The Toyota Corolla. Picture: SUPPLIED
The Toyota Corolla. Picture: SUPPLIED

After 43 years of local Corolla manufacture, during which more than 1-million vehicles have been built, Toyota SA is considering the previously unthinkable: life without its traditional icon.

With local and export demand in decline, CEO Andrew Kirby says it is "quite feasible" that the vehicle will no longer be produced in SA after the current model’s planned lifecycle ends in 2021.

It would be imported instead.

Kirby says: "We want to find a replacement model — something that young people will want to buy in the future."

The Corolla is arguably the global motor industry’s greatest success story. Since its launch in 1966, more than 45-million units have been sold, making it the most popular car nameplate in history.

It also ruled the local roost for long periods after its SA launch in 1975. In recent years, however, the midrange sedan market in which it competes has lost share to entry-level cars and sports utility vehicles (SUVs). "The segment has continuously declined and there is no immediate sign of it recovering," says Kirby.

Of the 130,236 vehicles built last year at Toyota SA’s Prospecton plant in Durban, only 20,571 were Corollas. This year the number is expected to decline further to 17,205, while overall production increases to 134,685.

Toyota SA’s mainstay for the past few years has been the Hilux bakkie and its SUV offshoot, the Fortuner. The company expects to manufacture 85,516 Hiluxes in 2018 and 14,630 Fortuners. Prospecton will also build 4,371 Hino trucks and 12,963 Sesfikile buses for the taxi industry.

Of 49,507 planned export units this year, just 1,022 will be Corollas. The remainder will be Hiluxes and Fortuners.

Even their numbers are down significantly. The collapse in African new-vehicle markets has made a big dent in SA exports of all brands.

Between 2013 and 2017, SA exports into the rest of Africa fell from 78,807 to 21,848 as tumbling commodity prices, including a collapse in the oil price, starved governments of spending power and foreign currency. Toyota SA, as the main SA exporter to the region, has taken the biggest hit.

Kirby says: "We exported 60,000 to Africa in 2013 and under 16,000 in 2017. Everyone has seen a similar percentage decrease but as the biggest exporter we are losing the biggest numbers. We are starting to see the situation turn. It’s not significant yet but I think we will start to see improvement in 2019."

The current Hilux/Fortuner range was launched in 2016 after an R8bn investment. Kirby says Toyota SA is now investing "significantly" in local content for Sesfikile, making it an integral part of the company’s medium-term production plans. The current Corolla was launched in 2014.

Other Toyota cars sold in SA are already imported. They include the Aygo, Yaris and Avanza. In theory, it would make sense for Corolla’s replacement to be an entry-level car. Toyota SA has not been strong in this segment since the demise of the Tazz in 2006. The brand’s current entry-level competitor, the Etios, is imported from India.

Any decision on a new vehicle is likely to be influenced by the final shape of government policy for the motor industry.

The automotive production & development programme (APDP), launched in 2013, is due to expire at the end of 2020 and trade & industry minister Rob Davies hopes to announce details of its successor before the end of this year.

He says the new programme, likely to run from 2021 to 2035, will mirror current policy as far as possible. Pillars of the APDP include import-duty benefits and partial rebates of production-related investments. However, new proposals, including demands for more black participation and swingeing increases in vehicle local content, are known to be causing dismay among some vehicle manufacturers.

Kirby, who is president of the National Association of Automobile Manufacturers of SA, says the industry understands the government’s priorities, particularly the creation of a black supplier industry.

He says: "The black industrialist base is not there yet but it’s something we are all committed to developing jointly. We have to incubate small suppliers. There’s a good understanding of how we develop that. It requires finance, funding and skills development. We’ll get there but it won’t happen next week."