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The 1989 Corolla started rolling out of Toyota’s new plant in Cambridge, Ont. (toyota)
The 1989 Corolla started rolling out of Toyota’s new plant in Cambridge, Ont. (toyota)

1989 Toyota Corolla

Made-in-Canada Corolla has come a long way in 25 years Add to ...

As an automotive pundit, it’s reassuring to have an occasional prediction prove spot-on – even if it takes a quarter of a century – as has been the case with my sage comment, made in a review of one of the first Corollas built at Toyota’s newly opened Cambridge, Ont., plant 25 years ago.

“If they can keep up the good work when production volumes reach 50,000, as planned in 1990, the Corolla shouldn’t have any problem retaining its popularity with Canadian car buyers,” is what I wrote after a 1989 road test of one of the newly minted Canuck Corollas.

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Since then, Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada has knocked out three million of them, and Canadian Toyota dealers have sold 1.3 million. And it looks like success, for both the plant – which has now built five million Toyota and Lexus vehicles, and seen employment rise from 1,000 to 7,000 – and the Corolla, will continue.

Toyota is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the production line start-up in November, 1988 – with then-chairman Eiji Toyoda himself on hand to take a look at what his $400-million investment had produced. And earlier this month, Toyota Canada unveiled the 11th generation of the Corolla, which has become the best-selling nameplate in automotive history, with 40 million produced, and is still being built in Cambridge.

But even back in the day, my prediction was a safe one, as I noted the Corolla had been popular since shortly after the first few rolled off the boat in September, 1967, among the first heralds of what would soon become a flood of diminutive cars from Japan.

This first-generation Corolla had been unveiled in Japan a year earlier, and was a small car by North American standards of the day, with just 3,848 mm between its bumpers.

It was also a basic rear-wheel-drive design, with strut-type independent front and live axle rear suspension, small drum brakes, narrow tires and a 1,077-cc overhead-valve engine that made 60 hp, coupled to a four-speed manual, or two-speed automatic.

Getting to 100 km/h with the manual required a lengthy 16-plus seconds, and likely a lot more than that with the automatic. But with a price tag of $2,050, it was inexpensive, cheap to run and reliable. And well-equipped by subcompact econo-car standards of the time, with features that included front seats that folded to make a bed.

The sedan was joined in 1968 by the sporty, fastback Sprinter, which Canadian car magazine Track and Traffic glowingly described as “the finest value for dollar sports sedan available on the Canadian market.”

Succeeding generations increased Corolla’s sales acceleration, and the move to front-wheel-drive with the fifth generation of 1984 brought the model range into line with the modern world.

By the late 1980s, Corollas had become bigger and more refined, and would continue this theme through subsequent iterations in the 1990s, the first decade of the new century, and with the 2014 models, which go on sale in September.

The redesigned-for-1988, sixth-generation Corolla that emerged from the Canadian factory 25 years ago was as different from the original as it is from the new 11th generation.

By 1989, the base price for a sedan (station wagons were also offered) had gone from $2,050 to $11,998, and the mid-range LE listed for $14,343, with a four-wheel-drive version available for a few hundred more (2013 models start at $15,450 and top out at $20,605).

The test LE – number 40 of the 200 completed by year-end, as production slowly ramped up – came with optional power windows and locks, Nautical Blue Mica metallic paint, cruise control and floor mats, and tallied a “surprising” $15,668.

I did note that for this much-elevated price, “of course, you’re getting a lot more car.” And you were, the Corolla had grown by 477 mm since 1967, and weight had gone up from 705 kg to 1,020 kg (2013s are 210 mm longer than that, and weigh 1,230 kg, and the new 2014s are even bigger).

It was also equipped with a 1.6-litre, twin-overhead-cam, 16-valve engine producing 90 hp, which only a few super-sporty 1960s-era cars could boast. But while a third better than 60 hp, this didn’t make the much-heavier, five-speed manual equipped ’89 very quick. Getting to 100 km/h required about 12 seconds (a 2013 does it in less than nine), with 80 km/h to 120 km/h in third gear taking 10 seconds.

The 1989 model’s fuel economy ratings were 7.9 litres/100 km city and 6.1 highway, but jumped to 10.4 city/7.8 highway with the three-speed automatic (2013 model are rated at 7.4 city/5.6 highway for the manual and 7.8 city/5.7 highway for the four-speed automatic).

The all-independent suspension was set up on the “soft side” and I opined it needed firmer dampers to “tether it a bit tighter.” Overall handling was “acceptable” for a family car riding on “rather skinny 155/80R13 all-season tires.” The disc/drum brakes were okay, with good control, and only began to exhibit fade after four hard stops.

In my review, I complimented the front seats, simple white on black instrument array, decent trunk space, 60/40-split rear seatback, and “luxury features” such as tilt-wheel, cruise control, power mirrors, intermittent wipers, full carpeting and power steering. But I complained about awkward-to-use power window controls, lack of rear headroom and a “low-buck AM/FM radio with no cassette player.”

Summing up, though, I wrote this first made-in-Canada Corolla was “a typical small family sedan of the 1980s” and “a worthy successor to those that pioneered the way for Toyota in Canada.”

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