Overview

The 2009 Toyota Corolla is a new car, the 10th generation of the world's most popular passenger car. More than 30 million have been sold in more than 140 different countries. With five distinct models there is something for everyone; and those looking for a hatchback, wagon, or all-wheel-drive can check out the Toyota Matrix which shares many mechanical components.

Working from a concept developed for the first Corolla, the new one shows you can make a car inexpensive without it being cheap. It feels more like a small car than an econobox, as much a smaller Camry as anything else. There is no hybrid version: 27/35 mpg is nothing to sneeze at, hybrid technology isn't inexpensive, and the Prius has that covered.

Younger and older buyers alike appreciate low purchase and operating costs, and previously Corollas have proven reliable and not an expensive insurance proposition. First-time drivers will do well with straightforward controls, minimal distractions, and standard passive safety equipment, and many older drivers will appreciate the same things for different reasons.

For the ultimate low-budget wheels you turn to the Corolla base model, but it has manual, wind-up windows and manual door locks. Upgrading to the Corolla LE includes power windows and door locks. If you fancy a fancier interior, the woodgrain trim in the Corolla XLE goes in that direction, although you can't get leather. Finally, there are two sportier models, the Corolla S which looks the part and has some seat and chassis upgrades, and the Corolla XRS which brings a bigger engine, brakes, and tires to the party.

No matter the model, the Toyota Corolla is a hop-in-and-go kind of car. The control layout logic is multi-generational and quick to master. It's so simple you can easily trade drivers over long distances, and so common you won't be without a car for months if they damage your ride.

Model Lineup

The 2009 Toyota Corolla comes in five derivatives. The standard model, simply called Corolla, is the least expensive yet includes fabric upholstery, air conditioning, CD/WMA/MP3 XM-ready radio, tilt/telescoping steering wheel, six-way manual driver seat, 60/40 split folding rear seat, outside temperature gauge, power mirrors, and engine immobilizer. Six airbags and ABS are standard. You can add an upgrade package (LE spec without painted mirrors), six-speaker/six-CD changer, cruise control, heated mirrors, lighter, and stability/traction control.

The popular LE is the next step up, and adds power windows, door locks, and color-matched outside mirrors. Options are the same as the Standard, plus 16-inch alloy wheels and remote keyless entry.

XLE is the lux-like Corolla, and builds on LE with 16-inch steel wheels and covers, wood grain trim, Optitron instruments, variable intermittent wipers, sliding lid center console, keyless entry, seatback pockets and better radio. The option list swells to include those above not standard, plus moonroof, alloy wheels, eight-speaker JBL audio system, and navigation, though the latter two can not be combined.

The S is the economy sporting model, with color-matched spoilers, fog lamps, black headlight housings, leather-trimmed steering wheel, and sport front seats the upgrades from the base model. Options are extensive and include everything mentioned for Standard, LE, XLE, and leather upholstery.

XRS is the top of the line. It's upgraded with the 2.4-liter engine, wider, 17-inch tires on alloy wheels, electronic stability control, trunk spoiler, rear disc brakes, strut tower brace, Optitron gauges, cruise, leather shifter and steering wheel, and chrome interior accents. Heated mirrors, two radio upgrades, navigation, power locks/windows, moonroof, and leather upholstery are among the options.

Safety features that come standard on all Corolla models include six airbags: dual frontal, front side-impact (for torso protection), and side curtain airbags (for head protection). ABS comes standard. Electronic stability control and traction control are optional and we recommend getting them. The Corolla comes with good seat belts, so wear them because they form your primary line of defense in a crash and allow everything else to work in your favor.

Walkaround

Toyota is not immune to humans getting bigger and desiring more space, so the new Corolla is bigger than the outgoing version, and from a distance with no size reference handy, you're forgiven if you think it's a Camry. The light housings are the most similar, driven by both styling heritage and modern safety standards, the shoulders over the wheel openings are more pronounced, and the roofline as it drops behind the rear door is more formal. However, it's immediately recognizable as a Toyota, and from behind as a Corolla.

Messing with success is difficult, so after selling more than 30 million Corollas around the world Toyota kept the update conservative. Buyers who seek more edge in styling without giving up the economy and reliability reputation will drift to the Toyota Matrix or over to Scion. Others will appreciate the simple lines. Those same simple lines help keep collision repair prices from extremes, which means lower insurance rates.

Both the S and XRS receive different lower nose and tail sections, the area around the fog lamps bearing a distant similarity to the Lexus IS, and trunk spoilers. It's a look that works better on the XRS by virtue of its larger wheels. It also works best on darker colors because the added panels appear more integrated. Fit and finish both appear to a high level for such an inexpensive car.

The basis for the Corolla also forms the base of the Matrix, and the all-new 2009 Pontiac Vibe. The Corolla is within a few inches of most of its competitors, the Mistubishi Lancer being among the longer and the Honda Civic amongst the shorter. Nissan Sentra is noticeably taller and bigger, but the Nissan Versa is as likely to face off against lesser-priced Corolla models.

Interior Features

With such a large audience, the 2009 Toyota Corolla skips the fringes and focuses on a pleasant interior designed more to offend no one than to excite just a few. Hop in and everything seems rental car simple without the all-too-frequent guilt that comes from not popping for an upgrade from this week's special. As one example, the cloth upholstery appears two-tone at first between bolsters and cushions, but it's just an illusion caused by the texturing.

Materials and patterns are understated, speaking to the practical side without ignoring basic needs for tactile comfort, and they vary appropriately by model. The wood grain trim on the XLE adds warmth not often seen in compacts and helps break up color monotony. We're surprised that the leather upholstery option, available on the S and XRS models with their sport seats, is not offered on the XLE, especially since some competitors like Honda's Civic do. On the other hand, the other trims aren't subject to glare reflections that the faux wood is.

A conventional dash frames speed and engine revs with fuel and ancillary data, the XLE and XRS employing electroluminescent Optitron gauges popularized by Lexus for utmost clarity. Controls used often are on the tilt/telescoping steering column stalks, with others on dash and center stack. Basic three-ring climate controls bring the desired temperature and you can add a high-capacity heater with rear-seat ducts if you live north of the 49th parallel.

Navigation is available but with two caveats: First, you can not get the top-of-the-line JBL sound system in conjunction with it, and second, it lacks voice recognition and Bluetooth to help keep pricing in line with the Corolla's economy-oriented mission. On cars so equipped, especially with a manual transmission, the sliding top console will be appreciated on long drives.

Front-seat headroom is down slightly over previous versions but you won't hit your head and virtually every other usable dimension is bigger. Front seats mix comfort and ease of entry and egress nicely, though the sporting models' heavier bolsters will be appreciated by anyone not shopping at the big 'n tall store. The rear seat is apropos for the class and the floor is flat except for a small incline to the back of the console; the split fold puts the narrow section behind the driver so you can carry long objects and still put two riders behind the passenger.

Outward visibility from the driver's seat is quite good, the narrow pillars paying dividends in lane-change over-the-shoulder glances. A low dashboard and windshield base mean beginning drivers who may not yet be full height won't have any trouble, although they will join most drivers in having a hard time seeing where the front ends.

Storage spaces are well thought-out, even to details like a cord slot so your personal electronics connection doesn't get pinched.

A remote trunk release opens trunk lid, which springs from the top of the bumper and bisects the taillights for a wider loading space. Space of 12.3 cubic foot is about average and isn't hindered by black boxes and big speakers hanging down under the back window. A temporary-use spare is under the floor.

Driving Impressions

All 2009 Toyota Corolla models except the XRS use a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine that's been redesigned this year and generates 132 hp and 128 lb-ft of torque. It delivers low emissions, the same 27/35 mpg fuel economy ratings with five-speed manual or four-speed automatic, and uses a timing chain rather than a belt which usually saves on service costs.

The 132-hp XRS engine has less power than Honda's 140-hp Civic but more than the Nissan Versa's; however, Versa makes its torque earlier in the rev band than the Corolla, so where the Versa feels relatively stout even with an automatic, the Corolla feels it needs to be revved to get much out of it.

There are no issues with smoothness or linearity, just plan on the manual for maximum performance and be prepared to floor the pedal on automatics when getting on the freeway because acceleration will fall off as soon it is out of first gear. Besides making the engine feel more fun and capable, the manual has low efforts, is simple to use, and will save you a chunk of cash at purchase.

The Corolla XRS model's 2.4-liter engine is also found in the Toyota Camry so its added midrange power moves the smaller Corolla quite well at the cost of fuel economy, which is down by 5 mpg compared with the other Corolla models; like the other models, the XRS runs fine on regular unleaded gasoline. The 2.4-liter XRS engine isn't significantly smoother or quieter than the 1.8-liter, it just seems that way since you don't rev it as much. There's no point in pushing the 2.4 to redline as it won't go any faster and never gets any sparkle to it, it just goes, at this point almost a match for the Lancer's standard 152-hp 2-liter but still trailing Nissan's Sentra SE-R.

Contributing to the added speed of the XRS (and somewhat to the fuel economy) are shorter gearing in both transmissions for moving off smartly. Only in highway cruising with the automatic do you gain anything back, as the extra gear in the XRS model's five-speed automatic contributes to quieter cruising. Regardless of the transmission, the XRS does not like to take off quickly on a rippled surface, and the manual doesn't like being rushed into first gear.

The manual shifter is good, not as slick and precise as the Honda Civic but far ahead of the Chevrolet Aveo's rubbery arrangement. Although the Corolla XRS five-speed automatic has sequential shifting on the console lever, it would benefit from wheel-mounted paddles like those on the $16,000 Honda Fit Sport.

As wheel diameter increases so does handling crispness and the potential for ride degradation. The Corolla is much improved for the tautness of ride while maintaining some semblance of comfort, but you won't want anything firmer than the XRS and its 17-inch tires; with a simple torsion beam rear suspension and firm springs it comes back down fairly hard after a bump. If you live in a state known for poor roads, we recommend a test drive on some of them before committing to the XRS.

Antilock brakes (ABS) are standard, and the XRS upgrades to rear discs. The pedal offers good feel and more retarding the harder you push, without any sponginess; only when the ABS is active do you feel any pulsation in the pedal, and that's normal so keep your foot down.

New to the Corolla this year is electric power steering system which matches effort to speed but does not telegraph information from tire to steering wheel as well as some systems like the Honda Civic or Mazda3. In low-speed driving where you expect the wheel to return to straight ahead on its own as it unwinds out of the turn, you will be doing more of the work.

While the Corolla may not match the class-leading Mazda3 for dynamics or crisp response, it is a solid structure that exhibited no squeaks or complaints, even after being aired out over a particularly nasty railroad crossing. Much of this can be attributed to the more crash-resistant body shell.


Summary

The all-new 2009 Toyota Corolla is an practical sedan that by way of its myriad configurations can be used for virtually any application. It keeps up with urban traffic, offers good maneuverability, delivers decent fuel economy, and makes a strong argument in any non-emotional automotive purchase.

 

Copyright © 1994-2007 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

G.R. Whale

New Car Test Drive

Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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