Toyota's chief engineer talks about the new and radical bestseller
This is a Corolla? Toyota Corolla chief engineer Shinichi Yasui is the man behind the latest Corolla Altis, which is launched this week. -- PHOTO: BORNEO MOTORS

The Toyota Corolla has long established itself as a dependable, durable and value-for- money car. Which explains why it is the world's top- selling model - of all time.

Since the first one was launched in 1966, more than 40 million units have been snapped up. This is well ahead of runners-up Volkswagen Golf (30 to 35 million units) and the Ford F-series truck (34 million), which is widely used as a passenger vehicle in the United States.

According to Forbes magazine, the Corolla maintained its pole position last year, with sales of 1.02 million units. The runners-up were the Hyundai Elantra (1.01 million) and Wuling Sunshine (943,000), a Chinese minivan made by a General Motors joint venture.

The VW Golf was 10th with 648,000 units.

Despite that, no one will describe the Corolla as exciting, stylish or sporty. In fact, the exact opposite adjectives might be employed.

And Mr Shinichi Yasui, chief engineer of the 11th-generation Corolla, is among the first to admit this.

He tells Life! at the launch of the car this week: "I was the chief engineer for the previous Corolla too. After its launch, I went to visit several markets. Everybody said it's a good car, but it lacks excitement. The body design is boring."

Which is why the latest model is markedly different in shape, size and performance.

"At the concept stage, we wanted to inject some excitement and fun into the car - not only in the way it drives but also in the way it looks."

The 11th-generation car looks appreciably more streamlined, with an aggressive and modern grille flanked by LED headlights (a first in the segment), and 16-inch two-tone alloy wheels pushed to the far four corners of the car.

"The wheelbase is extended by 100mm - to give it a more dynamic stance, more interior room, and also more straight-line stability," Mr Yasui adds.

The younger, sportier-looking car exudes a stronger presence than its predecessors. It is possibly the first Corolla that will make you take a second glance. It is also available in dark brown, currently the hottest colour in Europe.

The changes are more than skin deep.

For the first time, the Corolla is equipped with a continuously variable transmission. But it is not just any CVT.

"Most types of CVT have some issue, mainly in the way they sound when you accelerate," says the 51-year-old chief engineer, mimicking the whiney noise of such gearboxes.

But the Corolla's "super CVT-i" is a "totally new" version. It offers "good acceleration, good fuel efficiency and good durability and reliability", he says. Yet it lets the driver "feel the change in gear ratios" and matches sound with acceleration.

And for the first time, the Corolla for export markets differs vastly from the Corolla made and sold in Japan.

"It is a totally different car," Mr Yasui says of the domestic model. "Different platform, different size, different shape, and different engine and transmission."

This, he says, is because the Japan model has to conform to size restrictions in the country.

Also, "customer expectations are changing", he notes.

"Globally, everybody wants to buy a more prestigious and bigger car. But in Japan... customers are getting more and more elderly - no need for a bigger car," he explains.

The Singapore version is sold in the rest of Asia, Europe and the Middle East, while America gets another variant (but with the same platform).

Another first in recent decades: The Corolla here is offered with just one engine choice: a 1.6-litre 121bhp inline-4 with dual VVT-i that is largely unchanged from the previous power plant.

Why not a turbo? "We have turbo technology in Toyota. But at this time, we want to keep the Corolla's cost down. A turbo is an addition, which will raise the price," Mr Yasui says, adding that the current engine and transmission pairing "is the best combination for now".

The car is priced at about $133,000 with COE.

Industry watchers expect the new Corolla to have a petrol-electric hybrid variant in the next few years. If so, its higher open-market value (OMV) will make it commercially unviable here.

Already, the new Corolla's OMV is about $18,500 (versus $15,500 for the previous one), thanks to features such as climate control with in-built ioniser, keyless access and ignition, factory-fitted infotainment with satellite-navigation, and those costly LED headlamps.

A hybrid version will likely breach the $20,000 OMV mark - and thus will fall into a more punitive Additional Registration Fee bracket.

Like a turbo, the hybrid is also likely to produce more than 130bhp, which will then put it in COE Category B.

Finally, a somewhat touchy question for the chief engineer: Is he satisfied with the quality of the Thai plant?

"Yes, of course," he says without hesitation.

In any case, consumers no longer have a choice. From this generation, the Corolla is no longer exported out of Japan. Instead, 16 plants across the globe supply the car to more than 150 markets.

And should parallel importers bring in the Japan domestic version, they will have to contend with a smaller and more austere model.