Toyota Corolla: The most popular car in the world?

  • Over 45 million examples sold
  • Launched in 1966, now made in 16 factories globally
  • Twelve generations, up to 20 factories

When a car company is making more noise about the return of a model name than the car it’s attached to, it may not bode well for the eponymous vehicle. Toyota has good reason to herald the reappearance of ‘Corolla’ on the back of their latest family hatchback and Touring Sports estate, however, because this is no ordinary name.

Think of best selling cars and early low-cost global pioneers like the VW Beetle, Lada Riva and Ford Model T leap to the forefront of lists. And they were best sellers – between 1938 and 2003, the original Volkswagen (aka Beetle – the name came later) sold 21 million examples – just under 16 million of which were sold before the end of German production in 1978. The Ford Model T sold 16.5 million examples between 1908 and 1927. Lada’s Riva (and derivatives) sold over 20 million examples without significant changes to the design.

Lada Riva - the most popular car in the world, and based on the Fiat 124

Even the Ford Escort – undeniably popular, but not always considered the record-breaking success that the cars above earn recognition for – sold over 20 million across six generations from 1968 to 2004.

Crucially, the Ford Model T was little more than a chassis and engine, and the Beetle underwent a programme of improvement over 40 years (and beyond) – so unlike the Lada, those sales figures apply more to a name, a brand identity rather than repeated identical examples.

A truly global car, and a truly global brand – Corolla

If the brand is really what counts, though, Toyota sets the benchmark. British drivers last saw a Corolla in the showrooms in 2007, when the Auris hatchback replaced the ninth-generation Corolla for the UK market. Two generations of Auris have provided family transport for Toyota fans, but now Corolla is coming back – why?

1966 Toyota Corolla 1st Generation

A Corolla by any other name

Unlike the VW Beetle, Lada 210x (Riva in the UK) and Ford Model T, the Corolla name has appeared on a truly diverse range of vehicles around the world. From the 1966 original E10 – a crisp, affordable family saloon car that moved Japanese car design forward significantly in terms of quality and driver enjoyment. Much like the Vauxhall Viva and Ford Cortina of the era, it had direct steering, a safe but entertaining rear-wheel drive chassis, and affordable running costs.

1970 Toyota Corolla - 2nd Generation

In four years, the new model gained success in key export markets – and when the second-generation Corolla E20 was announced in 1970, it became the second-best selling car in the world. Capability was increased with more powerful, sporting models – and in America, the fuel crisis combined with the reliability of the small Toyota compared with home-grown efforts at production compact cars ensured a significant boost for the Japanese company.

1974 3rd Generation Toyota Corolla

Despite being a relatively young model, the split character of the Corolla began to appear too, with utility vehicles sharing a name with high-performance Levin coupes. Through the third generation E30, produced from 1974 to 1981, and the fourth generation E70 that ran alongside the E80 until 1987, the Corolla’s success continued unabated. In 1983 the benchmark of one million examples was crossed – just as the driven wheels swapped ends.

1979 4th Generation Toyota Corolla

Front or rear wheel drive?

There were, in fact, three platforms of Corolla on sale in 1983 as the new front-wheel drive E80 went on sale – the E70 continued as a rear-wheel drive estate, and the legendary AE86 Corolla and Levin also retained rear-wheel drive underneath their crisp 1980s styling.

1983 Toyota Corolla 5th Gen FWD

The fifth generation Corolla also featured two competing sporting models; sharing a 1.6-litre 16-valve engine producing up to 130hp, the AE86 coupe and AE82 three-door hatchback illustrated the shift from rear-wheel drive sporting models to the hot hatchback. One became known for motorsport, drifting and highly sought after, the other is largely forgotten.

1983 Toyota Corolla Levin GT AE86 - 5th Generation RWD

Globally the Corolla brand encompassed styles from economy 2-door saloons with small engines, to large five-door estates and hatchbacks with cutting edge technology.

Also sold as the Chevrolet Nova in the USA - the 5th Generation Corolla liftback

The name was also applied to the smaller Tercel model as the Corolla II – and as it progressed towards the sixth generation the nameplate would apply to even more diverse models, before global rationalisation.

Simplified sixth generation Corolla

Manufactured in more countries around the world, sold in larger numbers and in Africa, the first to achieve a truly long production period (from 1991 to 2006 in South Africa), 1987’s sixth generation Corolla truly defined the brand worldwide as a byword for sensible reliability.

6th Generation Corolla

The UK did not get the full range of bodystyles, which extended to coupes with pop-up headlights and supercharged engines – rather we got the functional estate, smaller hatchback and sleeker liftback models, plus the saloon. In developing markets, these tough, small cars did a great deal to cement Toyota’s reputation for reliability.

1995 Corolla WRC

From 1991 to 2007, the seventh, eighth and ninth generation Corollas – E100 through E130 – followed this evolutionary path, gaining technology and size, and trading aspirational sporty derivatives for more practical models, such as the Corolla Verso.

1995 Toyota Corolla range UK

Hot versions of the hatchback never gained the cultural recognition of the AE86, but the last generation of Corolla sold in the UK was offered in T-Sport form producing 192hp, and a limited number of T-Sport compressor models offering 217hp via a supercharged 1.8-litre engine.

Toyota Corolla Compressor T-Sport 2007

More impressive figures could be found in the manufacturing stats, as Toyota models called Corolla had been produced in 20 facilities around the world (including the UK) and achieved total sales since 1966 of over 40 million cars.

Europe loses the Corolla brand

By 2007 the Corolla name had been offered to over two generations of drivers, and market trends suggested youthful brands and new marques were more appealing; Europe got the Auris, a slightly different treatment of the global Corolla platform.

Toyota Auris in white

It seems that once a brand stands for something, though, you risk losing a lot if you mess with it. Germany got the Corolla back in 2014, and now – as the new model is announced and moves to the Toyota New Global Architecture platform – the Corolla brand is back in the UK and all global markets (except Taiwan, where the 2019 Corolla is called – you guessed it – Auris…)

New architecture, new Corolla

In any rational sense, the statement that the Corolla is the world’s best selling car could be misleading; the name has been applied to a staggeringly diverse range of models made and designed in different factories around the world, some with little commonality. It’s not the metal and technology that counts, though. Toyota has been able to sell everything from economy-focused small cars, to sporting coupes and versatile all-wheel drive estate cars as a Corolla because buyers have come to trust the name; rather than keeping it simple, it could showcase the latest, most challenging technology and succeed because of that faith.

2019 Corolla Touring Sports interior

And in a world where the humble hatchback is becoming less popular despite offering the best balance of space and economy, that’s exactly the faith Toyota needs when replacing the Auris. Hybrid power, new technology, a new platform – the 2019 Corolla seeks to bring the advanced concepts of the Prius to the mass-market. An old name on a new machine might not be a backwards step – it could be genius.

2019 Corolla Touring Sports

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