Toyota plans sleek new look for its best-selling Corolla

DETROIT — A small sedan unveiled Monday at the North American International Auto Show is the most important model Toyota will never sell.

Called Furia, it gives a hint of what Akio Toyoda wants from a company not known for its style.

Toyota, poised to take back the title of world's biggest automaker, teased out a video and rear quarter-panel shot of Furia showing little more than a stylized knife-shaped LED taillight it never has used before.

While Furia itself isn't headed to dealerships, elements of the car might show up on the revamped Corolla, the company's best-selling model globally, which is due for a new look this year.

The concept allows the cautious company to see how people react to its styling changes before it releases the final version of the Corolla, which is expected to go on sale this year.

The world's largest automaker knows it needs to update the stale Corolla if it wants to attract younger buyers, who have been flocking to newer, more stylish rivals like the Ford Focus and Hyundai Elantra. The Corolla was last revamped four years ago.

Even though Corolla's U.S. sales rose 21 percent to 290,947 last year, they trailed the Honda Civic, which was new in 2012. Civic sales jumped 44 percent to 317,909.

Still, it's risky to toy with one of the best-selling cars in the world. The decision links to Toyoda, who has talked up style in a quest to change Toyota's reputation for boring cars. Making better-looking cars can protect profit margins now and win new customers into the future.

"What's not to like about the job Akio Toyoda has done?" said Jim Womack, author of The Machine That Changed the World, an influential study of Toyota's production techniques. "The real test for Akio is the future: Can he take them up another peg?"

The Furia ditches the current Corolla's soft, bland styling in favor of sharper lines, a dramatically sloped windshield and hood, narrower and more aggressive headlights and a large, blacked-out grille that's reminiscent of Toyota's luxury Lexus brand.

Toyota says it wants the car to look like it's in motion even when it's parked. The Furia is slightly longer, narrower and lower than the current Corolla.

Earl Stewart, a Toyota dealer in North Palm Beach, Fla., thinks the Furia is beautiful. But he worries that it could turn off his customer base of retirees.

"It's risky, but sooner or later, you've got to get into the youth game," he says.