Curbside Classic: 1990 Toyota Corona (T170) Select Saloon – Beyond Compare

There were a lot of parallels to be drawn between Toyota and GM products back in the ‘80s/’90s. The big difference was that GM had several marques to play with, whereas Toyotas were all under the same brand name. But going by nameplate or platform, the two automotive giants were pretty similar. So here’s the story of the T170 Corona, which might be compared to a lower-tier Buick (it certainly looks like 7/8th of one) or, perhaps more accurately, to an Oldsmobile.

Very roughly speaking, and bearing in mind that cars are much smaller in Japan, the ‘80s GM/Toyota mirror image theory goes like this: Chevette = Starlet; Cavalier = Tercel; J-Body = Corolla; Cutlass Supreme / Buick Regal = Corona; Olds 98 / Buick Le Sabre = Mark II / Camry; Cadillac Seville = Crown; Cadillac Fleetwood 75 = Century. Add the sports cars (Camaro = Celica; Corvette = Supra), and it kind of works, if you squint a lot.

It also works because Toyota lacked a corporate logo in those days. Instead, each nameplate had its own grille emblem – a tradition that some models have carried through to this day. Some GM cars had that going on as well, of course, but that was more of a ‘60s thing.

The Corona “Select” we have here is the middle of the range – nothing too fancy, and no AWD drivetrain. The most conservative one, in many ways. I’m not sure what engine is driving those front wheels though, as the T170 platform was used with a pretty wide variety of 4-cyl. mills: seven petrol units could be ordered, ranging from 1.5 to 2 litres, as well as a 2-litre Diesel.

The T170 platform also came in a variety of body styles. Aside from the standard T170 Corona saloon, there was a hatchback (top left) and the usual van/wagon (middle right). A weird stretch variant was also created (top right), only 500 units of which were made. If one preferred more rounded styling, the Carina (middle left) was available as an alternative. Furthermore, the related T180 cars were there to add a touch of class: the Celica (bottom left) and the Corona Exiv hardtop saloon (bottom right).

A veritable little family populated the Corona range, then, with different grilles, names and body styles. Not a million miles from the GM sedans and wagons of the Irv Rybicky era, though the Toyotas were somewhat less cookie-cutterish.

The T170 Corona and Carina were both launched in December 1987 and lasted until early 1992, though wagons made it to the end of that year, when they were replaced by the Caldina. After having lost the coupé with the previous generation, the 9th generation Corona would prove to be the last one with a long-roof variant. As one of Toyota’s oldest nameplate, the Corona was now starting to lose its shine, and would disappear by 2001. The Oldsmobile similitude gets more pronounced…

One clear difference with GM products of the era is how well Toyotas were put together, with pretty decent interiors as well. This one is no garage queen, as the exterior can attest, but there wasn’t much sign of 30 years of use inside – not a claim many well-worn 1990 GM mid-sizers can make.

Then, there is the export aspect. Toyota quit selling Coronas in North America back with the T130 (1978-82), but other markets kept getting them much longer. The T170 was sold in Europe, albeit badged as the “Carina II,” and was assembled in several Asia-Pacific countries. I’m not sure many mid-sized 1990 Olds or Buicks left the States, but it could not have been that many. GM’s European and Australian subsidiaries were far more capable of generating sales. Marques like Pontiac, Oldsmobile or Buick had limited appeal outside their home market, by this point.

Sales for this 9th generation Corona were still healthy: Toyota managed to shift almost half a million of them on the JDM – a very decent score for an increasingly crowded segment. Indeed, this was to be the last one that would sell so well. The follow-up T190 model barely managed half the T170’s tally, and exports all but dried up. For a car that sold so many units, there are surprisingly few of these still around. I suppose most of these, solid though they were, have long since joined the great garage in the sky. That or they were exported second-hand to the Pacific or East Africa. I remember seeing quite a few in Myanmar when I moved there ten years ago – wagons especially.

So does anybody buy my Toyota / GM theory, or am I comparing apples to kumquats here? Maybe it’s all a load of fruit salad. I can’t tell what’s what. Boy, this Corona certainly does a number on the taste buds.