The Corolla was Toyota's trailblazer when it led the then-fledgling carmaker to the shores of America in 1968. In an era of Detroit muscle, the economy-minded Corolla secured a beachhead for Toyota. Now in its 40th year on Toyota's roster, the all-new 2009 model is the 10th generation of the pioneering Corolla. The formula that gave it its staying power in the '60s, namely reliability, efficiency, comfort and affordability, is alive and well in the 21st century.
The new Corolla is the first to shed the "entry level" badge, since it's now a middle step between the Yaris and the company's best-selling Camry. Though the previous-generation car did exorcise some of its econobox demons when it came to market in 2003, designers knew styling would be key to the Corolla fulfilling its new role.
Unfortunately, for a clean-sheet design, the new Corolla looks too much like the old model, and is nowhere near as brave as the Honda Civic and Mazda3 designs it will be squaring off against.
The Corolla is available only as a four-door sedan in five different trims: Standard, LE, XLE, S and XRS. The new body was drawn up with a lower profile and a sleeker look, featuring more angular A- and C-pillars. A wider track delivers improved aerodynamics and stability, and increases interior volume. The up-model S and XRS add sporty appeal with a more aggressive front bumper treatment, integrated fog lights, a lip spoiler, side skirts and an upgraded rear fascia.
The driveline-engineers also got to flex their muscles. The 2009 Corolla is offered with two powerplant possibilities: an all-new 132-horsepower 1.8-liter four cylinder, and a 158-horsepower four that displaces 2.4 liters. These engines are also available in the Matrix and various offerings from the Scion brand. In the Corolla, Standard, LE and XLE versions are powered by the 1.8-liter unit with either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission.
The S and XRS trims back up their bark with the bigger 2.4-liter engine that can be coupled with a five-speed manual or five-speed automatic gearbox, the latter a first in the Corolla lineup. The 2.4-liter is optional on S trims and standard on the XRS.
The quality of the interior materials and the car's overall fit and finish are excellent. The roomy interior features a highly configurable center console, a tilt/telescopic steering wheel with optional audio controls, a 60/40 split-folding rear seating, an optional no-nonsense navigation system, an optional JBL sound system, a bright white gauge cluster and more storage possibilities than a bank vault.
On the safety front, the 2009 Corolla features six strategically placed airbags, and an innovative active front-seat head restraint system that provides additional whiplash protection. Other safety features include a tire-pressure-monitoring system, available traction control, anti-lock brakes (ABS) with electronic brake-force distribution, and "Brake Assist" for emergency situations.
On the Road
Behind the wheel, the new Corolla feels far more upscale than previous models. The driving position and outward visibility are immediately noticeable, although the standard seats are a bit flat. The sport seats in the XRS should be standard issue in all Corollas. Unless you only listen to AM talk radio, we highly recommended the optional JBL audio system. The functionality and the overall quietness of the cabin at speed put the Corolla at the top of its segment.
The new engines are excellent companions. The XRS was the most engaging model with its 158 horsepower, manual transmission and 17-inch low-profile tires. When pushed, the now two-inch wider front track and 2.9-inch wider rear track provide a more solid foundation and smoother transitions for sharp cornering. Steering feedback is adequate, and the XRS is responsive as long as the engine is kept in the wide portion of its powerband.
The sporty S and XRS models are not pocket rockets, but they are also far beyond the "basic transportation" umbrella that the Corolla has lived under much of its four decades on the road. The Corolla's five different trims ensure that penny pinchers yearning only for Toyota's reliability and fuel economy can choose a more pedestrian trim, while the more fashion conscious or power hungry can land a Corolla that makes a more opinionated statement.
Although Toyota has sold 30 million Corollas worldwide, the 2009 redesign is a critical juncture for the car because Toyota research indicates that one out of every three Corolla buyers moves up into another Toyota. This segment is heating up with plenty of quality, well-targeted products such as the Honda Civic, Mazda3 and the all-new Ford Focus.
Pricing is expected to remain in the same neighborhood as the outgoing model, and the all-new 2009 Corollas is scheduled to roll into showrooms on February 11, 2008.
Evan Griffey served as an editor of Turbo & High Tech Performance, a pioneering publication about sport-compact tuning. Today Griffey freelances for Import Tuner, Sport Compact Car, Car Audio and Siphon.