2009 Toyota Corolla

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First Drive Review: 2009 Toyota Corolla

By Steve Siler of Car and Driver

Toyota sells a lot of Corollas. With 30 million units out of dealership doors in 40 years, the Corolla is the bestselling passenger car in history. So it pretty much goes without saying that this is a critically important car for Toyota.

Furthermore, Toyota claims that one in three of the 272,000 people who bought Corollas in 2006 will eventually trade in his or her car for another Corolla—yes, not just another Toyota, but another Corolla—easily earning it one of the highest customer loyalty rates of any automobile. And it's probably safe to say that many of those other buyers trade up to the larger Camry, which is currently the bestselling passenger car in the U.S.

So it makes sense for Toyota to closely tie the Corolla in style and character to the Camry. And that's exactly what the company did this time around. Corolla shoppers (and anyone else entering the Toyota showroom after February) will find a pleasant if unremarkable sedan that is little more (and little less) than a Camry that's been scaled down in pretty much every respect.

Faint praise, yes, but well-earned faint praise.

Familiar Styling
From pretty much every angle, including the window line, the cut-lines on the hood, and the head- and taillamp graphics, the Corolla and the Camry appear to be two sizes of the same dress. Sportier S and XRS trim levels even have the same style of body cladding as the Camry Sport models (does anyone find it curious that, even as GM issues a moratorium on body cladding, Toyota steps it up on the cheap stuff?). But we approve, since the overall look is pleasing enough to the eye and considerably bolder than before, although still rather far from exciting.

Two Personalities
Corolla buyers, Toyota says, are split between both ends of the age spectrum: older empty nesters on one end, young singles and couples just starting out on the other. Previous Corollas have taken a one-size-and-style-fits-all approach, but the '09 model branches out with five trim levels—two of which are on the sporty side—to more effectively reach buyers in the crucial younger demographic.

At the bottom of the ladder is the "standard" array, which should appeal to the budget-minded of both groups. While hardly a luxury car—with crank windows and manual locks—the base Corolla features such good stuff as a telescoping steering wheel, air conditioning, and an exterior-temp gauge. More significant, perhaps, are the Corolla's six standard airbags, ABS, and available stability control (on all trims), which bring the humble sedan into the realm of safety once reserved for family and luxury cars.

From there, the LE and XLE trims will continue to appease the conservative, older set, with power accessories and other comfort items, as well as a lengthy options list that now includes a navigation system.

For the young 'uns, the S and the new XRS branch out with a slightly different set of priorities, i.e., with more emphasis on cosmetic and performance enhancements than comfort amenities. For example, with the S, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and more-supportive (and comfortable) sport seats come standard whereas power windows remain optional. Black headlamp trim and a chrome exhaust tip dress up the exterior of the S, and the XRS goes even further with 17-inch wheels, a spoiler, and 26 more horsepower (more on that in a bit). And for the gadget geeks, all the standard and optional feature that come with the LE and XLE trims are available on these variants as well, although usually as options.

Even so, we're disappointed with the design and materials used throughout the interior. The peanut-butter-jar lids doubling as rheostat dials for the climate controls are particularly horrifying from a company that could probably buy any one of Detroit's Big Three automakers with the change in its pockets. If Toyota wants to maintain its lead in this business, we dare suggest it benchmark some of GM's interiors and then do better, not worse.

Besides, the bestselling car of all time deserves better, doesn't it?

Two Distinct Powertrains
Base Corollas, as well as LE, XLE, and S models, come with a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine with variable valve timing on both overhead camshafts. The result is 132 horsepower and 128 pound-feet of torque, each up six from last year's 1.8. Five-speed manual and four-speed automatic transmission choices remain. Final EPA fuel-economy figures are TBD as this is written, but Toyota expects them to be about 27 city and 35 highway, more or less the same as 2007 even with the EPA's stricter 2008 testing regimen.

The revived XRS trim level, however, gets more interesting, borrowing the 158-hp, 2.4-liter four-cylinder with 162 pound-feet of torque found in the Scion xB and tC. Both manual and automatic transmissions contain five gears, with the automatic including a manumatic feature—the first of its kind on a Corolla.

Other notable features on the XRS are standard stability control, rear disc brakes, 17-inch wheels, and a front-strut-tower brace.

Toyota's Mazda 3? Think Again
Going into our first drive of the Corolla, we figured the Toyota's electric power steering and torsion-beam rear suspension would see to it that it didn't drive as well as a Mazda 3. We were nonetheless curious to see just what an incremental jump the XRS would represent over the other Corollas and just how close the XRS gets to the Scion tC, among other cars, in the fun-to-drive category.

We were right about one thing: base, LE, XLE, and S models don't drive anything like the happy Mazda or the tC. Indeed, it was painfully (painlessly?) soft, à la Hyundai Elantra or Ford Focus. We yearned for anything resembling feel from the shifter, the steering, or the chassis. Then again, most Corolla customers yearn for anything but that, so go ahead and tell your retired parents they'll be perfectly happy with the new Corolla.

As for the XRS, a little additional engine went some way—not a long way, mind you—toward adding cojones to what is ultimately a terminally limp-wristed automobile. With standard 17s and a strut-tower brace, the electric steering is livelier but still nowhere near that of even the base Mazda 3 i. Now, had Toyota swapped the rear torsion beam for the same independent rear suspension found on its mechanical twin, the 2009 Matrix XRS, the whole package might be a bit more tossable. But as is, the bespoilered XRS is more flash than dash.

Where and When?
Per Toyota tradition, prices will be withheld until closer to the on-sale date, which is estimated to be February or March 2008. They likely won't rise much from their current levels, which hover between $15,000 and $18,000. We expect a loaded Corolla XRS with nav and leather will stay around $20,000.

Aside from its affordability, however, we're let down by the '09 Corolla. Perhaps Toyota has set the bar so high in its various segments for the past two decades up to and including the current Camry that we expect every at-bat to result in a home run. And although we have no doubt the Corolla will continue to seduce buyers by the hundreds of thousands, that may be more than ever a matter of momentum as opposed to product superiority, because the new Corolla is no quantum leap.

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BB06 - 7/29/2014 12:02:32 PM