Toyota is hard at work banishing its bland image. The automaker has a rich history of performance models and capable off-roaders, and it is trying to remind everyone of that by giving its legendary trucks and SUVs cooler TRD Pro variants and getting reacquainted with its sports car lineage via the 86 and Supra models. Recently, Toyota even spiced up the Corolla, a compact car that has long existed at the butt end of sneering automotive appliance jokes. Too bad the Corolla’s reputation is clouded by its well-earned record of quiet reliability, because the car’s decades-long story is littered with genuinely cool and desirable offshoots. Here are our 10 favorites:
1966–1970 Toyota Corolla (first generation)
The original Corolla debuted for 1966, but wasn’t exported to America until 1968. Then an all-new vehicle, the Corolla existed throughout its first generation free from the derogatory image of a boring appliance. It was, simply, a compact Japanese car powered by a 1.1-liter, 60-hp four-cylinder engine that happened to be quite reliable. Its clean styling gets a big thumbs up from us today.
1970–1978 Toyota Corolla (second generation)
If, today, we were to introduce an all-new Corolla to you and declare that its engine makes 21 percent more horsepower than before, you’d likely flip. Yet, that was true for the second-generation Corolla, which appeared in 1970 with a 73-hp engine that made it that much more powerful than the original Corolla. Whoa. Overseas, Toyota offered even more muscular versions, including Sprinter and Levin models and a nifty little wagon. We’d definitely drive one of these now.
1984–1987 Toyota Corolla AE86
This ’80s Corolla is so cool, Toyota named a modern sports car after it. Today’s 86, which began life as a Scion before that brand folded, is a rear-drive clinic in car control and driving fun that directly harkens back to the Corolla AE86. That car’s drifty character—it, too, was rear-wheel drive and starred (in cartoon form) in the amazing Initial D series, where it slid unforgettably around Japan’s roads—can be found in the modern 86.
1987–1988 Corolla FX16 GT-S hatchback
With a name like a fighter jet and the shape of a doorstop, the Corolla FX16 GT-S hatchback was quite an outlier in the annals of Corolla history. It also was pretty sweet, with a 16-valve dual-overhead-cam four-cylinder engine. This 1.6-liter 4A-GE powered the earlier Corolla GT-S “AE86,” as well as the first-ever MR2 sports car.
1988–1991 Corolla GT-S sport coupe (AE92)
Okay, so the E90-generation Corolla’s GT-S coupe variant wasn’t rear-wheel-drive like its immediate predecessor, the AE86—but this front-drive coupe did use the same 4A-GE twin-cam four-cylinder engine. Plus, it came with sweet late-’80s touches such as pop-up headlights, a ribbed shift boot, and “GT-S Twin Cam 16” door graphics.
2003–2006 Corolla XRS
Honda may be known for its screaming, high-rpm four-cylinder engines, but for a brief time, so was Toyota. In the early naughts, someone at Toyota had the brilliant idea to pilfer the 1.8-liter 2ZZ engine from the then-current Celica GT-S coupe and install it in the humble Corolla. Thus was born the Corolla XRS, which shipped with a six-speed manual transmission, natty body addenda, and that 170-hp engine that revved to 8200 rpm. Like Honda’s VTEC-equipped engines, the 2ZZ switched over to a different cam profile at higher rpm, meaning it behaved like a normal Corolla mill below, say, 6000-ish rpm. Push beyond that threshold, and the zingy 2ZZ woke up like a feral ferret.
2003–2006 Toyota Matrix XRS
If the Corolla XRS seems spicy enough in theory but still derpy in appearance, you’re right. The XRS treatment didn’t exactly solve the eighth-generation Corolla’s tall, narrow-body look. So, good thing you could buy one in hatchback guise! The Matrix was officially labeled a Corolla—the better to lump their sales together—and it was built alongside it in southern California, at the General Motors/Toyota NUMMI plant that has since been purchased by Tesla and used to pump out that electric automaker’s high-end wares. Like the Corolla, the Matrix was offered in XRS form, with the same 170-hp screamer of an engine and a six-speed manual. Unlike the Corolla, the rear seats could be folded flat, and dirty crap loaded onto the plastic-lined load floor. It also looked a hell of a lot better than the humdrum ‘rolla sedan.
2020 Toyota Corolla XSE sedan/hatchback
The latest Corolla is perhaps the first since the original to be cool as-is. Many of the other Corollas listed here were special versions of the mainstream sedan, but the 2020 Corolla sedan and hatchback are interesting on their own. Toyota snazzed up the Corolla’s styling—and, for the first time in generations, offers a more practical hatchback version using the same name—and starched up the car’s responses. These changes are maximal on the sporty XSE trim level, which can be mated with a six-speed manual transmission on the hatchback. It’s all part of Toyota’s renewed push to build interesting, fun-to-drive cars that has resulted in the excellent Camry, the rear-drive 86 sports car, and even an Avalon that isn’t a complete couch on wheels.