I had a girlfriend in college who had a 1970 Toyota Corolla. Back in the day the boxy Japanese compact was an oddity, sort of like what early buyers of Hyundai and Kia vehicles experienced when they drove South Korean cars in the early 1990s.
But what that light green Toyota lacked in style it more than made up in reliability and fuel efficiency at a time when Detroit built such compact clunkers as the Ford Pinto, Chevrolet Vega, and American Motors' Gremlin and Pacer.
That first in the United States Corolla introduced in 1968 was nearly indestructible. My brother married a woman who drove a 1969 model for 15 years. The other car of choice for college students of that era was the rear-engine Volkswagen Beetle. I married a woman who drove a '71 VW Super Beetle nicknamed "Norton" for 17 years and a college student drove it away when we finally parted with it.
My wife still loves her 14-year-old Corolla and so do many other loyal Corolla owners. Toyota has sold nearly 40 million Corollas worldwide since 1966, 1.2 million last year.
The world's largest automaker recently took the wraps off the 11th generation Corolla, an all-new model of the front-wheel drive compact with design flashes from the Corolla Furia Concept that made the rounds at auto shows from Detroit to California.
In a bid to break its conservative vanilla design mold, the all-new 2014 Corolla has some cues from the top competitors in the segment, sporting a bold front fascia reminiscent of the Mazda3 and an exterior and instrument cluster evoking the Honda Civic.
Style and Corolla have been polar opposites for decades, but I was impressed with the practically of the vehicle when we rented a 2013 Corolla on vacation last winter, a vehicle some auto critics dubbed an "automotive appliance."
The last few generations of the Corolla probably helped inspire the bumper sticker: "My car is a [picture of a toaster]," but the volume seller, second in sales to the Camry, has been Toyota's bread and butter. Safe, good mileage and no breakdowns has been a winning formula.
For 2014, Toyota ups the ante with more size and style. The front-wheel drive Corolla will come in four trim levels in showrooms this fall -- L, LE, S and a new LE Eco version. The wheel-base has been stretched by 3.9 inches and the car is lower and wider.
LED headlights, running lights and tail-lamps are standard and the sporty Corolla S adds more accents along with the 132-horsepower version of the 1.8-liter, VVT-I four-cylinder engine. The LE Eco engine boosts power to 140-horsepower and has continuously variable valve timing to improve fuel economy to 40 mpg on the highway.
The Corolla L and Corolla S offer a four-speed automatic or 6-speed manual transmission while the other models come with a new continuously variable "intelligent shift" automatic.
Chrysler ends recall fight over Jeeps
U.S. automaker Chrysler relented under federal pressure and agreed to recall 1.56 million older model Jeeps that government safety regulators say pose a fire hazard in the event of a rear-end collision.
The Detroit auto company, owned by Italy's Fiat SpA, threw down the gauntlet three weeks ago when it refused to comply with demands it recall 2.7 million Jeeps. Chrysler said the 1993-2004 Jeep Grand Cherokees and 2002-07 Jeep Liberty SUVs are safe and not defective even though their plastic gas tanks are located between the rear axle and the bumper.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said 51 deaths have been blamed on high-speed accidents in which the gas tank ruptured and a fire resulted. Chrysler said modifications to the gas tank would not have made any difference in those high-impact accidents at high speeds.
In an about-face Tuesday, Chrysler said it would voluntarily inspect 2.7 million vehicles and provide an upgrade to the rear in the form of a trailer hitch to add protection in low-speed crashes for 1.56 million Jeeps. In a victory for Chrysler, NHTSA agreed to a customer service campaign for nearly 1.2 million Jeep Grand Cherokees it wanted recalled.
"The trailer hitch cannot, and will not, mitigate the risk of the high-energy rear collisions identified in your recall request," Chrysler said in its 27-page response to NHTSA.
Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety which filed the original complaint in 2009, had proposed bolting a metal gas tank shield to the frame of the Jeeps, a more costly fix estimated at $100 per vehicle.
"Chrysler's refusal to recall 2.7 million 1993-04 Jeep Grand Cherokee and 2002-07 Jeep Liberty vehicles places profits over safety. These modern day Pintos for soccer moms have been involved with 246 fatal fire crashes and 350 deaths, and at least 112 deaths due to fire," Ditlow said in a statement.
He advised Jeep owners to drive as little as possible and to keep passengers out of the back seat. After the recall was announced, Ditlow said the government should conduct crash tests of Jeeps with trailer hitches to see how much protection the modification provides.
NHTSA has not closed its inquiry.
"We are pleased that Chrysler has agreed to take action to protect its customers and the driving public," the agency statement said. "Consumers impacted by the safety recall and customer satisfaction campaign should have their vehicles serviced promptly once they receive notification from Chrysler. In the meantime, we will continue our investigation into this issue, pending the agency's review of the documents provided by Chrysler in its recall action."
Chrysler, which has rebounded from its 2009 bankruptcy, said in a statement its data "confirms that these vehicles are not defective and are among the safest in the peer group. Nonetheless, Chrysler Group recognizes that this matter has raised concerns for its customers and wants to take further steps, in coordination with NHTSA, to provide additional measures to supplement the safety of its vehicles. Chrysler Group regards safety as a paramount concern and does not compromise on the safety of our customers and families."
Separately, Chrysler recalled more than 400,000 2010-12 Jeep Patriot and Compass SUVs to upgrade seatbelt and airbag software and 220,000 Jeep Wranglers to prevent premature wear to an aluminum transmission oil cooler line than may come in contact with a power steering component.
While sales have been good Chrysler and Jeep vehicles have been plagued by quality problems. Jeep was dead last out of 36 brands in the 2008 J.D. Power & Associates survey of car owners, but improved to 23rd in last year's survey.
Ford going 'back to the future'
Ford's much-maligned MyFord Touch infotainment system is getting another re-do.
Ford plans to restore buttons and knobs to supplement the current touch screen system and will offer another software upgrade this summer to simply some features, The Detroit News reports.
Even with the return of knobs and buttons, motorists will be able to change climate and audio settings using the touch screen that debuted in 2010.
Newer Fords like the Fusion, Escape and F-Series pickups already have buttons for climate control and audio that complement touch screen controls.
Feds: No final decision on backup cameras
Congress passed legislation requiring the U.S. Transportation Department to set rear-visibility rules for vehicles by 2011, but nothing has yet been finalized.
That was before the National Highway Traffic Safety Board last year said that all cars sold in the United States in 2014 would have to have a backup camera. The goal is to cut the number of preventable deaths and reduce the 17,000 injuries a year involving children and adults hit by vehicles in reverse.
The government missed its self-imposed Dec. 31 deadline on regulations for backup cameras -- like setting a minimum depth of field for the camera -- and has not said when a final decision will be made on the matter.
"We want to make sure we get it right," National Highway Traffic Safety Administration head David Strickland told a meeting in New York last week. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the fifth delay could push back rules for a rear-view camera mandate until January 2015.
GM offers free maintenance
With sales perking along, GM is keeping the pedal to the metal by offering free oil changes and other routine maintenance on new Chevrolet, Buick and GMC vehicles for two years or 24,000 miles.
GM chief Dan Akerson announced the program, which also covers leased vehicles, at the company's June stockholders meeting in Detroit, saying it helps "forge even stronger relationships" with customers.
New 2014 vehicles will quality for four free service visits annually covering regular scheduled oil and filter changes, tire rotation and 27-point vehicle inspections and the program transfers to subsequent owners.
Cadillac already offers free scheduled maintenance for four years or 50,000 miles.
Mileage up for vehicles sold in U.S.
The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute says average mileage for new vehicles sold in the United States improved by 5.5 percent in the past year.
The average fuel efficiency for new cars sold in the United States was 24.8 mpg in May, up from 23.5 mpg from May 2012.
"There's an increased demand driven by price of gasoline and there's substantial improvement in technology," Michael Sivak, the institute's director, Sustainable Worldwide Transportation and co-author of the study, told the Chicago Tribune.
Overall U.S. fuel economy has improved by nearly 20 percent since 2007 when the institute began tracking average mpg for vehicles sold in the United States.