Toyota hints at racier Corolla
DETROIT — The Toyota Corolla is getting a facelift. But the jury is still out on how extreme its makeover should be.
Toyota is hinting at a more daring style for the 2014 Corolla with the Furia, a concept car revealed on Monday at the Detroit auto show. The concept allows the cautious company to see how people react to its styling changes before it releases the final version of the Corolla, which is expected to go on sale sometime this year.
The world's largest automaker knows it needs to update the stale Corolla if it wants to attract younger buyers, who have been flocking to newer, more stylish rivals such as the Ford Focus and Hyundai Elantra. The Corolla was last revamped four years ago.
Even though Corolla's sales rose 21 percent to 290,947 last year, they trailed the Honda Civic, which was new in 2012. Civic sales jumped 44 percent to 317,909.
Still, it's risky to toy with one of the best-selling cars in the world. Toyota has sold 200,000 Corollas every year in the United States for nearly two decades.
“It's a tough balance. How do you appeal to younger buyers without alienating your older one?” says Larry Dominique, a former Nissan executive who is president of car value forecaster ALG Inc.
The Furia ditches the Corolla's soft, bland styling in favor of sharper lines, a dramatically sloped windshield and hood, narrower and more aggressive headlights and a large, blacked-out grille that's reminiscent of Toyota's luxury Lexus brand. The Furia is slightly longer and narrower than the current Corolla.
Earl Stewart, a Toyota dealer in North Palm Beach, Fla., thinks the Furia is beautiful. But he worries that it could turn off his customer base of retirees.
“With my customers, the jury is out on what they would say,” he says. “Some people just don't like the rocket look about the car. They just want a car. They love Camrys and they love Corollas as they are.”
The reliable Corolla is still a strong performer for Stewart, who sells 700 or 800 per year, about one-quarter of his dealership's sales. But Stewart understands that Toyota has to appeal to younger buyers with a sportier look and feel.
Toyota also needs to up the ante on horsepower, fuel economy and options in an increasingly competitive market. The current Corolla starts at $16,230, slightly more than the Ford Focus. But the Focus has better fuel economy and a more powerful engine. Toyota doesn't offer an optional rearview camera, which is available on every other competitor, or safety features such as blind-spot monitors, which are found on the Chevrolet Cruze and others.
Toyota builds 70 percent of the cars it sells in the United States in North America. The Corolla is made in Canada. Toyota hasn't yet said where the 2014 Corolla will be made.
The Corolla — which means “crown” in Latin — was introduced in Japan in 1966 and came to America two years later. The sedan went a long way toward changing U.S. buyers' perception of Toyota as a maker of cheap, poorly built cars. The Corolla was still inexpensive, but had innovations such as two-speed wipers, an improved suspension and more comfortable seats. Buyers were further impressed when Toyota — responding to the U.S. market — quickly added more powerful engines.
As a result, the Corolla became the go-to car for generations of young graduates and their downsizing parents. Last year, it was surpassed only by the midsize Camry and the hybrid Prius in Toyota's U.S. lineup, and it was the eighth best-selling vehicle in America.
Tom Libby, lead North American analyst for the Polk automotive research firm, said Toyota will see how customers and fans react to the Furia show car before making a final decision on the Corolla's design.
“It might alienate a few people,” Libby said. “But I think it will be viewed by a significant number of people as modern and stylish, and that's way better than prior versions of the Corolla.”