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With all the pomp and circumstance accorded Toyota’s brisk-selling nameplates Camry and Prius, it’s easy to forget that the brand’s all-time sales champ is the humble Corolla. Since its introduction in 1966, more than 32 million Corollas have made their way into the world, besting Ford’s F-Series trucks (30 million since 1948) and Volkswagen’s venerable Golf (25 million since 1974).
The secret to Corolla’s success is a relatively simple cocktail of reliability and frugality, something that is set to continue for the 2012 model year as the four-door passenger car awaits a true redesign in 2013 to help stave off contenders such as Honda Civic and Mazda 3. With prices ranging from $15,900 to $18,600 (5-speed manual to automatic S model), all Corollas pack the same 1.8-liter, 132-hp four-cylinder engine that’s good for 26/34 mpg city/highway for the four-speed automatic and 28/35 mpg for the five-speed manual.
Both that base price and those mileage figures are likely to play well with a nation that continues to grapple with high unemployment and fuel prices. There’s also a bit of good news for those folks who build Corolla: Toyota has dusted off the company’s mothballed plant in Tupelo, Miss., and just recently began taking job applications for positions on a line largely dedicated to cranking out this stalwart model.
“It might seem like a basic car, but it packs a lot of features that you don’t really notice but certainly appreciate,” says Luis Duran, sales manager at Toyota Marin just north of San Francisco, where Prius rules this eco-conscious roost but Corolla runs a close second with those in search of a gas-sipping, hassle-free commuter car. “It’s not going to be a vehicle with a lot of bells and whistles, but it’s certainly packed with safety features.”
Perhaps paramount among those is new-to-Corolla Smart Stop technology, born out of the company’s troublesome unintended acceleration debacle, which ultimately was shown to be user and not vehicle error. The feature automatically reduces engine power in an instance where the driver is braking but has inadvertently kept pressure on the gas pedal.
Smart Stop complements a raft of other high-tech safety features in the low-budget car, including Brake Assist (keeps pressure on the brakes during a hard stop even if the driver starts to lift slightly) and Electronic Brake-Force distribution (which factors in the car’s interior weight balance when applying pressure to each wheel).
If you’ve got the money to spring for the Corolla S, you’re rewarded with a machine that looks even more like a slightly downsized Camry, with its tapered nose, side skirts, rear trunk chrome strip and optional 16-inch alloy wheels. Inside, noticeable S upgrades include a sport steering wheel, cut horizontal at the bottom like something out of a Ferrari 599, with extra padding at 10 and 2 o’clock. There now are also integrated entertainment system commands on the wheel, which also operate a new factory Bluetooth system with voice control. Portable music junkies will appreciate the USB port that can be added to the dash.
But the one thing you don’t usually see on any Corollas is a leather interior, though it’s offered as a nearly $2,000 option.
“When you’re looking at a car that is known for being affordable, that’s typically not something people are interested in adding,” says Duran.
It’s hard to argue with Toyota’s upholstery strategy when they’ve sold tens of millions of these babies. The next iteration of Corolla may well come with a few more upmarket tweaks, but mainly look for the Japanese automaker to keep things successfully simple.