It all comes down to this: what, really, is a good car? And what is a car good for?
The “beige” Corolla has become an automotive meme of our times, invoked by driving enthusiasts as the archetypal ride of timid, disengaged drivers meandering along the road oblivious to the frustration and rage they cause among those held up behind them.
And yet, can 100 million customers be wrong? On October 20, 1966, Toyota unveiled the first-generation Corolla. As we hit the car's 50th anniversary, more than 40 million have been built and we’re assuming each has had at least two owners.
Besides, many a traffic slow-up is caused not by slow drivers but by a broken-down car and, let’s face it, the chances of that stalled car being a Corolla are slim.
So, if automotive goodness is defined by intangibles like emotional engagement or self-indulgence fed by sportiness or luxury or the envy of onlookers, then car connoisseurs’ scorn for the Corolla is understandable.
But if the purpose of a car is to be easy to drive, painless to own and to reliably get you where you want to go, the Corolla might be the greatest automobile ever created.
GENERATION 1 (E10)
The first-generation Corolla was designed primarily for a period of rapid motorization in an increasingly affluent Japanese economy. Still, it set the stage for future export success by adopting features that were firsts for Japan but expected elsewhere, such as a floor-mounted shifter (to suit European tastes) and a relatively large 1.1-litre engine for North America. It also set itself apart by incorporating standard amenities unexpected in its price class. It seems hard to believe, but rear back-up lights, standard on every Corolla from day one, were a rarity even on pricier cars back then.
Corolla has long been stereotyped as a car of uniformly supreme adequacy, but in 1966 the chief engineer described the thinking behind the Corolla like this: “Shooting for a score of 80 for a vehicle means having no failing marks, but we can’t accept a score of just 80 for each part; some parts have to get above 90.”
At a time when many European small cars were rear-engined or front-wheel drive, the Corolla’s basic layout was conservative – front engine, rear-wheel drive, solid rear axle and cart-spring rear suspension. It was offered in two- or four-door sedan, two-door wagon and coupe versions, and was smaller than today’s subcompact Yaris hatchback.
Car and Driver magazine’s first road test of the 1968 Corolla said it has “everything that’s normally found on a real car but it just doesn’t take up much space.”
The magazine called the car’s handling “delightful” and, despite some criticisms of ride, crosswind stability and interior headroom (the test vehicle was the Sprinter coupe), C&D concluded: “It’s pretty obvious that some very sound basic thinking went into the Corolla to provide a useful car in a small package. The result is that Toyota owners will not be burdened by annoyances other imported cars impose.”
The high praise of Corolla’s handling may surprise some of us today, but the car’s absence of annoyances seems highly prophetic. Likewise, Road & Track’s comment, “For such an economical car, the Corolla is exceedingly well finished – this seems to be Toyota’s outstanding virtue these days.”
GENERATION 2 (E20)
By the time the E20 launched in 1970, more than a million Corollas had been sold in less than four years, and it was already being built offshore in Australia and Malaysia. Toyota’s approach was understandably tempered with thoughts of “don’t mess with success.” The basic front-engine/rear-drive (FR) formula continued. Curvier styling was accompanied by an increase in size, though overall length was still smaller than most modern subcompact hatchbacks. The new design dispensed with quarter-light windows and added fresh-air vents on the dashboard.
But if the redesign didn’t go deep, it went wide, with more body variations and an aggressive expansion of sporty models, including the Levin (as it was called in Japan) coupe.
Pushed by a young designer who was a fan of European-style rallying, a high-performance double-overhead-camshaft (DOHC) 1.6-litre engine joined the common-or-garden 1.2 or 1.4 engines. A racing adaption of this 2T-G twin-cam would later power Ayrton Senna to the 1983 Formula 3 championship that was his springboard to Formula One.
GENERATION 3 (E30/E50)
By the time the Gen-3 Corolla arrived, the world had experienced its first oil shock. Even North Americans suddenly cared about fuel economy, and Corolla was perfectly positioned to exploit the sudden attraction to small, imported cars. Exports took off.
Still hewing to the FR layout, the E30/E50 grew in width more than in length while adding (depending on the market) even more body styles, including pillarless hardtop, and a three-door liftback that was especially popular in North America. The design looked sharper and more angular, yet also was honed in the wind tunnel for the first time. Toyota’s stated goal was to solidify Corolla’s foundation, while development leader Shirou Sasaki insisted the Corolla should not “strive to be the honour student in the area of costs.”
“If you dutifully obey cost planning, no matter what you do, you will end up heading in the direction of a cheap, shoddy product,” he said. “A car is an expensive purchase to customers, so ultimately the ‘better product’ will be happily purchased even if it is slightly more expensive.”
During the Gen-3 Corolla’s run, Corolla added its fourth overseas plant, in South Africa; production reached 5 million in 1976.
As tested with a 1.2-litre engine (1.4s and 1.6s were available in other markets), the Liftback was described by Britain’s Motor magazine as “a neatly packaged car that is well equipped, easy to drive, versatile, economical and quite refined.” On the downside, “performance, road-holding and seat comfort bettered by some cheaper rivals.”
GENERATION 4 (E70)
In the late 1970s, economies were recovering from the oil shock and Corolla was reborn with a mandate to combine excellent fuel economy with “luxury car status and features … to prevent the baby boomer generation from switching over to higher-class vehicles.”
The new body shape was touted as aerodynamic, with a slanted nose and higher rear deck. The layout was still defiantly FR, but a more sophisticated coil-spring rear suspension was installed. According to Toyota lore, chief engineer Fumio Agetsuma had taken it to heart when, on a visit to Holland some years previously, the president of an advertising agency had showed him a horse-drawn carriage and commented on the similarities between its cart springs and those of the Corolla.
Another cautious mechanical modernization saw the switch to rack-and-pinion steering – but only on models with the base 1.3-litre engine. For fear of scaring off loyal customers used to the old recirculating-ball technology (which tends to be vague, but has little kickback), Corollas with the larger engines kept the old system.
This generation of the Corolla was also the first to feature a diesel option; and, when equipped with the twin-cam engine, featured four-wheel disc brakes.
The line-up was comprehensive – two- and four-door sedans, hardtop, coupe, liftback and a two-door wagon joined later by a four-door wagon. For the first time body size edged past 4 metres, but even the sedan was still smaller than today’s subcompact Yaris sedan.
During Gen-4’s life-cycle, Corolla production surpassed the VW Golf and reached 10 million in 1983.
In Britain, Motor magazine wrote of a 1.3-litre sedan, “The theme remains the same … the fourth-generation Corolla shows competence in all departments and star quality in none, but represents good value overall.”
In 1982, the sporty twin-cam two-door models – now with four-wheel disc brakes to go with their modern rear suspension – were laying the foundations of what would become an apparent oxymoron: a Corolla that was also a petrol-head cult car.
GENERATION 5 (E80)
Toyota finally took a deep breath and reingineered Corolla into a modern front-wheel drive design (well, mostly). Ironically, however, the versions that stayed with rear-wheel drive were destined to spawn one of the best-loved Toyotas of all time.
The sedan made the switch to front-wheel drive, and was joined by five-door hatchback models to suit European tastes. Actually there were two five-door versions, one with a longer, curved rear profile that design chief Agetsuma predicted “will create a new trend in world car designs.”
Meanwhile, the wagon continued on the old FR architecture – and so did the coupes in their notchback and liftback forms. At the same time, the trusty 2T-G twin-cam engine (the one that helped propel Ayrton Senna into Formula One) was replaced by a new 4A-GE twin-cam that had four valves per cylinder. Today, everything has this layout, but in 1983 … well, let’s put it this way: Ferrari’s first 4-valve engine beat the Toyota into production by less than a year.
Car and Driver would later rank the 4A-GE sixth overall in its list of the best naturally-aspirated engines of all time.
Put that gem into a light rear-wheel-drive coupe with four-wheel-disc brakes and a well-tied down rear suspension, and you have the legendary AE86 – a boy-racer’s dream, and the car that almost invented the sport of drifting.
Still, the 4A-GE was too good an engine to restrict to specialty models like the AE86, especially in the era of the hot hatchback. In a flagrant challenge to the VW Golf GTI, Toyota turned the engine sideways and made it available in the front-wheel hatchback. “It gives even the best of its European rivals a severe test,” wrote Motor. In the United States, (where emissions equipment cost the engine some power) Car and Driver wrote, “Whatever the FX16 may lack in sheer horsepower, it compensates for handsomely in handling, in ride quality, and in overall fun-to-drive personality.”
GENERATION 6 (E90)
Corolla’s next redesign came at a time when the economy was good in Japan, yet Toyota perceived a shift away from materialism to more mindful inner values. Adopting a theme of “high-quality time”, development leader Akihiko Saito mused, “Wouldn’t it be nice if the quietness and riding comfort of the Crown and the attractive appearance of the Mark II (Cressida) were achieved in a vehicle the size of the Corolla?”
While the styling evolved to an elegant simplicity, all models switched to the front-wheel drive architecture. As well, 16-valve engines – still a rarity in mainstream cars – spread through the Corolla range. The seminal 4A-GE 1.6-litre hi-po version continued in the coupe – there was even a supercharged version – but the FWD Gen-6er never recaptured the enthusiast following of the AE86.
One exception to the FWD rule was a 4WD version of the wagon. Destined to become a cult car, the quasi-SUV 4WD Corolla arguably also pre-empted the Subaru Outback concept by almost a decade.
In 1988, the first Canadian-built Corollas came off the line at Toyota’s latest “trans-plant,” in Cambridge, Ont. A year later, cumulative worldwide production of the Corolla hit 15 million. In South Africa, a locally built hatchback version of the Gen-6 Corolla – the Tazz – would remain in production until 2006 as a cheap-and-cheerful entry model below the regular Corolla.
In 1992, World of Wheels magazine wrapped up a six-month test of a Canadian-built Corolla sedan, saying, “If the Swiss made cars, this is what they would build. This car seems to have everything I want. It’s affordable, roomy and nimble.”
GENERATION 7 (E100)
Throughout Corolla’s development, its makers strove to up the quality ante, but that process may have peaked with the seventh generation. Like a “good year” for wine, the Gen-7 Corolla is considered one of the marque’s more memorable iterations. In Toyota’s own words, “many seventh generation Corollas can still be seen on the road as it has maintained its image as a good car, and it still is treasured by many even today.”
That may in part have been an outcome of build-quality lessons Toyota learned from establishing its luxury brand, Lexus. As well, the Japanese yen was hitting historical lows against the U.S. dollar in the late 1980s, giving Toyota an export cost advantage that gave it leeway to “over-build” the car in many little ways.
The car itself grew again in size (though was still smaller than a current Yaris sedan), with a shape that emphasized an abundance of curves. Up to eight body styles were offered globally, but only the sedan and wagon came to Canada. An available 1.8-litre engine was the biggest yet offered on a (non-diesel) Corolla.
Production hit 20 million in 1994, surpassing the record set by the Ford Model T.
Testing a 1993 Corolla wagon, Car and Driver said, “Lexus doesn’t offer a compact station wagon, but if it did, it would be very much like this one.”
GENERATION 8 (E110)
For its next re-do, Toyota turned to Honda – Takayasu Honda, the Toyota engineer who led development of the Gen-8 car.
It was launched into a different climate than its predecessor. The Japanese economy was weak, environmental and safety issues were coming to the fore, and an appreciation for “simple and sturdy” goods was taking the place of the taste for luxury. “Convey a slim, healthy image with a beautiful shape” was the development theme.
The “beautiful” part may have been debatable, but the new asceticism was certainly evident in North America, where the lineup was pared down to just the sedan, albeit with a new all-aluminum 1.8-litre engine, the 1ZZ-FE that was manufactured in Canada between 1995 and 2007. Elsewhere, the lineup continued to proliferate and included for the first time the Verso MPV, a mini-minivan people-mover favoured in Europe.
Toyota removed weight from the sedan to improve fuel economy while still improving rigidity for crash safety. But despite another uptick in exterior size, rear-seat legroom in the sedan remained a relative weakness.
All told, Gen-8 wasn’t one of the more memorable Corollas. Still, World of Wheels, in its 1998 test, credited a Corolla VE automatic with best-in-class acceleration … and segment-leading fuel economy. Steering and handling, not so much.
GENERATION 9 (E120)
From generations five through eight, the Corolla was an evolution of the same basic architecture. Generation nine, however, made a clean break. “If we place too much emphasis on the Corolla as a ‘can’t-fail’ vehicle, we will end up overprotecting past designs,” said development leader Takeshi Yoshida.
To avoid a design that was driven by cost reductions and production ease, Yoshida stressed the need to separate from the Corolla image of the past and set a “new global standard for compact cars.”
The new shape actually came from Toyota’s European design studio – a first for Corolla – though the new twist-beam rear suspension was arguably less sophisticated than the previous fully independent rear. The 1ZZ-FE engine got a power bump to 130 horsepower.
With typical Corolla customers getting older and turning more to utility vehicles, the coupe was canned. The three-row Verso MPV returned for Europe, while North America got its own utility body style that blurred the distinction between wagon, hatchback and MPV – the Matrix. An AWD version was available, as was – surprisingly in such a practical vehicle – a pocket-rocket XRS powered by the rev-maniac 180-hp 2ZZ engine and six-speed stick from the Celica GT-S.
Along with the European design, Toyota tried again to make the Corolla itself more engaging to drive – but didn’t try too hard. Said Car and Driver, “Toyota’s Corolla was always servile, willing, capable, and dependable. Now it’s roomier, more stylish, and a little more involving.”
Well, that’s what they said at the introduction of the 2003 redesign. For 2005, Toyota created an XRS version of Corolla with the 2ZZ powertrain from Matrix XRS. It was arguably the ultimate wolf in sheep’s clothing, and the press liked it: “While onlookers are laughing, you can smoke ’em away from the lights,” said Car and Driver.
But, by then, the Corolla stereotype as a “bland transportation appliance” was too entrenched for enthusiast drivers to get their heads around the idea of a hot-rod Corolla sedan; the XRS Corolla and its Matrix counterpart checked out of Canada after the 2006 model year.
In mid-2006, cumulative production for the Corolla nameplate passed 31.6 million, claiming a record that it still holds.
GENERATION 10 (E150)
“Toyota inserts a little flair into its redesigned Corolla and Matrix, but not enough to scare anyone,” is how this writer greeted the last-generation Corolla when it launched as a 2009 model in early 2008.
The flair was mostly visual: little changed in length, the 2009 Corolla was 15 mm lower and a whopping 60 mm wider than the ’08. Combine that with steeply raked windshields, and the new model had a stance that could credibly be called athletic. At the same time, the reworked Matrix got a new profile that was borderline coupe-like.
Not that user-friendliness went out the window. At the Canadian launch, Toyota execs pointed to Canuck-friendly features such as door pockets large enough for an ice-scraper, and pedals spaced to accommodate size 10.5 men’s winter boots. The addition of telescopic steering adjustment cured what some had called a long-arm/short leg driving position on the previous design.
An all-new 1.8-litre base engine lifted horsepower to 132 from 126, while the XRS was resurrected, now with a torque-rich 158-hp, 2.4-litre engine instead of the former all-revs-and-no-torque 1.8 screamer.
The 2009 also caught up with the “new normal” in small-car safety equipment – six airbags, anti-whiplash head restraints, ABS and Brake Assist at every trim level. The XRS also had stability control (VSC).
The E150 Corolla was replaced by the 11th-generation Corolla for the 2014 model year and the dynasty continues. By the time Corolla marks it official half-century on Oct. 20, cumulative worldwide production should have reached 45 million. Gearheads may pour scorn on the proverbial beige Corolla, but for Toyota and its loyal customers, everything keeps going right.
Related video: Peter Cheney on the greatest car of all time