DETROIT — Toyota is giving the Corolla a sportier look and more gadgets, a recognition by the world’s biggest automaker that the under-50 crowd wants more than just reliability in a compact car.
The world’s largest automaker rolled out the 2014 version of America’s top-selling compact Thursday night at a splashy event in Santa Monica, Calif., hoping to shed the old version’s no-frills image and attract new, younger buyers.
The 2014 model, which goes on sale in September, is longer and sits lower, with an athletic look that’s closer to a sports car than the econobox it replaces. It also gets a new transmission, suspension, and interior that Toyota says will make the car quieter and more luxurious, with better handling than the current version. It’s the 11th generation of a car that Toyota has been selling worldwide since 1966.
“It’s a huge car for us. It helped really identify the company and the brand and what we’re all about,” says Bill Fay, group vice president of the Toyota Division in the United States. “We should appeal to a little younger buyer and broaden out the appeal of the car to more than what it is today.”
The car’s bold design is unusual for Toyota, which in the past made few changes to its cars with each update. But the new version is badly needed. The Corolla, with a reputation for sterling dependability, is still America’s No. 1 compact. But dealers have had to cut its selling price and offer big discounts to compete against sleek new versions of the Honda Civic, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra, and Chevrolet Cruze.
“They clearly here are saying, ‘We’ve got to give the Corolla more personality and more life,’ given the way the competition is,” says Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University. “I certainly understand why they are pushing it here.”
Toyota sold 132,514 Corollas this year through May, beating the No. 2 Civic by 3,500. But the Corolla’s average selling price of $18,464 is the lowest of the five top-selling compacts. It sells for almost $1,600 less than a Civic, according to the TrueCar.com auto pricing site. And Toyota is second only to Ford’s Focus in discounts per car at $2,072.
The Corolla’s looks really haven’t changed much in the past decade.
Meanwhile, competitors spent money on leather interiors, touch-screen systems, new transmissions, and powerful yet efficient engines for their compacts.
Those rivals pose a challenge in a segment long ignored by Detroit and dominated by Honda and Toyota. In the past, all it took was a decent, reliable car to gain buyers. But industry analysts say reliability is now easy to come by. Companies have to set themselves apart with style, fuel economy, or performance.
Toyota didn’t disclose the new Corolla’s price, or its fuel-economy numbers, although it did say an Eco version should get more than 40 miles per gallon on the highway. The current version starts at about $18,000 with an automatic transmission. Mr. Fay says Toyota’s goal is to keep the new version close to that price.
The new version certainly will get better gas mileage. The current car falls near the back of the class with an estimated 34 mpg on the highway, partially because of an outdated four-speed automatic transmission. The Civic, Corolla’s closest competitor, gets an estimated 39 mpg on the highway with its five-speed transmission. With more gears, engines generally don’t have to work as hard at freeway speeds.
Toyota is offering two engines in the latest version, a 1.8-liter, 132-horsepower, four-cylinder that carries over from the current model, and the same engine with new valve technology that adds 8 horsepower. The newer engine comes only on the Eco version.
The new Corolla also is nearly 4 inches longer than the current version. That gives passengers more room in both the front and back, Toyota says.
“Not only will the interior be a lot more comfortable and have more of a premium feel, it’s going to be quieter,” Mr. Fay says. “It’s going to have a lot different feel.”
The average age of a Corolla buyer is 53, about the average for the compact segment, Mr. Fay says. The new car’s sporty look and digitial technology should help lower that figure.
Northwestern’s Mr. Calkins says the styling risks turning off longtime buyers used to a more conservative look. But Tom Libby, lead North American analyst for the Polk automotive research firm, says Toyota buyers are loyal.
“The propensity of a Toyota owner to stay with the Toyota brand is pretty high relative to other makes,” he said.