My late father had quirky tastes in automobiles.
His first car was a Morris Minor, which he bought in the early 1950s when he came ashore after more than a decade at sea as a young radio officer in the Merchant Navy. That little bundle of rattling nuts and bolts was ubiquitous in early-1950s Britain, a car invented out of necessity and with limited resources in a rapidly-fading, nearly-bankrupt British Empire.
Dad had reluctantly returned to England after marrying a pretty 18-year-old he’d met at a dance in then-British Guiana. He was on leave in Georgetown when she caught his eye and then took his heart. That was my mother.
They took up residence in a chilly, damp Liverpool flat and dad went to work for the Marconi Company fixing ships’ radios and such on docks. At less than half the pay he had earned at sea. My mother learned to cook and manage rationing. This was no small feat for a very young woman who’d grown up in a wealthy South American household filled with servants, cooks and nannies.
Liverpool lasted six months. Fed up with an dysfunctional and impoverished Britain, they spent the last of their savings on a steamship ticket to Montreal. That’s where I was born, many years later. It was good-bye to the Morris Minor.
When I was growing up, the family car was a Rambler station wagon with a push-button transmission. Then one night dad surprised us. With no warning, he traded in his sturdy but unremarkable Ford Falcon work car for a gold Rambler Rogue V-8 with a cream convertible top. The Rogue is now a classic, but in 1967 it was an oddball challenge to Ford’s ubiquitous Mustang.
After that success, dad then went totally bonkers. He bought a Renault Le Car (a nightmarish version of the Renault 5). Next came a 1971 Plymouth Cricket. The Cricket was a re-badged Hillman Avenger imported from Britain. It was an epic failure. My dad had, by then, had enough of post-war European cars.
Years and years of indulging his whimsical taste for unreliable automotive oddities led him to Toyota, which in the mid-1970s was an emerging import brand struggling for traction in North America. In those days, the choice of a Toyota or a Nissan came down to a coin flip.
The coin landed on a Corona station wagon with leather seats, air conditioning and sporty floor mats; he added a trailer hitch to pull the little sailboat he and I build in the garage.
My dad went to the grave with that car. And to be clear, he lived a long time after signing up for his first and only Toyota. It NEVER broke down. It NEVER burned oil. It NEVER failed to start, ever. It sipped gas, which appealed to my always-careful-with-money father, child of the Great Depression and veteran of WWII.
After my dad passed away, too early at 61, I bought the Corona from my mother. She, in turn, bought a new Toyota Corolla sedan, which more suited her taste and lasted seemingly forever.
I towed my dad’s sailboat back to Canada (from Portland, Ore. where they lived) with that Corona. It served me well for many more years, before I sold it to buy a Mazda RX-7 sports car with a Wankel rotary. (Yes, a fascination for the offbeat is in the bloodline.)
I was reminded of my dad when I climbed into the newest station wagon in the Toyota family, the Corolla Cross compact. Toyota is calling this a “subcompact SUV,” and that’s total nonsense.
It’s Corolla wagon with a slightly taller stance than the car. I think my father might even recognize it as a Toyota, 40-odd years after the Corona.
Because it follows Toyota’s tried-and-true formula for success. It’s well-built and versatile. It’s fuel-efficient and decently powerful. It’s very, very safe – a Top Safety Pick+ by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Toyota is, once again, ranked among the most dependable brands in J.D. Power’s latest Vehicle Dependability Study (VDS); the Corolla is No. 1 among compacts in that study, too.
And, by today’s standards. it’s affordable. The base front-drive Corolla Cross is just under $26,000, and a loaded XLE AWD (all-wheel drive) version is just south of $35,000, plus fees and taxes, of course. (Note: only the base model comes as a front-driver; the jump to the cheapest AWD Corolla Cross is $1,860.)
The 169-horsepower Corolla Cross asks only for regular fuel to run its 2.0-litre gasoline four-banger. Power goes to the wheels through a continuously variable gearbox that pretends to shift like a traditional tranny.
The combined efficiency rating is 7.8 litres/100 km with AWD (7.3 for front-drive). If pump prices are your worry, though, Toyota has announced the arrival of an AWD-only, 194-horsepower gasoline/electric hybrid version rated at 6.4 litres/100 km.
Personally, I’d get the hybrid. It will prove a very thrifty ride in the city and the hybrid drive is Prius-proven. By contrast, my gasoline Corolla Cross tester told me I was getting about 11.2 litres/100 km in city driving when I returned it after a week.
Toyota officials like to chatter about the “stylish, dynamic and capable” Corolla Cross. Stylish? Yes, it’s easy enough on the eyes, but hardly an artistic achievement. The thing is, the design will last not years but decades without getting old.
It’s not particularly dynamic, either. The engine has enough power, but not too much by any means. And when you push, the noises from under the hood get rather loud and urgent.
Most of the time, this little runabout runs in front-drive mode, though when the fronts start to slip, the rears get to work. Up to 50 per cent of torque goes rearward and quickly, without noticeably upsetting the car’s dynamics. That is, things don’t get squirrelly as power to the pavement shifts about.
This car does feel solid. Claims about the “rigid body design” are not misplaced. The suspension tuning is unremarkable. As long as you keep within the obvious limits of a grocery getter, you’ll be quite happy.
The cabin seats two adults well enough on adequately-padded buckets. The smallish seven-inch infotainment screen is absurd by today’s standards, but the software is totally functional. The smartphone charging dock in the cubby at the base of the dashboard is very useful.
The rear seats are snug, with almost no legroom when the fronts are pushed back to seat normal-size adults. The cargo area is small, too. The rear seatbacks fold flat, of course.
Toyota has gone all-in on safety technology, which means even the cheapest model gets: Lane Departure Alert with Steering Assist and Road Edge Detection; Automatic High Beams; Pre-Collision System with Pedestrian and Bicycle Detection; Lane Tracing Assist, and Dynamic Radar Cruise Control; a back-up camera, and ten air bags; and a tire pressure monitoring system.
The priciest Corolla Cross has a leather-wrapped shift knob, ambient interior lighting, a power adjustable driver’s seat, and upholstery made of something leather-like called Softex. Dual-zone automatic air conditioning, and an auto-dimming rear view mirror add to the fancy packaging, as do 18” alloy wheels, LED fog lamps, bi-beam LED headlamps, LED rear combination lamps, and a power back door.
My father told me that it took him a very long time to rid himself of a penchant for embracing troublesome automobiles. As it turned out, the Corona was his last car and it made him very happy; it was remarkably unremarkable.
Here we are, decades later, and Toyota continues delivering on the formula dad discovered after much trial and error. In this case, it’s the Corolla Cross, also remarkably unremarkable, and also durable, versatile, affordable and safe.