Toyota shifting gears with the Corolla

Times Staff Writer

Has Toyota gotten a tad complacent?

The giant Japanese carmaker Wednesday introduced a heftier, wider version of the Corolla, emphasizing power and size instead of fuel efficiency, even as rivals -- and motorists -- focus on gas mileage.

The all-new 2009 Corolla, which Toyota Motor Corp. says will go on sale in the U.S. in late February, weighs about 140 pounds more than the 2008 model, adds 2 inches to its waistline and has six more horses under the hood, according to engineers. But it will show little to no improvement in fuel economy, and maybe even a small drop for some versions of the car.

“My feeling is that the mileage of Corolla is already quite good,” said Tim Morrison, corporate marketing manager for Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc. He noted that official Environmental Protection Agency fuel efficiency numbers for the 132-horsepower, 1.8-liter, four-cylinder motor had not yet been released for the new Corolla, but that mileage should be “a little less” than the current model’s 26 miles per gallon in city driving and 35 on the freeway.


Corolla is Toyota’s second-best-selling model after the Camry. But this year, the Corolla has lost ground to the Honda Accord, which is running second in sales behind the Camry. Toyota says it expects final 2007 Corolla sales to lag slightly behind last year’s.

Introducing a new model, with different styling and an all-new drive train, is bound to spur consumer interest, analysts say. But with the increasing industry focus on fuel efficiency, and with Toyota on track to sell 185,000 of its hybrid Priuses in the U.S. this year, releasing a bigger Corolla might come as a surprise.

“It’s a fairly significant jump in size,” said Michael Robinet, vice president of vehicle forecasting at CSM Worldwide. He calculates the weight gain at about 5%, which, he says, is significant for a compact car.

Aaron Bragman, an auto industry analyst at Global Insight in Detroit, said that with its expanded profile, the Corolla “is no longer the tiny little efficient compact that it was. . . . If you want better mileage, get a Prius.”

In Robinet’s view, the larger Corolla reflects Toyota’s desire to make a roomier car that could almost creep into the mid-size category. Seen in that context, no significant loss of mileage with more horsepower is “something to brag about,” he said.

For Toyota, the question is whether car buyers will react positively to that ecological holding pattern in a highly competitive small-car marketplace populated with models such as the Mazda 3 and Honda Civic, which gets one mile per gallon better than the current Corolla on freeway driving.


Toyota introduced the new Corolla, which will come in five versions -- including one with a larger engine formerly found only on Camrys -- at the Specialty Equipment Market Assn. automotive show in Las Vegas. It also debuted its newly redesigned Matrix, a small car aimed at a slightly younger market than the Corolla.

Despite a late-first-quarter release date, Toyota expects to sell 70,000 Matrixes next year, significantly more than the current-year model, which it expects to reach 55,000 to 60,000 sold. Toyota said it would not release pricing information for either model until early next year.