Enjoying the evolution of the Toyota Corolla
Sampling past models from an established automobile lineage is often an illuminating experience. A hands-on motoring history lesson that exposes its subject to the complete evolution of the breed.
You can pinpoint the areas in which the series got better, where it lost certain charms, or where it seemed to have adopted a completely new approach to life entirely, shunning the recipe that guided its predecessors.
Toyota’s Corolla is a car that everyone – and we mean everyone – is familiar with. This week we had the rare opportunity to taste five classic examples on the timeline of the nameplate. All immaculate, reference quality specimens that belong to the manufacturer’s South African entity.
Let’s start with the E30. Nope, we’re not talking about the boxy BMW 3-Series. In the Japanese carmaker’s catalogue, E30 marked the third generation of the Corolla, in production from 1974 to 1981.
It’s about as basic as you’d expect a car of that era to be. Four doors, a boot and a steering wheel. But there are many wonderful traits to appreciate from a 2021 perspective. Like the action of the four-speed manual ‘box, for example: far from vague and with a heartening “click” as each gear is engaged. The 1.6-litre, four-cylinder, carburettor-fed petrol motor ticked along lazily, getting the cheerful yellow sedan up to momentum at a leisurely pace around Gerotek test facility’s dynamic handling track. It was simple, honest A-to-B transportation and that’s all that mattered.
With the E70 generation of the early 1980s, the Corolla grew up. The dinky, rounded proportions of the previous car made way for a cleaner, squarer template. The upgrade in plushness is immediately noticeable behind the wheel. No more exposed metal panels – that’s upholstered in brown vinyl now. The seat design is a nifty affair, with a head restraint that flips out and up, while the dashboard has a digital (!) clock. I was driving the 1.3 GL with a five-speed. There’s clearly more in terms of noise, vibration and harshness suppression measures in this vehicle.
We skipped the late 1980s, with its chisel-shaped E80 and moved onward into the 1990s with the E90 Corolla. That’s the one many South Africans refer to as the “Kentucky Rounder” – ostensibly because of its comparatively bulbous, burger-like silhouette. The hatchback version was marketed as the Conquest and we drove one of the most coveted of them all. That’s right, the 160 RSi Twincam 16, powered by the 1.6-litre, 4A-GE that produced 92kW and 148Nm.
As a youngster, the design of this car’s front seats had always fascinated me, with its upper section that appeared hinged onto the body of the backrest. Kind of like those buckets in the BMW E36 M3. And now I was sitting in one. It’s an instantly fizzy drive, with a motor that’s only too happy to rev out. I love the driving position too, as well as the weight of the three-spoke wheel, which is not awfully precise but more or less goes where you point it.
The Corolla RSi, on the other hand, brings a much sharper feel to things. It too features the revered 4A-GE engine, but this time, you get 115kW and 162Nm. The shifter features racy aluminium trim, while the font of the instrument cluster is in a hue that’s promisingly red. Also promising is a 9,000rpm tachometer.
It feels rapid, if not outright quick, but the appeal – like all cars that reward the enthusiast – is in the involvement. Stirring that short-throw six-speed is a real treat, as is hearing the engine zing in a buzzy manner to redline. I drove with some sympathy, of course, since this car had just over 31,000km on the odometer. It’s a powerful engine, enough to tug the steering when you mash the accelerator after a first-to-second snap-change. The originality and showroom freshness of this unit was incredible. Made me sad to think that so many have been sullied with poorly-executed, aftermarket modifications.
Up next came the E120, the ninth-generation Corolla. And one that strikes me as a real game-changer. It marked a departure from budget to aspirational, with some regarding it as a junior Lexus of sorts. You can almost see why: there are flavours of first-generation IS to the exterior, round face and flat rear aside. But the interior is undoubtedly near-premium in execution. And since this particular 160i GSX we drove had just 169km on the odometer (yes, you read right); it was an excellent yardstick.
The dash was soft touch, the leatherette-wrapped steering wheel textured and the button-littered fascia led to the impression that you were buying a car with a lot of ... stuff in it. The faux dark-ash woodgrain trim had a certain charm about it. And the CD front-loader made me wish I had brought my trusty Luther Vandross compilation with. Driving the E120 was just as pleasant as a Vandross number. It felt taut, stable and had me thinking that I’d happily nose it across the country on a whim.
Then there’s the latest, 12th generation car. Which I won’t go on about too much, since we’ve just concluded a long-term stint in the 2.0 XR sedan. It’s a remarkable distillation of all the attributes that established the Corolla as a hit, just infused with a healthy ladle of aesthetic pizazz. We’ve come a long way indeed.