SAVANNAH, GA —Motor Corp. lately has endured a fair degree of flogging for missing the mark on markets outside its mainstay middle-class, Baby Boomer set.
Its lack of appeal to the kids is prompting the launch of a third brand, dubbed Scion (see p.28), and the No.1 Japanese auto maker has been accused more than once of not paying enough attention to the U.S.'s minority and urban markets. Even last year's all-new Camry — the ultimate Boomer-mobile — had a lackluster debut.
Such criticism may be fair, butso often understates what it does well that glimpses of brilliance go unnoticed. Its 2-car strategy with the new, ninth-generation Corolla — and its funky Matrix derivative — is one such quiet triumph.
With small-car entries adding more flair these days — thePT Cruiser paved the way for the Focus and a host of new, fun-to-drive economy cars with an emphasis on performance and utility — Toyota knew it couldn't ignore the trend.
Enter Matrix, which masters the contradictions of being both a Corolla derivative and a cross/utility vehicle. The Matrix — technically the Corolla Matrix — looks nothing like the somewhat staid compact car on which it's based. It, in fact, looks stylish, fun and youthful — adjectives not often associated with Toyota.
But Matrix, which boasts a 24-month development cycle, does not margin-alize the Corolla. More importantly, Toyota, which stands by the philosophy that small cars sow the seeds of brand loyalty, didn't let Corolla languish while it was working on its youth product.
Its move affirms that the auto maker knows fun has its place; but that its average consumer is just looking for quality, economy and practicality — perhaps the mainstay of Toyota products.
The newest Corolla isn't exciting or cute, but it's rock-solid. And, whereas the auto maker gingerly is ballparking sales of around 70,000 for the Matrix, Toyota knows it will have few problems selling every last one of the 250,000 units annually it has projected for Corolla.
The many charms of the Corolla lie within its subtle refinement. Not one feature of the vehicle, which is built on a completely new platform and has grown in every dimension, indicates that it is entry-level.
The vehicle is powered by Toyota's 1.8L DOHC 4-cyl. 1ZZ-FE engine. Its 130 hp is 5 hp more than the previous ZZ engine, despite the fact that the new car is larger and heavier. And a new suspension supports the more substantial vehicle.
Although the 5-speed manual gearbox is a holdover from the last generation, the new Corolla gets a new automatic transmission that carries a negligible cost penalty. Fuel economy, an original goal of the Corolla upon its U.S. introduction in 1968, still remains an objective. This one delivers 32/40 mpg (7.4 to 5.9L/100 km) with a manual transmission and 30/38 mpg (7.8 to 6.2L/100 km) with the 4-speed automatic.
Corolla comes in three grades: the base-model CE, the sporty S grade and the upscale LE — which for the first time comes with optional leather. Toyota says it has increased standard content and lowered the MSRPs by $850 to $1,050 per vehicle, leaving a sticker price of between $14,680 and $15,480, depending on the trim level.
A casual observer may not see the relationship between the two vehicles. Matrix may be a version of the Corolla, but no badging indicates the relationship, nor does the vehicle's attitude.
What Corolla, after all, could possibly sport 180 hp and a 6-speed manual transmission? The more powerful engine and boy-racer transmission both come as options on the sporty compact crossover. Flexibility also is a priority, including fold-flat seating, storage space galore, including under the load floor, and even a hip accessory kit.
Another configuration includes all-wheel drive, the same system employed in the Celica GTS, which allows the car to operate as front-wheel-driver until a driven wheel spins. At that point, as much as 50% of the power can be transferred to the rear.
Unlike Toyota's previous All Trac system, which was based on FWD transaxles, the AWD system employs a viscous coupling at the tail end of the drive shaft that reacts to input from the rear differential.
One small gripe: the 4wd option only is available with the less-powerful engine, which Toyota officials blame on the high output version's peak torque output. Hmmm.
The youthful and functional Matrix also is affordable — $14,670 for the base model, $18,750 for the more powerful powerplant mated to a 6-speed transmission, and $18,445 for the AWD variant.