Toyota Corolla – familiarity breeds content

By Ted Biederman and Jim Meachen

Toyota decided to take the safe road in the long-awaited redesign of its incredibly best-selling Corolla compact sedan.

This 10th generation Corolla edition is instantly recognizable first as a Toyota and then as a Toyota Corolla. And that was surely the intent. Likewise, a new 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine making 132 horsepower is responsive enough to satisfy most people, and its very fuel efficient with just six more horses than the previous engine. Nothing much new there, either.

You don’t mess with the goose that has been consistently laying golden eggs since its debut in 1968. Why take a new and perhaps revolutionary direction on a product that has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide over the past 40 years making it the best-selling nameplate ever.

And even more to the point, as the last generation was aging out and against stiff competition from the Honda Civic, the Corolla — basically unchanged since the 2003 model year — continued to roll on with 387,000 sales in 2006 and another 371,390 in 2007. That made it the fifth best selling car in the country last year handily outselling the newer and highly regarded Civic.

For 2009 Corolla has undergone a complete makeover without attracting much attention.

A Corolla purchase is not made to turn heads. It’s not made as a status symbol. It’s made because the Corolla for decades has proven to be one of the most inexpensive, reliable and fuel-efficient small cars in America giving its owners years of trouble-free driving with decent trade-in value.

We spent the better part of a day driving a sporty XRS model in eastern North Carolina at the car’s national press introduction. The XRS is the one standout new thing for the Corolla. It features a 2.4-liter 158-horsepower 4-cylinder engine.

We discussed the sedan’s solid feel and energetic engine — compared to previous Corolla offerings. And we were impressed with the car’s hushed surroundings. But most of the time we forgot we were in an all-new car even with its 26 extra ponies because it was as familiar to us as last year’s TV reruns.

Our conversation wandered into other areas.

This can be construed as a criticism of the Corolla, which feels just like the last Corolla as it doesn’t inspire an adrenaline-elevating driving experience such as one might find in the sporty Honda Civic Si.

But in another sense it’s high praise. The new Corolla, even in its new “performance” guise, is as comfortable as an old shoe, doing exactly what it always has done by providing a confident, conservative get-you-there-and-back driving experience.

This is not the kind of car that you would consider running hard and fast through the back-road twists and turns although we’re sure it would acquit itself quite well.

When changing from an older model Corolla into the new one, familiarity is rather comforting and may be one reason the Corolla consistently sells in such big numbers.
The Corolla has always been designed as comfortable and relatively inexpensive transportation, and the new edition doesn’t stray from that purpose.

And now you can add in upscale transportation as well because as in other smaller cars, many upscale features have trickled down such as navigation, leather seating and premium audio. If you’ve got the bucks, Toyota can outfit your Corolla very handsomely.

While the Corolla look is still there, it has taken on the lines of its bigger brother Camry.

The front end, especially on the sporty S and performance XRS trim along with a reasonable dose of body cladding is more chiseled and has more character than the car it replaces. But the Corolla’s rear-end including the taillights smack of the Toyota parts bin.

It’s interesting that while other manufacturers are dropping the cladding, Toyota is picking it up. But it’s generally well done and dresses up the basic sedan.

The new car is marginally larger than the previous edition picking up slightly more than two inches in width and a fraction of an inch in length. The wheelbase remains the same at 102.4 inches, but trunk space has been cut back by a cubic foot.

Some of the space has been added to the passenger compartment where rear legroom and rear shoulder room have grown an inch. Increasing rear passenger space in a compact car is a good thing.

The Corolla comes in five trim levels — standard, LE, XLE, S and XRS.

While the base model gets more standard equipment than ever before, buyers will have to make do with crank windows and manual locks. We applaud Toyota for making such things as front side and full-length side curtain airbags, antilock brakes with brakeforce distribution, air conditioning and a four-speaker audio system with CD player standard across the lineup, but we can’t understand not adding power windows and locks in a car that starts at $15,250.

Most people we think will opt for the $16,650 LE package that includes the power equipment as well as most other things people want including a four-speed automatic transmission. The more upscale XLE starts at $17,550 and allows buyers to add on such options as navigation ($1,300) and an upscale JBL sound system ($1,060).
All trim levels except the XRS come with the 1.8-liter four-cylinder.

Most important these days, perhaps, is fuel efficiency and the 1.8-liter powerplant mated to a four-speed automatic or a five-speed manual delivers impressive frugality measured at 27 mpg city/35 highway with the automatic and 26/35 with the manual.

We found the driving experience relaxed with the 1.8-liter engine, much like the previous Corolla. Zero to 60 has been measured in 9.1 seconds, enough forward momentum to accomplish all driving tasks safely.

We spent more time in the XRS with the bigger engine. It was more to our liking, but the 2.4-liter engine together with a long list of standard equipment — including the extra body cladding — takes the price of entry to $18,760 with a manual transmission and $19,950 with a five-speed automatic.

Add on leather seating, navigation and the kick-butt JBL sound system and you will be approaching 25 grand.

Despite the desirability of the extra power, the Corolla is better suited for its primary purpose — delivering an affordable driving experience with the gas-saving features of the 1.8-liter engine.

We think Toyota has struck all the right notes with the new Corolla offering more sophistication, more standard safety and a lot of value for the hard-earned dollar. It’s more than a safe choice. It’s a good choice.


Base price, $15,250; as tested $19,950
Engine: 2.4-liter 4-cylinder (XRS model)

Horsepower: 158 @ 6,000 rpm

Torque: 162 foot-pounds @ 4,000 rpm
Drive: front wheel

Transmission: 5-speed automatic

Seating: 2/3

Wheelbase: 102.4 inches

Length: 178,7 inches

Curb weight: 2,965 pounds

Turning circle: 35.6 feet
Luggage capacity: 12.3 cubic feet

Fuel capacity: 13.2 gallons (regular)

EPA mileage: 30 highway, 22 city

0-60: 8 seconds (estimated)

Also consider: Honda Civic, Mazda3, Ford Focus, Nissan Sentra

The Good

• High-quality materials

• Excellent gas mileage

• Proven reliability with good trade-in value

The Bad

Top trim levels can be expensive with just a few options

The Ugly

• A bland driving experience