50 YEARS ON: After being on sale for 50 years, the Toyota Corolla is still a stalwart product. Image: Calvin Fisher
'It’s Zuma-proof, a car for the coming economic turmoil and misery - and praise doesn’t get much higher than that,' writes Alex Parker about Toyota's facelifted Corolla.
Johannesburg - In Johannesburg last week I was talking to a product planner at a major automotive importer. These are the people who sit down and work out the details of what we get when we buy a car.
They have the difficult job of balancing price and profitability, all the while ensuring a car delivers on a brand’s promise.
So that means working out, for example, how many airbags to put into the car, whether to make a certain package standard or an optional. Much of this will be driven by brand – a Volvo product planner, for example, is never going to delete airbags. But savings can be made elsewhere.
The depredations of the president and the installation of a compliant finance minister might to some seem like the machinations of a predatory elite that will have little impact on the average Joe, but if you own a car, or indeed are thinking of getting another one quite soon, the impact of what has happened will hit you too.
Firstly, and critically, the nosediving rand will make imports more expensive. Some local manufacturers will be able to mitigate against these costs to some extent by using their import credits accumulated because of their local manufacturing operations, but importers are exposed to the full awfulness of rand volatility, making the job of those product planners harder than ever.
A tanking rand will also affect the price of fuel, which of course has a direct impact on all motorists at the pump, but also filters through to food-price inflation and CPI generally.
READ: Facelifted 2017 Toyota Corolla marks fifty years at the top
The reserve bank was starting to get a handle on inflation after the last rand dive courtesy of President Zuma – food price inflation had just come in under 10% for the first time in a long time and there was even talk of a reserve bank cut to interest rates. This would have freed up a good deal of capital in the economy at large and would have been a great boost for growth and jobs, for receipts at SARS and for the health of the country generally. That’s not going to happen now.
And all this is before the country’s sovereign credit rating is junked, something that must by now be a racing certainty. The consequences of this will hit the economy like a meteor. The government, without a credit rating, will have to pay vastly more money to service its trillion-rand debt. Raging inflation will put interest rates up making your Ford Fiesta a costly luxury. Tanking receipts at SARS will force the treasury to raise taxes, sucking yet more jobs and growth out of the economy.
It would also have made it cheaper to borrow money to buy a car. Well, you can forget that now. The political damage to the economy is an enormous inflationary risk, and the reserve bank is now most unlikely to consider cutting rates in this fraught political climate.
In more ignorant political circles there is talk of an “investment strike”, the idea being that companies are sitting on large cash reserves and are not investing into the economy. That’s not an “investment strike”, that’s responsible management. And it filters down to the family level too. In a caustic environment like this people stop investing in their personal capacities. They don’t buy new cars or take holidays. They sit it out.
And so, for the product planners, perhaps they delete an airbag or two, or opt for the cheaper sound system, or forgo the sunroof – all in a quest to keep rand prices in the realm of the affordable. Despite their best efforts, it’s not looking pretty.
It’s important to understand who did this, and it isn’t Land Rover or Toyota or Hyundai – or anyone else trying to sell cars.
Perversely, of course, tough times tends to send buyers to places they trust. Where will I get the best resale value? Which car is likely to be reliable and reasonably fuel efficient?
The Toyota Corolla was once a mainstay of South African family motoring, but the rise of the SUV has reduced the Corolla’s dominance. Additionally, it has locally got to contend with a brutally efficient competitor, a competitor built in the same Durban factory – the Corolla Quest.
In an environment where families were opting for SUVs such as the RAV4, the Corolla’s mix of solid engineering and build quality was less likely to appeal to the Uber drivers and the fleet managers whose principal concern is price.
And so the Corolla finds itself in an odd space. It’s just a bit too nice for its own good.
Admittedly I did drive the top of the range 1.8-litre car in Joburg earlier in March, but I’ve also had a go in the 1.4 diesel and the 1.6 too. And I have to say that the Corolla really is all the car you’re ever likely to need unless you actually use your SUV for towing boats, remote holidays or carrying bikes.
The interior is absolutely bomb-proof and in this, the facelifted car, tweaks to the touchscreen have improved its perceived quality. The car I drove had a strong automatic airconditioner and a proximity key start. I did some good mileage up on the reef, as one does, and fuel consumption on the range-topping 1.8 petrol never got worse than about 7l/100km, although this was no doubt affected by some long runs to Pretoria and back.
It’s not a firecracker of an engine, to be honest, and being naturally aspirated at Joburg altitude it requires some revs to get going, but it does suit the general demeanour of the Corolla as a relaxed family car. That facet also reveals itself in genuinely excellent levels of noise, vibration and harshness (NVH), making the Corolla as calm and quiet as some much more luxury nameplates.
The car’s on-road behaviour sticks with its relaxed style. It’s front-wheel-drive and engineered for safety and comfort, but the steering is nicely weighted and accurate. It’s not a sports car in the corners – but it is comfortable, and that’s what it’s for after all.
Add a vast boot and good rear legroom and what you have remains a really genuinely good family car. My choice would be a high-spec diesel car, yours for about R307 000. An entry-level 1.6 petrol is yours for R280 000 or so, and a bog-basic 1.3 can be had for R261000, but that must surely be a little short of puff.
To my mind if offers a great deal of quality and value for the price, and will transport your family in safety and comfort in a relatively frugal way. It’s Zuma-proof, a car for the coming economic turmoil and misery - and praise doesn’t get much higher than that.