In the United States, Toyota was most successful when it mercilessly copied General Motors. The Camry was specifically tuned for American tastes, using, among other things, former General Motors engineers. The first Avalon interior was practically a carbon copy of a past Chevrolet. For a time, ironically, Toyota sold the Corolla with a special American engine tune while Chevrolet sold a version of the same car with Toyota’s normal Japanese tune!
One of the things Toyota did was bring creature comforts to the fore. While the first Camry was a good driver’s car in many respects, and the Corolla could be fun to drive into the late 1990s (with the right modifications, mostly in the tire department), Toyota became known for its comfort, reaching its ultimate peak in the early Lexus cars. They were quiet, comfortable, and reasonably good to drive, with the emphasis on comfort and ease rather than sport. Meanwhile, Honda pursued the sport-minded drivers with its Civic and Accord. The formula worked for both companies, allowing each to grab a huge share of American buyers without really directly competing — even if their car lineups were very similar (and far more rational than American automakers had been).
So why did Toyota decided it had to make sportier cars? Why try to bring back the “Mr. 2” and Celica, and try to make the Corolla seem sportier — and shove a surprisingly powerful V6 into the Camry?
You can blame demographics for that. Younger car buyers tend to like a sporty image, while older car buyers prefer comfort. That gave Toyota an increasingly old buyer base, and presumably executives grew jealous of other companies’ more youthful buyers.
The result is the current Toyota Corolla, among other cars. I won’t argue that it’s easy to drive, because it is — far easier than my persnickety and unfaithful Dart Aero, or my wife’s 300C, with its oversensitive pedals and tight steering. It’s a tad more responsive than my 1999 Corolla was, even if it has the same engine power ratings (which is fairly sad). But it has an overly tight suspension, which does give you good handling, but definitely at the expense of comfort; the Mazda3 has a better balance, especially on the highway. The handling was either the result of heat melting the stylist’s plastic models, or an attempt to really show sport rather than engineering it in.
Toyota also launched the ill-fated Scion brand, in an attempt to appeal to youth, and worked with Subaru on a sports car. Will that change their image? It’s unlikely.
Toyota does get the youth market, sometimes, with some models, particularly their trucks. But it seems to me that they’d do far better with the Corolla, currently marked down for fast sale, if they went back to their buyers’ preferences and the formula most FWD Corollas and Camrys have had — comfort first, easy driving second, and everything else third. Yes, you get older buyers, but you know what? People get old. There will always be older buyers. If you make a good, reliable, cheap, comfortable car, you’ll get your share of younger buyers, too — because not every young person likes what young people are supposed to like.