The redesigned 2009 Toyota Corolla will satisfy those seeking a refined and fuel-efficient small sedan backed by an impressive reliability record. Younger buyers, however, might be put off by the tepid driving experience.
About 400,000 people will buy a Toyota Corolla sometime during the 2008 calendar year. One-quarter of these likely buyers are in their 60s. Almost as many are in their 20s. Despite the huge age gap between these groups, their primary motivation for buying is the same: reliability. With such a steady and diverse following for its compact sedan, Toyota usually undertakes major redesigns with a light hand: Although changes underneath the surface may be significant, each new Corolla invariably retains its predecessor's basic styling cues and overall driving demeanor. And so it is with the redesigned 2009 Toyota Corolla.
That's not to say you won't appreciate the differences on the new Corolla. For instance, although it's not any longer or taller than last year's car, it rides on a wider track, and this opens up noticeably more hip- and shoulder room in the cabin. The addition of a telescoping steering wheel improves upon the Corolla's historically awkward driving position, while new features like an auxiliary audio input, keyless startup and a navigation system with real-time traffic updates bring Toyota's compact sedan into the 21st century in terms of feature content.
Since fuel economy is another big reason people buy Toyota Corollas, most versions of this sedan continue to use an efficient 1.8-liter four-cylinder. This engine is heavily revised for 2009 and now features variable timing for both its intake and exhaust valves. Power increases are modest on paper, but the results are apparent on the road: In spite of a 200-pound weight gain, the 2009 Toyota Corolla is a touch quicker than the '08 model and capable of returning comparable gas mileage.
Most of the Corolla's rivals offer larger engine options, though, and for '09, Toyota is following suit. The high-line XRS trim level returns to the model line, and it's motivated by a 158-horsepower, 2.4-liter inline-4, which promises to shave a second off the car's 0-60-mph time. In keeping with its heightened performance focus, the Corolla XRS has quicker steering, bigger wheels and a front strut tower brace.
With two engines and five trim levels at their disposal, most 2009 Toyota Corolla buyers will have little difficulty equipping one to taste. Although competitors such as the Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Mazda 3, Mitsubishi Lancer and Nissan Sentra offer comparable interior room and amenities, Toyota's compact sedan remains a fine choice for a commuter car given its composed ride quality, above-average gas mileage and high overall level of refinement. However, we question whether the company has done enough to meet increased expectations for performance and handling in this class. Even in sporty XRS trim, the '09 Corolla does little to engage its driver. Shopped against genuinely entertaining alternatives like the Mazda 3, Civic and Lancer, Toyota's economy sedan remains a tough sell.
The 2009 Toyota Corolla is a compact economy sedan. It's available in five trim levels -- base, LE, S, XLE and XRS. Base Corollas start you out with 15-inch steel wheels, air-conditioning, an MP3\/WMA-capable CD stereo with an auxiliary audio jack, a tilt\/telescoping steering wheel and power mirrors. The LE gains power windows and locks, along with body-color exterior mirrors. If you select the Corolla S, the LE's equipment upgrades move to the options list, but you gain 16-inch steel wheels, full underbody spoilers, foglights, sport seats, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and an extra pair of stereo speakers.
Essentially a luxury version of the LE, the new Corolla XLE also gets the 16-inch wheels and upgraded stereo while adding amenities like a sliding center armrest, wood-grain interior trim, electroluminescent gauges, keyless entry and variable intermittent wipers. The top-of-the-line XRS, meanwhile, builds upon the S model's equipment list. Although it forgoes some of the XLE's standard conveniences, it adds a larger engine, 17-inch alloy wheels, sport-tuned suspension and steering, a front strut tower brace, a rear deck spoiler and chrome interior trim. Cruise control is also standard on the XRS; it's optional on other Corollas.
Heated mirrors and satellite radio are optional across the Toyota Corolla line, while the S, XLE and XRS are eligible for a sunroof, an upgraded JBL sound system and a navigation system (with real-time traffic). Leather upholstery is available on the S and XRS only.
Most buyers will be content with the base 1.8-liter engine, which delivers respectable acceleration in normal traffic situations. We recorded a 9.1-second 0-60-mph time in a manual-shift Corolla with the 1.8-liter, and our test car returned an impressive 29.8 mpg in mixed driving. Although the five-speed's shifter feels firm and decisive moving through the gates, we suspect its abrupt, at-the-floor clutch engagement will push many buyers to the automatic. Upgrading to the 2.4-liter engine provides a gratifying increase in low-end torque, though it does come at the expense of fuel economy.
Regardless of which trim level you choose, the 2009 Toyota Corolla excels as a commuter car, as the suspension delivers a comfortable, controlled ride. Handling is uninspiring, however. Body roll is decently controlled, but the electric steering on non-XRS models provides so little feedback, you may find yourself making corrections simply to keep the car traveling in a straight line. Toyota retuned this setup for the XRS, and indeed its steering feels crisper and weightier. Driven on a back road, the Corolla XRS is undeniably a capable compact sedan, but compared to rivals like the Mazda 3, Civic and Lancer, it's not a very entertaining one.
With the exception of the XRS, all 2009 Toyota Corollas are motivated by a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 132 hp and 128 pound-feet of torque. A five-speed manual transmission driving the front wheels is standard, and a four-speed automatic is optional. You can look forward to 27 mpg city and 35 mpg highway EPA ratings with either transmission.
Selecting the Corolla XRS entitles you to a 2.4-liter engine good for 158 hp and 162 lb-ft of torque. A five-speed manual is standard and a five-speed automatic is optional. Fuel economy drops significantly, with a 22\/30 rating for both transmissions.
Every Toyota Corolla comes with antilock brakes, front-seat side airbags, full-length side curtain airbags and active front head restraints. Stability control is standard on the XRS and optional on other Corollas. Only the XRS has four-wheel disc brakes; other Corollas have rear drums.
Cabin design is a strong point for the 2009 Toyota Corolla. The driving position better accommodates drivers of different sizes than in past years, and the control layout is as ergonomic as they come. Storage is more than ample up front, particularly with the addition of a double glovebox, though the provisions are a bit stingy in back. Materials quality is high, and fit and finish is consistent with Toyota's historically high standards. In back, the Corolla offers plenty of space for children and just enough room for adults. The trunk measures 12.3 cubic feet (average for this class) and has a wide opening.
Smooth and controlled ride, excellent fuel economy with base 1.8-liter engine, attractive and ergonomic interior design, lengthy features list.
Oddly weighted electric-assist steering, so-so gas mileage with 2.4-liter engine.