the world market 50 years ago in 1966. But its sales still best competitors like the Volkswagen Beetle, which ran off assembly lines for 65 years and sold just 21.5 million units. This is in part because the Corolla exists in a broadly increasing global marketplace, so it doesn’t require a near-monopolistic share like the Ford Model T had during its peak, when it controlled 50 percent of U.S. car sales on its way to selling 16.5 million cars over 19 years.
But the Corolla is an intriguing case among super-sellers, because it generally lacks the smile- (or sigh-) inducing charm of some of its cohorts. The Model T was underpowered and under-engineered, but it is credited with huge advancements in production and labor, and it put America on wheels. The Beetle was a Nazi-designed rattletrap, but its undeniable charm and iconoclasm ingratiated it improbably to leftist radicals. Even the VW Golf (42 years, 32 million sales), with its Giugiaro-derived design and German handling, seems exhilarating in contrast to the Corolla.
So how did this quotidian econobox triumph to become not only a global powerhouse, but a model name eligible for entry into the AARP and—just last month—the best-selling car in America?
Turns out the answer has more to do with excellent timing, blanketing ubiquity and indefatigable branding than any transcendent innovations, a formula that seems poised always to make the Corolla vulnerable to superior competitors. Or to allow it to maintain its category-dominating status as a kind of proprietary eponym—the Kleenex, Thermos or Aspirin of the automotive world. Not better, just undeniably present. The story, like all good ones, is both obvious and complex.
Where did it come from?
Toyota entered the American market in the late ’50s with the Crown, an underpowered, overpriced sedan that looked like a 6:10-scale 1953 Ford Customline made of tinfoil. The reaction was not enthusiastic.
“In the ’50s, the Japanese were not really a factor in the industry,” says automotive historian, curator and author Ken Gross. “The general feeling was that these were odd cars. They were small. Japanese quality was still in question. And they weren’t built for American conditions.”
Bob Lutz, who held prominent executive positions with all three of the large domestic automakers (GM, Ford, Chrysler) in the latter part of the 20th century, put it more succinctly: “I think initially, we weren’t taking Japanese cars very seriously,” he says. “The vast majority of Americans viewed them as a joke.”
But the American market was temptingly aspirational and deep, and the Japanese manufacturers knew they needed to be competitive here in order to succeed globally. So when Toyota designed its next generation of automotive successors—the Corona came stateside in 1965; the Corolla arrived here in 1968—they tried to keep Amer-ican tastes in mind, with enhanced appointments, acceptable potency and some creature comforts.
Consumers began to take notice. But only certain consumers, ones clustered on the coasts—mainly the West Coast, where automotive tastes, like tastes for most other things, have always been more open to experimentation.
“You have to remember that the automobile industry is in the Midwest,” Lutz says. “Back in the days of the VW Beetle, when they sold 100,000 units a year in the States, there weren’t that many in the Midwest. But on the fringes, you saw the darn things everywhere.” By 1970, Toyota was the second-best-selling import brand in the country, after VW, but the marque held only 2 percent of the market overall, almost all of it sequestered away from Motown. The Big Three controlled 82 percent. “We thought it was a passing fad,” Lutz says.
All of this changed with the fuel crises in the ’70s. Fuel economy suddenly became a big issue for a broader swath of consumers. And the Japanese manufacturers, who had been working consistently on reliability and creative engineering, were ready with a host of unique, parsimonious vehicles. Meanwhile, the American manufacturers were thrown into a tailspin, needing to respond all at once to a wide range of federal emissions, safety and fuel-economy standards they had been battling willfully for decades.
“By that time, the Japanese manufacturers did stand for quality and, certainly, fuel economy. And in a few years, they were in the lead concerning emissions, rather than fighting the federal government,” Gross says. “So the Corolla, like great high-volume cars before, began to attract a wider range of loyal customers. It’s all building blocks. But circumstances like the fuel crisis, quality control and the arrogance of American car companies, all of this worked in Toyota’s favor.”
Annual Corolla sales in America increased 135 percent between 1972 and 1980, from 109,000 to 257,000.
Even Lutz admits to the Corolla’s perfect timing and ideal marketplace positioning, especially vis-à-vis the domestic competition. “The Corolla became the epitome of the reasonable Japanese car,” he says. “And you know what, the quality was excellent, the reliability was bulletproof—whereas the people who were buying American cars in ’79, ’80, ’81 had nothing but problems.”
This set up a freefall for the Big Three and a surge for the Japanese. Toyota produced its 5 millionth Corolla in 1976. It produced its 10 millionth in 1983. By 1981, the share of the domestic market that the Big Three controlled had declined to 72 percent, and nearly all that loss went to the Japanese, whose share more than quintupled. That year, Toyota and Honda combined sold more cars than Chrysler.
“After that happened, momentum took over,” Lutz says. “The Corolla was no-nonsense. It was not exciting. It set no benchmarks in terms of ride, handling, styling, braking. It was just an average car. But that’s what people wanted. It was like what Ford and Chevrolet used to be in the old days, that became the Corolla. And Toyota never looked back.”
What happened next?
While Toyota remained focused on the functional equities of quality, reliability and global sales domination, the Big Three floundered, losing control of their ability to make products they’d once excelled at.
Using the Corolla’s compact, rear-wheel-drive platform as its Trojan Horse, Toyota took aim at some additional segments in the 1970s and ’80s, producing vehicles that capitalized on the brand’s growing reputation for durability and engineering, but adding in emotional elements of fun and adventure.
Toyota introduced the SR5 variant of the Corolla, a sporty-looking two-door that took its physical and nomenclatural inspiration from the brand’s larger Celica sport coupe, with alloy wheels, racing stripes and upgraded suspension bits. This performance trajectory reached its pinnacle with the 1984 Corolla GT-S, known as the AE86. The last model before Corolla’s switch to a front-wheel-drive platform, the AE86 has achieved cult status for its wedgy good looks and driftable tossability.
“I am personally a huge fan of Corollas because of the AE86,” says Ben Hsu, publisher, writer and web director of vintage Asian car site Japanese Nostalgic Car. “It’s almost like an inside joke, where enthusiasts joke about it being just a Corolla, but they love it as much as someone would love a Mustang or a Ferrari.”
Other fun, high-revving models followed, even after the move away from a traditional RWD layout. “In the late ’80s, there was the FX16 hatchback that has a cult following and the front-drive GT-S coupe, which had a twin-cam engine with fuel injection; there’s a cult following for them,” Hsu says. “We were doing a photo shoot with some of these cult classics, and some younger people came up to (us) and were like, ‘This is a Corolla?’ They didn’t know a Corolla could be cool.”
The enthusiasm extended to the outdoor adventure market, as well, with the Corolla All-Trac Wagon of 1988. A high-roofed five-door, the vehicle almost functions as a precursor to the popular compact crossovers of today, a segment Toyota helped to invent with the RAV4, underpinned by many Corolla components.
But the Corolla’s overall popularity tended to ebb and flow not with the number or quality of hip enthusiast models available, but—as with most smaller, fuel-efficient cars in America—with the price of gasoline. The annual sales figures for the nameplate generally mirror the retail price of a gallon of gas; when prices go up, so do sales.
Toyota is a very rational company and, by the 1990s, seemed to have taken seriously the message embedded in these sales figures. If the Corolla’s sales were to be tied to it being a basic, reliable, value-based economy car, then this was the path the brand should pursue for it, without wavering. Other products in the larger lineup could be fun, active, luxurious or technologically sophisticated. Born as basic transportation, the Corolla returned to its roots.
“It used to be an economy car, but it could also be a fun enthusiast car,” Hsu says. “Now it’s become generic. Like when you go to Wal-mart and buy generic Aspirin.”
What's still to come?
The strategy seems to be working, as far as pure sales are concerned. The Corolla has had some of its highest annual sales in the past three or four years, surging well past the 300,000-unit mark. In
an era of fluctuating fuel prices and geopolitical uncertainty, this makes sense. The Corolla is safe, secure, tenable.
“The majority is looking for a good value point, and these cars now have a value that’s been redefined from just a low price in the segment to a reasonable combination of content, safety, reliability and fabulous fuel economy,” says Andrew Coetzee, Toyota’s VP of product planning. “And maybe it’s something they can hand down to someone in the family.”
The objective data reinforces this interpretation. Corolla buyers are almost entirely rational in their decision-making. Intriguingly, this sense of rationality is not necessarily supported by consumers’ actual experience with the car. “The Corolla has been just average in product delivery for the past 20 years,” says Alex-ander Edwards, president of South-ern California automotive research and consulting firm Strategic Vision, which conducts in-depth emotional satisfaction surveys with tens of thousands of new-car owners every year upon and after purchase. The continuing popularity and sales of the nameplate are thus supported not by the fundamental strength of the actual vehicle, but by the potent Toyota brand halo. “It’s the brand equity that sells the vehicle,” Edwards says.
This is an enviable position, in some ways, because it means competitors who are producing worthy vehicles will have a more challenging point of entry and may not be able to transcend strong brand barriers. “The mere fact that you are producing a car that’s superior to the Corolla—better styling, performance, packaging, economy—does not guarantee you’ll knock the Corolla off the perch,” says Lutz.
“As an automobile, it’s not very good,” he continues. “They have something going, like a successful cosmetics brand, and they’re being very careful not to mess it up. They’ll never do a bold Corolla.”
But in an expanding and splintering marketplace, with an increasingly educated consumer, and in anindustry facing significant changes, product is likely to be the future’s key focus. Brand, even one like Toyota’s, may not be enough.
“Relying on brand strength does not last forever, as competitors with strong product attributes will begin to eat away at your equity,” says Edwards. “If you doubt me, just ask former No. 1 brand Oldsmobile.”
In the short term, we may not see much change in the Corolla. But in planning for the next 25 or 50 years, Toyota spokespeople do not rule out making bigger leaps in innovation, ones that will give the product increasing precedence. “When you ask if there could be sporty iterations or hybrids, those are all possibilities,” says Coetzee. “I’m not sure if it’s something that flies or, maybe in the future, cars will clean the air?”
Or, perhaps, in more typical Toyota fashion, it could be something simpler, safer and more superficial. “I noticed that plaid seats are coming back,” Coetzee says. “So maybe we’ll bring some of that back.”
This article first appeared in the December 12 issue of Autoweek magazine. Get your subscription here.
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