(first posted 8/19/2015) Toyota has at times been one of the more conservative Japanese automakers. Its cautious approach to adopting front-wheel-drive is testament to this. Honda had released its FWD Accord and Civic in the 1970s, but the first FWD Corolla didn’t arrive until 1983 and the first FWD Camry launched in 1982 (both arriving a year late in North America). In some markets, Toyota was even slower in embracing the increasingly popular FWD/transversely-mounted engine format. Witness the last rear-wheel-drive Corona sold in Australia.
The 1980s were the salad days of mid-size cars in Australia. Ford’s Telstar, a rebadged Mazda 626, and the J-Car Holden Camira were selling well and were two of the first front-wheel-drive mid-sizers. The Honda Accord and Mazda 626 were lower volume, more premium offerings.
1984 Mitsubishi Sigma
A triad of locally-assembled Japanese mid-sizers carried the torch for the ways of old, though. The Nissan Bluebird, Mitsubishi Sigma, and the featured Toyota Corona were all utterly conservative, rear-wheel-drive sedans and wagons with inline four engines.
1985 Nissan Bluebird
America may have been the land of the free and the home of the body-on-frame, rear-wheel-drive V8 sedan, but perhaps due to CAFE the market was quickly flooded with modern, FWD offerings. The Bluebird’s upscale cousin, the 810 Maxima, made way for a front-wheel-drive model in 1984 and there was a front-wheel-drive Stanza launched in 1982 (a FWD Bluebird also launched in Japan and Europe in 1983). The bland Bluebird would continue in Australia until 1986 when it was actually replaced by another rear-wheel-drive model, the R31 Skyline and its four-cylinder derivative, the Pintara.
Mitsubishi would eventually launch a FWD model engineered specifically for Australia, the 1985 Magna, but they milked the old Sigma for all it was worth. The Sigma was sold in North America from 1978-81 as the Dodge Colt Wagon, despite its fellow foals being a whole size smaller.
Finally, there was the Corona. Toyota had actually launched a FWD car bearing the same nameplate in other markets, including New Zealand, in 1983. This rode atop a shortened version of the new Camry platform. A RWD Corona continued for Asia-Pacific markets, and was actually sold alongside the FWD Corona in New Zealand. Oh, and there were also mechanically identical cars wearing the Carina nameplate in some markets. How confusing.
While the previous Aussie-market Corona had come in a fairly sleek, imported liftback variant, the 1983 Corona was sedan or wagon only, all locally built. Gone was the 1.9 “Starfire” four – a hacked-down version of Holden’s 2.85 six – and instead there were two genuine Toyota engines. A carbureted 2.0 SOHC four opened the range, with 98 hp and 116 lb-ft. A fuel-injected 2.4 four was optional, with 116 hp and 146 lb-ft. Even more powerful turbocharged variants were available in the Japanese market.
The new Camry was also launched in Australia in 1983, but was positioned as a more premium offering and available only as a single imported liftback model. They are a rare sight today.
There was a sharp coupe variant of the RWD Corona that didn’t make it to Australia. It would have flopped here for two reasons. Firstly, Australia isn’t a big market for coupes and we already had the Celica. Secondly, the Corona just wasn’t that good to drive.
Still, the T140 Corona coupe was quite a looker, with rear styling that called to mind the contemporary Pontiac Grand Prix and Chevrolet Monte Carlo.
Rear-wheel-drive may be idolized as the most desirable format today, but that is because all the inferior RWD options were washed away as if by a cleansing wave. The Corona had all the compromises of RWD – inferior packaging, less all-weather traction – but with none of the benefits. Driving one, you would find the steering dead, the suspension soft and the body roll copious. The engines were gutsy at least.
The Corona may have been the last of a dying breed of Toyotas but it represented the start of Toyota Australia’s export program. They exported their first vehicle, a Corona wagon, to longroof-hungry New Zealand in 1986. Their export program is still running to this day, and quality standards have always been as high as you would expect from a Toyota factory.
The continued presence of well-preserved Coronas can be chalked up to a few factors. Toyotas have always enjoyed a reputation for quality and reliability and Australia’s generally dry climate is conducive to the longevity of older cars. You could also chalk regular appearances of the Corona up to their popularity with older, conservative types; the Bluebird pops up with similar regularity.
1987 was a new dawn for Toyota Australia, as the Camry would take over as their mid-size breadwinner. It was more modern, better packaged and drove better. With that, the sun set on the Corona.