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2013-01-15 08:52

THE NEXT COROLLA? Toyota has gone a trifle radical with this Detroit 2013 concept of how the next Corolla might look. Will it take on Hyundai? Image: AFP

DETROIT, Michigan - The Toyota Corolla to be given a face-lift but the jury's still out on how extreme that makeover should be.

Toyota is hinting at a more daring style for the 2014 Corolla with the Furia, a concept car unveiled on January 14 Monday at the 2013 Detroit auto show that allows the usually cautious company to see how people react to its styling changes before it releases the final version of the Corolla.

The revised car could be on sale later in 2013.

RISKY TO TOY WITH

The world's largest automaker knows it needs to update the stale Corolla if it wants to attract younger buyers who have been flocking to newer, more stylish, rivals such as Ford's Focus and Hyundai's Elantra. The Corolla was last revamped four years earlier.

Even though Corolla's US sales rose 21% to 290 947 in 2012 they trailed the Honda Civic, new in 2012. Civic sales jumped 44% to 317 909. But still, it's risky to toy with one of the world's best-selling cars. Toyota has sold 200 000 Corollas every year in the US for nearly two decades.

"It's a tough balance," says Larry Dominique, a former Nissan executive now president of car-value forecaster ALG. "How do you appeal to younger buyers without alienating your older ones? And if you make a mistake, it's very expensive to fix."

The Furia ditches the current Corolla's soft, bland styling in favour of sharper lines, a dramatically sloped windscreen and bonnet, narrower and more assertive headlights and a large, blacked-out grille 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 Furia is also slightly longer, narrower and shorter than the current Corolla.

PERCEPTION CHANGE

Toyota also needs to up the ante on power, fuel economy and options in an increasingly competitive market. The current Corolla is slightly more expensive (in the US) than a Focus but the Focus has better fuel economy and a more powerful engine. Toyota doesn't offer a rearview camera, now available on every other competitor, or safety features such as blind-spot monitors as on the Chevrolet Cruze and others.

Toyota builds 70% of the cars it sells in the US in North America. The Corolla is currently made in Canada. Toyota hasn't yet said where the 2014 Corolla might be made.

The Corolla - which means "crown" in Latin - was introduced in Japan in 1966 and came to the US two years later. The new sedan went a long way toward changing American buyers' perception of Toyota as a maker of cheap, poorly-built cars. The Corolla was still inexpensive but had innovations such as  two-speed wipers, an improved suspension and more comfortable seats.

Buyers were further impressed when Toyota - responding to the US market - quickly added more powerful engines.

REPUTATION NOT ENOUGH

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. In 2012 it was surpassed only by the midsize Toyota Camry and the hybrid Toyota Prius in Toyota's US line-up and it was the eigth best-selling vehicle in the US.

Dominique said Toyota has gradually realised 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 deciding 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.Follow the Detroit auto show with Wheels24 on our Detroit show ection.

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