The tale of the 2009 Toyota Corolla is almost the tale of two cars: There's the base edition, which doesn't do as good a job keeping up with the latest Honda Civic in performance or styling, and the sporty Corolla XRS, which has better power and handling but also a price tag that trips over some mid-size cars.
The base 2009 Toyota Corolla and the better-equipped LE and XLE editions come with a standard 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine that puts out 132 horsepower and 128 pound-feet of torque. That's less than the Honda Civic and the Chevrolet Cobalt. With a five-speed manual or a not-so-advanced four-speed automatic, the Corolla manages good 27/35 mpg fuel economy, versus the Civic's 26/34 mpg, but acceleration is tepid.
The upmarket XRS edition, meanwhile, gets a 158-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine. It's a freer-revving powerplant that pushes the Corolla through a five-speed manual or a more modern five-speed automatic. With the manual gearbox, the Corolla XRS musters 0-60 mph acceleration times in the mid-8 second range--not class-leading performance, but pleasant enough through the snicky gearshift and the nicely mechanical engine note. The Corolla XRS's fuel economy does suffer, though, at 22/30 mpg.
The new 2009 Corolla is far more attractive than the near-invisible car it replaces, but still dull-looking. It sits on the same wheelbase as before, but is slightly longer and nearly three inches wider. Thus, it has more room across the front seats--but less room across in back, where two adults will fit fine for short trips, but three adults will be seriously unhappy. The cabin on the base car looks cheap, but moving up to the LE adds features such as power windows, while the XLE gets wood grain trim, and the XRS adds some leather trim and nicely shaped sports seats.
An independent suspension keeps the base Corolla moving along fine for a commuter car, but Honda seems to weave more handling magic in even the base Civic. Moving up to the Corolla XRS adds rear disc brakes and tighter feel, but the electric power steering is still too light and vague. There's plenty of tire squeal in the base cars, but the XRS seems far happier and more buttoned-down in cornering.
Safety equipment on even the base Corolla is extensive. Anti-lock brakes are standard, as are tire-pressure monitors. Active headrests and front, side, and curtain airbags also come with every 2009 Toyota Corolla, but only the XRS has standard stability control.
Air conditioning, a tilt/telescoping steering wheel, and a CD player are standard on all 2009 Corollas. Options include a navigation system and XM Satellite Radio, rare features in this class.
The Bottom Line:
The 2009 Toyota Corolla has a split personality: the utilitarian base car and the slightly edgy, expensive Corolla XRS.