With Toyota back on top as the world’s largest automaker, President Akio Toyoda isn’t looking to a relative youngster like the Prius hybrid to defend that lead. Instead, he’s counting on a middle-aged veteran: the 47-year-old Corolla.
Later this year — the company hasn’t said when or where — Toyota plans to introduce a revamped version of its global best-seller, which last underwent a redesign in 2008. No launch is more consequential for Toyota this year as the Prius isn’t due for a major change until 2014 and a new Camry sedan came out only about a year ago.
For Toyoda, the compact will be a chance to build on pledges to make cars that are more fun to drive and shed some of the company’s reputation for blandness. More relevant for investors, the success of the top-selling car in history will help determine Toyota’s ability to return to the profitability it enjoyed before the global financial crisis and the recall of millions of vehicles.
The Corolla “might be viewed as boring by some, but for others it’s bulletproof,” said Kurt Sanger, an auto analyst at Deutsche Bank AG in Tokyo, who has a buy rating on Toyota stock. “The profit per unit might be lower than other models, but if you sell that many, you’re going to make money.”
Sanger is optimistic over Toyota’s money-making prospects. He’s among a dozen analysts tracked by Bloomberg who’ve raised earnings estimates for the automaker in the past month as the tumbling yen in foreign currency exchange raises the value of Japanese exports.
The Japanese currency hit 91.26 on Jan. 28, the weakest since June 2010. Toyota’s annual operating profit gains by 35 billion yen for every 1-yen drop in the value of the Japanese currency against the dollar, according to the carmaker.
Toyota has sold almost 40 million Corollas over the years, Tokyo-based spokesman Jiecheng Fang said. Though the car remained Toyota’s top seller in 2012 — estimated by the company at 1.21 million deliveries worldwide — Corolla sales have fallen from a peak of 1.42 million units in 2006 as Honda’s Civic and Hyundai’s Elantra won customers with fuel economy and lower prices.
The Civic overtook the Corolla as the best-selling compact sedan in the U.S. last year, according to researcher Autodata Corp. This year, global sales of the Corolla will probably increase 7 percent to 1.3 million units, according to Takeshi Miyao, an analyst with researcher Carnorama Japan in Tokyo.
The declining popularity of the Corolla — described as “bland” by Consumer Reports magazine in 2012 — has been mirrored in the company’s earnings and share price. Toyota’s profit forecast for the fiscal year ending March 31 is less than half the amount five years ago. The stock is trading at about half its level in 2007, when its market value ranked fourth worldwide, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Toyota, which reports earnings this week, will probably triple its net income to $9.8 billion this fiscal year, according to the average of 24 estimates compiled by Bloomberg News. The Corolla, meaning “crown of flowers” in Latin, is seen to be among the top sellers.
“The Corolla remains incredibly important to Toyota,” said Neil King, global head of automotive research at Euromonitor International in London.
The car’s history stretches back almost five decades, when Eiji Toyoda, the current president’s great uncle, first swept the U.S. with a vehicle that helped the company ascend to the top of the automotive industry.
Since the first one rolled out in 1966, Toyota has used figures ranging from Homer Simpson to Brad Pitt to market the car to the masses. Among them was a young man who bought a used fourth-generation Corolla 1600GT as his first car. His name: Akio Toyoda.
“The car taught me the joy of driving,” said Toyoda, whose grandfather founded the company in 1937. “It was like a good friend.”
Toyota, which typically redesigns its cars every five years, is stepping up efforts to revive interest. At the Detroit auto show this month, it showed off the Corolla Furia concept vehicle in a presentation punctuated by a snatch of Mariachi music.