Chris Walton, Chief Road Test Editor
Here's the 2009 Toyota Corolla, the car that proves Toyota must be doing something right.
Over the last 40 years, Toyota has sold more than 30 million examples of the Corolla in 142 countries, earning this automobile the title of the world's best-selling passenger car on the planet. Even with the introduction of the entry-level Toyota Yaris and the youth-oriented Scion models, Toyota still managed to sell a record-breaking 390,000 Corollas in 2006 and is on track to match that number this year.
Now in its 10th generation, the 2009 Toyota Corolla that officially goes on sale in February is offered in a larger array of models than ever, packed with more standard features and with previously unavailable options.
For the Welfare and Happiness Around the World Every manufacturer has its seminal vehicle. Since its introduction to the U.S. market as a 1969 model, the Corolla has represented Toyota itself. Its value, fuel economy, utility, reliability and longevity characterize the company and its products.
The first chief engineer for the Corolla set the corporate tone for this car when he said that he had built the Corolla "for the welfare and happiness around the world." Looks like the company and the public agreed.
S Is for (Sort of) Sporty We chose to evaluate the Corolla S neither because it's the least expensive (that's called the "Standard" model), nor because it's the performance-oriented Corolla. (That's the new XRS model with its 158-horsepower 2.4-liter inline-4 engine.) Instead, we feel the S offers a reasonable amount of standard equipment, a little XRS-like styling and a very competitive list of options at a reasonable value.
Standard safety equipment for all 2009 Corollas now includes ABS (previously an option), front seat-mounted side airbags, curtain-type head-protection airbags and tire-pressure monitoring. Optional equipment now includes stability/traction control (previously unavailable), a satellite navigation system with touchscreen control and heated front seats.
The Corolla's standard motivation comes from an all-new 1.8-liter inline-4 engine. Thanks to variable valve timing on both intake and exhaust valves, the 2ZR-FE engine runs on 87-octane fuel, but power is up by 8 hp and 6 pound-feet of torque compared to the Corolla's previous 1.8-liter power plant. It's rated at 132 hp at 6,000 rpm and 128 lb-ft of torque at 4,400 rpm.
Our best 0-60-mph time proved to be 9.1 seconds, a slight improvement over the last Corolla we tested. The new car's braking and handling performances are also slightly better, as it comes to a halt in 125 feet, circles the skid pad at 0.83g and weaves through the slalom in 63.3 mph. The quarter-mile comes up in 16.9 seconds at 83.1 mph.
Even with the added power, the preliminary fuel economy estimates of 27 mpg city/35 mpg highway with this car's five-speed manual transmission show the new Corolla has only lost a mpg or two, despite the more demanding 2008 EPA testing procedure. This is more impressive, considering the car has gained more than 200 pounds. At the same time, sluggish part-throttle engine response betrays this engine's calibration for fuel economy rather than smooth, predictable performance.
New World Order Until now, the Corolla primarily has been designed for the Japanese market, with added features and technology added for other markets. This time, Toyota chose to integrate its world car with the key aspects it felt important from each of its significant regions from the beginning.
For instance, Toyota felt the Corolla should have the handling of a comparable European car. Truth be told, we think this might apply to the XRS model, but while we logged some decent pavement-gripping numbers at the test track, the new Corolla's electric-assist power steering (EPS) so utterly distorts the driving experience so as to remove any possibility of enthusiastic driving.
We understand the benefits of EPS, but there's a way to tune it right (Honda Civic, Mazda Mazda3, Mini Cooper), and a way to get it wrong. The Corolla lacks any steering feedback, with the exception of artificially induced friction. When was the last time you had to chip away at the wheel and concentrate to drive straight? Even a soapbox derby car steered with ropes offers better straight-line stability and appropriate effort buildup than this particular EPS.
Comfort From the U.S. The U.S. represents the Corolla's largest market both in sales and biometric measures. For this reason, Toyota chose to set Corolla comfort standards here. Standard tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel adjustment plus a height-adjustable seat (for the S-model driver) distinguish this car from other cars designed for the Japanese market, and it fits American-size drivers in a way that the Honda Fit and Nissan Versa do not. Long-travel seat sliders with ample head-, shoulder and legroom plus a large trunk keep the Brobdignagians happy with a compact car from Lilliput. The S model's standard front sport seats are very comfortable for long trips as well as being supportive in the curves. For all these reasons, the driving position is excellent.
While the Corolla S ride comfort can be fairly characterized as calm and highly controlled, there is a noticeable amount of tire noise that's highly sensitive to surface-texture changes. We're not certain if this is due to the S model's P205/55R16 Goodyear Eagle RS-A tires or the lack of wear on those tires, as our test car had just 1,500 miles on the odometer. At least wind noise is quite low.
Rear-seat comfort is slightly above average, with well-contoured seats and a surprising amount of legroom, but there's no center armrest or power outlet, and the pair of cupholders is barely adequate in size.
Style From Italy For design inspiration, a Toyota team spent four months in Turin, home of famous Italian automotive design studios as Bertone, Fioravanti, Italdesign and Pininfarina. Unfortunately we're not sure their time was well spent, and perhaps they were simply attending Turin's two-week chocolate festival.
Toyota says many different designs were subjected to a basic question: "What would stand out, even on the streets of Turin?" This Corolla S certainly would not. It looks like a commuter sedan wearing a skirt and aftermarket wheels — not much different from the previous model, really. We think the exterior of the non-sporty Corolla is a lot more successful than either the S or XRS models.
Where the Corolla really distinguishes itself from the rest of the compact sedan segment is in the packaging and presentation of the interior. While the previous Corolla wasn't objectionable, it wasn't all that interesting or exceptional. It was a little fussy and looked like a diminutive Camry. This time around, the Corolla has a clean, airy cabin with thoughtful placement of controls and new and welcome amenities such as that available navigation system with real-time traffic information (a feature that cannot be combined with the JBL audio upgrade, unfortunately), a standard auxiliary input jack and optional Bluetooth capability.
This is where the mantra of "an expensive car doesn't have to feel like a cheap car" rings true in the Corolla's case.
It's a Corolla World The 2009 Toyota Corolla S is not quick, nor is it particularly fun to drive, but for an estimated base price of $16,500 and an estimated $21,975 in this configuration, we think you can probably overlook this car's sloppy steering while you're listening to your iPod and consulting the nav screen and warming your buns on the comfy heated sport seats. Plus you'll be averaging over 30 mpg.
After all, isn't that what a Corolla is all about? It remains a car "for the welfare and happiness around the world."
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
How does it sound: B Sharp and bright is the best way to describe the sound from Corolla's audio system. Underscored by substantial bass, the system has a well-rounded sound that's more premium than the car's price or class suggest. The bass really hits without distorting. The main drawback is that the bright sound quality can quickly turn shrill as the volume climbs.
Partially due to the Corolla's cabin size, the audio system doesn't sound big or expansive. It does have an intimacy that works for many kinds of music but at its worst, the sound can be too in your face. Part of the problem is midrange that's too prominent at times.
The overall listening experience is quite nice and the system is flexible enough to provide good sound reproduction on all types of music.
How does it work: B+ As with most Toyotas, the Corolla's audio controls are straightforward and no-frills. Unlike other cars in this class, the Corolla has the option of a navigation system. When so equipped (like our tester) the audio control becomes another page on the nav's display screen. Bass and treble controls are obvious and easy to use; there's nothing tricky here.
Ford's Sync system has changed the game in terms of in-car connectivity without regard for price. The Corolla does have an aux jack but that's about it.
Special features: When paired with the navigation system, the Corolla's audio system has the ability to display song title and album name. Not all CDs have the ability to show this text. It's a nice feature, but the song titles are arranged in a grid rather than a list and that's not superintuitive. Of course, that's really just nitpicking because the fact that the Corolla comes with a navigation system at all is amazing for any economy car.
Conclusion: When listening to the Corolla's stereo, it's easy to forget you're in a budget-priced car. It might not have the sheer volume of Scion's Pioneer system but the clarity and sound quality are better — Brian Moody, Road Test Editor
Senior Editor Erin Riches says: I've had several mildly interesting conversations with people who are disappointed in how the 2009 Toyota Corolla looks and drives. "You'll walk right past it in a parking lot," they say, "and it's a snooze behind the wheel."
They're right, of course. The new Corolla is no Mazda3. It is, however, the best Corolla I've ever driven. Not only will it please all the Corolla-lifers I know, it's a more satisfying car than the Camry, assuming you don't need that sedan's big backseat.
Let's start with the driving position. This is the first Toyota Corolla in which I can sit how I want to sit. Chalk it up to adequate seat-track travel, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel and a seat that's shaped to accommodate an American body form. I can reach all the controls from this position, and aside from having to search through the trip-computer menus to find out what time it is (no clock display on the navigation screen), I never once felt confused during a weekend with our Corolla S tester.
Actually driving the car is even more satisfying. There's still not much of a low end with this 1.8-liter, but it runs so smooth to its 6,000-rpm power peak, you never dwell on this shortcoming. Plus, the manual transmission's gearchange is so positive that I was looking for opportunities to downshift. Handling is less fun, as the S model is benign when you lean on it through corners, but there's minimal incentive to drive this hard, aside from irritating the occasional guy on a sportbike.
After logging freeway time in Raleigh, North Carolina, and back home in Los Angeles with a Corolla, I find I don't much care about whether it engages my enthusiasm for the corners. The 2009 Toyota Corolla rides comfortably and quietly, somehow more composed than a Camry. If I were suddenly forced to commute 60 miles per day the way I once did, the Corolla is what I'd drive.
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