The Toyota Corolla is getting a facelift. But the jury is still out on how extreme its makeover should be.
Toyota hinted at a new, edgier style for the staid compact at the Detroit auto show on Monday. The cautious Japanese automaker unveiled a car that could become the blueprint for the 2014 model. It ditches the current Corolla's soft, bland styling in favor of sharper lines, a dramatically sloped windshield and more aggressive headlights.
The redesign could ultimately get incorporated into the next Corolla, or get dropped. It all depends on how people react to the changes.
Still, the world's largest automaker knows it needs to update the Corolla if it wants to attract younger buyers, who have been flocking to newer, more stylish rivals like the Ford Focus and Hyundai Elantra. The Corolla was last revamped four years ago.
Even though Corolla's U.S. sales rose 21 percent to 290,947 last year, they trailed the Honda Civic, which was new in 2012. Civic sales jumped 44 percent to 317,909.
It's risky to toy with one of the best-selling cars in the world. Toyota has sold 200,000 Corollas every year in the U.S. for nearly two decades.
"It's a tough balance. How do you appeal to younger buyers without alienating your older one?" says Larry Dominique, a former Nissan executive who is now president of car value forecaster ALG Inc. "And if you make a mistake, it's very expensive to fix."
The show car also includes a blacked-out grille that's reminiscent of Toyota's luxury Lexus brand. Toyota says it wants the car to look like it's in motion even when it's parked. The show car, called the Furia, is slightly longer, narrower and lower than the current Corolla.
Earl Stewart, a Toyota dealer in North Palm Beach, Fla., thinks the Furia is beautiful. But he worries that it could turn off his customer base of retirees.
"With my customers, the jury is out on what they would say," he says. "Some people just don't like the rocket look about the car. They just want a car. They love Camrys and they love Corollas as they are."
The reliable Corolla is still a strong performer for Stewart, who sells 700 or 800 per year, about one-quarter of his dealership's sales. But Stewart understands that Toyota has to appeal to younger buyers with a sportier look and feel.
"It's risky, but sooner or later, you've got to get into the youth game," he says.
Toyota also needs to up the ante on horsepower, fuel economy and options in an increasingly competitive market. The current Corolla starts at $16,230, slightly more than the Ford Focus. But the Focus has better fuel economy and a more powerful engine. Toyota doesn't offer an optional rearview camera, which is now available on every other competitor, or safety features like blind-spot monitors, which are found on the Chevrolet Cruze and others.
Toyota builds 70 percent of the cars it sells in the U.S. in North America. The Corolla is currently made in Canada and Mississippi. Toyota won't say where the 2014 Corolla will be made.
The Corolla — which means "crown" in Latin — was introduced in Japan in 1966 and came to the U.S. two years later. The new sedan went a long way toward changing U.S. buyers' perception of Toyota as a maker of cheap, poorly built cars. The Corolla was still inexpensive, but had innovations like two-speed wipers, an improved suspension and more comfortable seats. Buyers were further impressed when Toyota — responding to the U.S. market — quickly added more powerful engines.
As a result, the Corolla became the go-to car for generations of young graduates and their downsizing parents, who bought for quality and price despite the ho-hum styling. Last year, it was surpassed only by the midsize Camry and the hybrid Prius in Toyota's U.S. lineup, and it was the 8th best-selling vehicle in the U.S.
"The Corolla is known as a really great appliance," Dominique said.
Dominique said Toyota has gradually realized that reputation and quality alone can't sell a car that looks boring, especially now that its competitors are turning out cars that are just as good but look a lot better. Toyota lost sales to Hyundai after the Korean automaker brought out a dramatically styled Sonata sedan a few years ago.
Tom Libby, lead North American analyst for the Polk automotive research firm, said Toyota will see how customers and fans react to the Furia show car before making a final decision on the Corolla's design. But Libby thinks bold styling is now the price of admission to the small-car market, and the Furia isn't so radical that it will scare off traditional Corolla buyers.
"It might alienate a few people," said Libby. "But I think it will be viewed by a significant number of people as modern and stylish, and that's way better than prior versions of the Corolla."