The incredible reign of the Holden Commodore at the top of Australian motoring could end in 2008.
The family favourite has been number one for more than a decade and has beaten down the Ford Falcon many times, but it currently has no answer to the Toyota Corolla.
Like a Japanese David against the all-Aussie Goliath, the Corolla has cut down the Commodore as more and more people have turned against petrol-guzzlers in the face of unleaded prices that have surged beyond $1.60 a litre.
The Corolla has turned occasional showroom victories over the Commodore in 2007 into a long-running pattern through 2008, building a 1092-car lead over the Holden at this year's halfway point.
Holden is about to hit back with its VE Sportwagon, previewed in Carsguide today, but Toyota Australia is confident it will deliver 48,000 or more Corollas by the end of the year and is, finally, talking about taking top spot.
“It's like cream rising to the top,” says Toyota Australia sales and marketing chief Dave Buttner.
“If the large-six market continues in the direction it is now going, it will be a good result for us,” Buttner says.
Toyota has been selling the Corolla in Australia since 1967 and has never done better than it has today. It delivered 24,415 cars through the first six months of the year, a 7.3 per cent improvement over the same period in 2007.
But it is not just the Corolla. Small cars are booming and Toyota is riding a wave which has also made the Mazda3 the country's No.3 passenger car, ahead of Holden Commodore and Ford Falcon, although it's the working-class Toyota HiLux which is second overall.
“If you look at that segment alone, it's grown from 18 to 38per cent of the passenger car market,” says Buttner of the small-car sector.
“It's a very competitive segment. If you look at small cars under $40,000 there are a lot of good cars and performers.”
The Corolla is so good it sells without much effort, sitting comfortably at just below the 50,000 mark year-on-year and leading its class for eight straight years.
“In terms of the marketing spend, we don't need to put as much effort into selling the Corolla,” Buttner says. “It has had a solid reputation over many, many years. The product offering, with value for money, quality, and reliability have made it an enduring product.”
Globally, Toyota has sold 34 million cars since the Corolla was born in 1966, an average of one every 40 seconds. In 2008 the company builds a Corolla every 23.3 seconds at 16 factories for sales in 140 countries.
But Australia almost lost the Corolla in 2007, when head office in Japan pushed for a change to the Auris name used in Europe. It was a similar program to the one which changed Echo to Yaris, and won a multi-million dollar compensation cheque for Toyota Australia, but it was rejected by the local management team.
“Corolla is a name we fought to keep,” Buttner says. “Others around the world moved but we kept it.”
He knows the Corolla will have a tough fight to the end of the year, particularly with Holden getting the Sportwagon to sell alongside its VE Commodore sedan. And he has a vested interest in big-six business, as Toyota also has its Aurion to build and sell.
“I hope the Commodore wagon is successful. But it is selling in a segment where the large six is down another 16.2per cent this year. It's a segment that's in decline.”
And he is hedging on the importance of a No.1 tag for the Corolla, even though it would match the one which Toyota has won repeatedly for overall sales leadership for several years.
“As I've said in the past, it hasn't been a target of ours for Corolla to be No.1,” Buttner says.
“We have strong availability for Corolla, so there is no reason why it cannot maintain its position for the rest of the year. If we can maintain this performance then there is a very strong possibility it could be No.1 for the year.”