While we weren’t watching, the Toyota Corolla became the modern Model T. Since the nameplate was coined in 1966, the Corolla has invaded 142 countries and evolved through nine model changes. More than 30 million have been sold, eclipsing both Ford’s T (15 million) and Volkswagen’s Beetle (21.5 million).
To celebrate the Corolla’s fortieth birthday in the United States, its steadfast compact-class domination, and its second-place standing (after the Camry) in the Toyota lineup, a tenth-generation Corolla and Corolla-based Matrix arrive this spring.
The new duo comprises two body styles, five trim levels, two engines, and three transmissions. While the Corolla sedan continues with front-wheel drive only, the Matrix hatchback offers front- or optional all-wheel drive.
The only significant dimensional changes are two-plus-inch increases in the sedan’s width and wheel tracks, which boost hip and shoulder room a bit. Cargo room is down slightly for both cars, while base curb weight is up by 200 or more pounds. Underneath, there are struts suspending the front wheels and a rudimentary torsion beam carrying the rears (except in the Matrix XRS and the four-wheel-drive Matrix S, which ride on a more sophisticated multilink rear suspension). Electrically assisted rack-and-pinion steering and ABS are standard across the board.
The best news is a base 1.8-liter DOHC four-cylinder engine. Teamed with a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic, it delivers 30 mpg (EPA combined) in the Corolla and slightly less in the Matrix. The more muscular 2.4-liter DOHC four-cylinder powering the Corolla XRS and the Matrix S and XRS is a Camry hand-me-down that cranks out 158 hp. It’s mated to a five-speed (automatic or manual) with front-wheel drive and a four-speed automatic with all-wheel drive.
The Matrix’s new all-wheel-drive system borrows hardware from the RAV4 and is an on-demand system that uses the front wheels for most of the propulsion; during initial acceleration and when wheel slip is detected, up to 45 percent of the available torque can be dispatched to the rear wheels.
Sampling the new Corolla family near Raleigh, North Carolina, revealed no great strides in speed or driving dynamics. The 1.8-liter engine delivers noise and forward thrust in equal doses. The power steering is nicely tuned for effort but numb to road feel, especially with all-wheel drive. Ride motions are well-damped and never offensive. Base edition interior trim is hard to the touch, except at handgrip and elbow-rest points. The sedan’s handiest feature is two stacked glove boxes.
The top Matrix XRS is as racy as the new Corolla family gets. While its 2.4-liter four runs strong and sweet to a 6500-rpm redline, the upright seating necessitates a long shift lever that saps the fun of rowing through the gears. The combination of a shoulder-high beltline and a supersize C-pillar hides illicit behavior from prying eyes.
But don’t be fooled by the XRS’s sagging slacks and eighteen-inch footwear. Coolness is strictly limited when the Camry is your big brother.
The first Corolla
It was, perhaps, an inauspicious start. The first Toyota Corolla arrived here in 1968. Powered (if that’s even the right term) by a 60-hp, 1.1-liter engine, it cost less than $1700. Two years later, offered as a coupe, a sedan, and a wagon, it was the best-selling Toyota and the second-most-popular import in the U.S. (after the Volkswagen Beetle). Worldwide ubiquity would soon follow.