Terribly uncommunicative steering, disconnected driving experience, cheap-feeling interior switchgear, no standard cruise control on XLE.
More Toyota Corollas have been sold on this planet than any other car. Thirty million since 1966 to be approximate, which equates to one Corolla leaving a dealership every 40 seconds (it's about 23 seconds today). With so many of Toyota's compact car running around, it's almost mathematically assured that you know someone who owns one or at least used to own one. And considering Toyota's fierce brand loyalty, there's probably a good chance you already own one.
Yet despite this popularity, the Toyota Corolla has become a punching bag in certain circles. Car enthusiasts and therefore automotive reviewers tend to deride the Corolla as a refrigerator on wheels, a reliable transportation appliance that conjures up all the emotional response of a good Maytag washing machine. While "car guys" see this as a slashing personal remark, many consumers and a vast majority of Corolla buyers probably see this "appliance" label as a welcome and apt descriptor. For them (and possibly you), a car is just an appliance to get from Point A to Point B safely and comfortably. Nothing more, nothing less.
Acknowledging this reality, we decided to see how the all-new 2009 Toyota Corolla fares when viewed from both perspectives. It was driven by our car-loving automotive editors as well as by a group of six everyday citizens in our economy sedan consumer comparison test. This "fair-and-balanced" approach yielded an interesting result. Both the editors and the consumers were fairly unanimous in their distaste for the Corolla, although that distaste certainly ranged from "Just not for me" to "Never, no, no, no. Oh goodness, no."
Either way, the Corolla is either not as good as it once was, or a wide array of superior-quality competitors have surpassed it. The Honda Civic is certainly a more well-rounded sedan, with a compliant ride and good handling, along with a much more interesting design. The Hyundai Elantra is another compelling choice, as it actually feels more like previous Corollas than the new Corolla does, delivering a comfy ride and well-crafted interior at a low price. Our top choice in this class is the sporty, well-rounded Mazda Mazda3.
There's a good chance this 2009 Corolla will continue to fly out of Toyota dealers every 23 seconds. However, savvy car buyers should recognize that there are better options available — whether you view cars as something special or just a glorified appliance.
Our test car belonged to the XLE trim level, meaning it came with the smaller of the two four-cylinder engines offered on the 2009 Corolla — only the "sporty" XRS comes with the 2.4-liter engine. This 1.8-liter mill is rated at 132 horsepower and 128 pound-feet of torque. Saddled to a four-speed automatic transmission (the only one available on the XLE), the Corolla accelerated from zero to 60 mph in 10.1 seconds. This is consistent for base engines in this class and like many economy cars, the Corolla struggled most on the highway where full-throttle on-ramp runs and mid-road hills caused lots of gear-hunting and unpleasant engine screaming. Having cruise control would help on those mid-road hills, but alas, our test car did not have it — an omission that did not go unnoticed among our "civilian" testers.
Around town, though, the Corolla's power was certainly adequate, and it's hard to imagine why you'd opt for the bigger engine's 26-hp boost when it comes with a subsequent 5 mpg drop in fuel economy. As such, the Corolla XLE returns an impressive EPA-estimated 27 mpg city/35 mpg highway and 30 mpg combined.
When it comes to handling, all are in agreement that the Corolla is not up to the task — especially its lifeless electric steering. Chief Road Test Editor Chris Walton put it best when he wrote, "To say the Corolla's steering feel is vague would be to credit it with any feel, of which it has none." Practically no information is transmitted from the tires to the driver's hands, leaving you to guess and approximate how much turning is needed — it can feel like a video game, and that's not a good thing. A spongy suspension doesn't help either, although its marshmallow ride was welcome on pockmarked roads.
Like the rest of the car, the nice-and-easy steering weighting and comfort-first ride should be appreciated by older drivers who are looking for a budget-priced Buick. This was a sentiment shared by our real-world consumer testers (from a variety of age demographics), who were nevertheless universally unimpressed by the Corolla's dynamic abilities. They felt less in control than in the other cars in the test (Civic, Mazda Mazda3), with noticeable body roll and unresponsive steering being frequently mentioned detractors.
This is clearly the area in which Toyota intended the Corolla to excel. The suspension sops up bumps and road imperfections well for a small car, with less of the flaccid body shudders its big brother Camry exhibits when striking particularly gnarly pavement. Wind and road noise are also nicely quelled, particularly on the highway, although the engine certainly does its fair share of growling.
Like most Toyotas, the Corolla's seats are soft and comfy, with the words "recliner" and "La-Z-Boy" thrown about liberally by our consumer testers. They lack support, however, so some may find long-distance comfort troublesome. The front seats offer a decent amount of space (a revelation for a small Toyota), and our tallest driver was just as comfortable in the Corolla as in the bigger Camry. That's not to say the driving position is great, but the range of travel for the seat and tilt-telescoping steering wheel is better than many small cars.
The backseat was a similar story, with a cushy seat bottom and decent room. In terms of legroom, our tallest driver (6-foot-3) was able to fit behind "himself," while headroom was on par with the competition. Sadly, there's no rear center armrest.
It doesn't get much simpler than the Toyota Corolla's control layout. The stereo is clearly marked with large buttons kept to the absolute minimum. The placement of the auxiliary audio jack could be better, though, as it requires draping a cord clumsily across the shifter. The climate controls consist of three large knobs that control airflow direction, fan speed and temperature — if you can't figure them out in a matter of seconds, you probably haven't been in a car built after 1990.
Storage space in the Corolla is quite good, with a pair of spacious gloveboxes, well-sized door pockets and a useful center console bin. The 12.3-cubic-foot trunk easily swallowed two sets of golf clubs and a large suitcase, all of which dropped easily into the wide trunk opening.
A rear-facing child safety seat fit well in the center position even with the driver seat at its rearmost position. Move the seat directly behind that driver seat, though, and it won't fit. There's also not quite enough room in that scenario with the seat facing forward. A shorter driver shouldn't have a problem, though. Our mother-of-four consumer tester declared the Corolla to be the best choice (among the Civic and Mazda Mazda3) for installing a child seat.
Design/Fit and Finish
We wouldn't be surprised if Toyota had plugged an image of a Camry and a Yaris into a computer and out popped the Corolla's styling. Nothing memorable, nothing that'll offend. It's much of the same story inside, with a straightforward appearance that looks lifted from Kia's no-nonsense school of cabin design.
The quality of materials is OK, but hardly class-leading as the Corolla once was — midpack is an apt descriptor. Although general plastic quality is OK, the tactile feel of the various buttons, knobs and stalks feels particularly cheap. The XLE's standard faux wood trim drew mixed reactions that seemed to fall along generational lines: older testers liked it; younger ones loathed it.
Who should consider this vehicle
Older drivers who are looking for a budget Buick (and the subsequent soft ride, loose steering, cushy seats and wood trim). Everyone else should take a long look elsewhere.