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AUTO CASEY: Toyota Corolla celebrates 50 million cars with its first crossover

It took until the current Corolla for a hybrid option, but at 52-MPG combined, it handily tops the original Prius.
Credit: Toyota

INDIANAPOLIS — Toyota is celebrating its 50 millionth Corolla, a record-setting achievement in the auto industry, but the next 50 million Corollas will be unlike the last. Back in 1968 when the Corolla was introduced, gas cost $0.35 per gallon and the median household income was $7,700. Cars ruled supreme. Today, it’s all about crossovers, hybrids, and electrics. As we celebrate the Corolla’s past, Toyota drives it into the future.

Corolla Yesterday

That first generation Corolla offered 1969-1970 was a handsomely styled car driven by a four-cylinder engine delivering just 51 horsepower. Standing no chance of impressing American muscle car enthusiasts, it ran 0-60 mph in a leisurely 17 seconds. However, fuel economy rated in the “high 20s”, quite excellent for a half-century ago. Standard reclining seats were unexpected luxuries.

When the oil embargo hit in 1973, and Detroit mostly built fuel-thirsty behemoths sold alongside wholly sub-par compacts like the Vega and Pinto, the second generation Corolla was in hot demand. Fastback styling, optional five-speed manual transmission, and 20 additional horsepower gave it a sporty vibe. Follow-on generations brought even peppier engines and flashier sheetmetal while establishing Corolla’s reputation for quality and efficiency. It was a car ready for the Reagan years…and a timely lesson for General Motors.

Corolla Schools GM

By the mid-1980s, GM understood Toyota was more efficient in building higher quality vehicles. To learn all it could, the Detroit behemoth formed a joint venture with Toyota called New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. (NUMMI) to build the all-new 1985 Corolla and Corolla-based Chevy Nova in Fremont, California. It was Toyota’s first assembly plant in the U.S. and GM’s best.

NUMMI employed Toyota’s latest lean manufacturing principles to reduce waste, improve output, and imbue quality to become a perennial winner of manufacturing awards in the U.S. and abroad. A book titled “The Machine That Changed The World” compared NUMMI’s methods against other GM plants and was a landmark publication for lean manufacturing in the U.S. The automakers parted ways in 2009, but the plant is now owned by Tesla and assembles the Model S, Model X and Model 3.

New generations of Corollas arrived during the 1990s, each bringing refinement closer to benchmarks set by the mid-size Toyota Camry. Along the way, Corolla became the best-selling car model in history, exceeding the Ford Model T’s 15 Million and original VW Beetle’s 21.5 Million units. It would soon get competition from an unlikely source.

Sibling Rivalry

Despite its success, the Corolla would not meet Toyota’s standards for a next-century technology showcase. Even though it was one of the most fuel efficient cars money could buy, Toyota executives set an audacious goal of creating a car with 50% better fuel economy. Engineers exceeded the target, introducing the 40-MPG Prius hybrid alongside the redesigned Corolla for 1998. Its sleek Kammback shape still symbolizes “hybrid” among affluent environmentalists.

Corolla barely slowed down, launching new generations that delivered affordable, well-built compacts with nearly mid-size interiors, refined handling, and extroverted models like the XRS and GT-S. CD players gave way to Bluetooth, FM was joined by satellites, and safety advanced with automatic emergency braking, lane keep assist, and radar cruise. Fuel economy reached 42-MPG highway, cementing Corolla’s class-leading efficiency.

Corolla Today

It took until the current Corolla for a hybrid option, but at 52-MPG combined, it handily tops the original Prius. In an attempt to appeal to younger drivers, there is also a sporty hatchback with a six-speed manual transmission. Or, get it with the smooth continuously variable automatic transmission that’s ideal for city driving. Enthusiasts will throttle the Corolla Apex with lowered suspension, 18” wheels, and sport-tuned exhaust. Prices start at just $20,075 for a base sedan or $23,650 for the hybrid.

Yet Toyota recognizes waning demand for small sedans as it launches the 2022 Corolla Cross - an SUV based on the sedan’s architecture. Upscale styling and plush interiors connect the urban-friendly ride to the larger Highlander. It comes standard with a 169 horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and crash avoidance systems, but is available with wireless phone charging, JBL audio, and Amazon Alexa Connectivity. Prices start at just $22,195. Hearkening back to the NUMMI days, the Corolla Cross is assembled though a joint-venture with Mazda in Huntsville, Alabama.

“For over 50 years, Corolla has been synonymous with dependability, fuel efficiency, safety and value,” said Lisa Materazzo, group vice president of Toyota Marketing. “With the all-new Corolla Cross, we are building upon that foundation and offering every more versatility and creature comforts to make everything from a daily commute to a weekend escape more memorable.”

Storm Forward!

Casey Williams is former auto correspondent for WFYI and the Indianapolis Star plus a contributor to the Chicago Tribune’s Sunday Auto Page. He has reviewed vehicles and covered the auto industry for over 25 years. He lives with his family in Broad Ripple. E-mail him at AutoCasey@aol.com; check his reviews on YouTube at AutoCasey.

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