Toyota has been a household name for decades, and one can say that it’s the successful heritage models that helped build that empire. Without cars such as the Land Cruiser, Crown, Hilux, and Corolla, there’s a chance that Toyota wouldn’t even be on the map, let alone a global powerhouse.
But what if we told you that Toyota seriously considered dropping the Corolla name by the year 2000? Let that sink in for a minute.
So, what drove Toyota to even consider that option? And why did Toyota (thankfully) not push through with that? To understand how all this came to be, let’s go back to the late ’90s.
While most would say the ’90s was a good time, the same couldn’t be said about Japan’s economy. The Japanese asset price bubble burst and caused an economic downturn. And if that wasn’t enough, the Asian Financial Crisis added more salt to the wound.
Aside from those problems, Toyota also had a bit of a challenge ahead of it—namely shifting market preferences. As early as the ’90s, Toyota was already seeing the rise of SUVs, crossovers, and MPVs as the family vehicle of choice. While sedan sales were still strong at the time, the Asian Economic Crisis hampered sales of the eighth-gen Corolla.
Because of that, the name Corolla suffered in brand equity. These were some of the factors that led Toyota to consider dropping the name for its next-generation compact car.
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“It was a time when our notions about accessible cars and luxury were getting turned on their head. We even questioned the Corolla’s staying power, and debated on the possibility of changing the car’s name,” said Takeshi Yoshida, chief engineer for the ninth-generation Corolla. If that wasn’t enough, Toyota also needed the development team to take it easy on the budget after successive economic downturns.
But what made the company change its mind and stick with the name? You have Yoshida-san to thank for that. He blocked the name change and convinced the company bigwigs that the Corolla deserved to live on.
“Corolla was a vehicle that had gained a strong reputation worldwide, and its compact class vehicle name had become representative of Japan. Thus, the Corolla name should remain,” he said. Of course, we’re pretty sure he said more than that to convince the higher-ups, but at least he was past the first hurdle.
Yoshida’s challenge had been set. He and his team needed to build a Corolla like never before. At the same time, they had to do it in a way that wouldn’t alienate the traditional Corolla clientele, but still attract a new generation of customers.
“Under these circumstances, our goal in developing the ninth generation was to depart from the Corollas of the past. This new Corolla would still be built on the car’s original foundations, but would not be constrained by them, so as to be able to meet the needs of the new era. That’s why we had decided to start from scratch,” said Yoshida. To make things even more challenging for Yoshida’s team, Toyota told them to take it easy on research and development costs. No pressure.
The direction Yoshida and crew chose was to give the car a more upmarket feel compared to the previous-generation Corolla. Their solution was to make it much larger than the car it replaced, give it a much more premium interior, more features, and safer than ever. Of course, doing all these on a restricted budget is far easier said than done, but Yoshida had an answer for that too.
“I constantly heard about how the Corolla was a can’t-fail vehicle for Toyota. However, I believed that if a manufacturer is overly concerned about failure and ultimately places priority on cost and ease of production, it will end up making a product that is convenient for themselves,” he explained.
To reach his goal, Yoshida changed the vehicle’s process of development. Rather than making each department (powertrain, design, ergonomics) work separately, he encouraged open-room meetings and discussions.
According to Toyota, the ninth-gen Corolla needed to achieve three things: First, the packaging, style, and quality should not be confined to class conventions. Secondly, that its ride and handling should be enjoyable for all. And finally, that its safety and environmental performance should exceed current standards and meet future criteria. It may not look like it now, but that generation of Corolla was one of the biggest gambles Toyota had taken at the time.
In the end, that gamble paid off. The ninth-gen Corolla (the Corolla Altis here) was a worldwide smash hit. It sold better than the car its predecessor, and, truth be told, a superior product than model it replaced (sorry, Lovelife fans).
But beyond its sales success, this generation was a turning point for the model. We got Corollas that offered comfort and refinement previously experienced on larger, more expensive cars. Since then, every generation that succeeded this model was built on those foundations. These days, the Corolla has reached greater heights with more space, comfort, technology, and safety.
That’s all thanks to a certain chief engineer’s decision to keep the name going. What a legend.