TOYOTA CITY — When the Car of the Century winners were announced last year, a conspicuous loser was theCorolla, the Japanese auto industry's all-time top seller, and specifically the 1993 version, judged by some the best compact ever built.
The project manager, Akihiko Saito, still beams when he reminisces about the car. Now 60 and head of product planning, Mr. Saito, son of formerchairman Shoichi Saito, explains that the 1993 Corolla was a product of Japan's economic bubble and thus came loaded with an array of expensive features and technologies, some straight from Lexus, Toyota's global luxury brand that preceded it by several years.
Included were dual air bags, reclining front bucket seats, lockable folding rear seatbacks for easy trunk access, tinted glass, anti-vibration steel damping panels, and a pair of the sweetest 4-cyl. engines on the market. The top-line LE featured a leather tilt steering wheel, four-speaker audio system, power windows and door locks, cruise control and optional antilock brakes.
This luxuriousness stood in marked contrast to the model's predecessors, all six generations dating back to the Corolla's 1966 debut. Says Mr. Saito, who holds a doctorate in engineering from Nagoya University: “When the Corolla was introduced, it was a taishusha — a “no frills” car for the masses. But with improved living standards, consumers demanded more value. And by the time development of the 1993 model began, Japan was in the midst of an economic boom. Thus, there were few constraints on cost.”
Unfortunately for Toyota, the bubble burst before the model hit dealer showrooms. More seriously, the dollar began a downward spiral hitting a historic low of ¥80 in April 1994 and wiping out profits on exports. So while the car was a huge success from a quality and engineering standpoint, it never achieved sales and earnings targets.
Toyota, responding aggressively to the beleaguered dollar, de-contented the next generation so extensively that when it went on sale in Japan in 1996, a year ahead of schedule, the car was greeted with indifference by analysts and the media, who characterized it as unexciting and cheap. Fortunately, J.D. Powers, Consumer Reports and other industry rating organizations continued to rank the car among the best in class.
From the Corolla, Mr. Saito moved up to Toyota's board of directors. Then in 1998, he was promoted to senior managing director, one of the inner circle who decide the future direction of Toyota products. In this capacity, he has been instrumental in steering the company toward a more youth-oriented lineup with such hits as the Vitz, Funcargo, Bb and Will Vi.
And, of course, the new Corolla — which he judges to be better than his 1993 model.