2009 Toyota Corolla

All-new favorite boasts more features and flair

Until recently, U.S. subcompact cars have been mostly about price and fuel economy. Now, due to much-increased consumer interest in smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, most have developed personality as well, thanks to more stylish looks, improved performance and handling and better feature availability. In most cases, interior design, materials, quality and accommodations have also approached those of larger, more expensive models. Toyota's aging (yet still surprisingly popular) Corolla has been an exception-until now.

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New and Improved

The first Corolla, a tiny rear-drive subcompact powered by a 1.1-liter single-overhead-camshaft (SOHC) four-cylinder engine, arrived in the U.S. in 1968. The 1970 second-generation upped the engine to 1.2 liters, and new-design Corollas have followed every four or five years since. The 1984 fifth edition was the first front-drive Corolla, the 1993 seventh-generation moved the car up an EPA size class to “compact” (based on interior dimensions), and the current 1.8-liter engine size arrived for 1998.

Most agree that GM raised the bar in this long-underappreciated class with its all-new Chevrolet Cobalt for 2005, which thoroughly eclipsed the Cavalier it replaced and was generally better than anything else in its size and price segment that year. Then Honda elevated the target again with its `06 Civic. So everyone expected Toyota to step up to that challenge with its `09 10th-generation Corolla, especially given the six-year development time.

This new 10th edition Corolla arrives for 2009 (six years after generation nine) slightly longer, lower and wider and with significant engineering improvements. It is far better looking than the near-invisible car it replaces and steps up in power and torque to 158-hp, 162 lb.-ft. with an available 2.4-liter 16-valve VVT-i (Variable Valve Timing with "intelligence") four-cylinder engine-but only in the top-of-the-line XRS model. The other four models, from bargain-basement base through better-equipped LE, XLE and semi-sporty S, offer a fairly anemic 132 hp (up from '08 Corolla's 126) dual-VVT-i 16-valve 1.8-liter four that delivers 128 lb.-ft. of torque (up from 122). That compares to 140 horses and an identical 128 lb.-ft. for the Civic's same-size four and 148 hp and a much stronger 152 lb.-ft. for the '08 Cobalt's 2.2-liter.

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Fuel Economy

The good news arrives on the fuel economy front with the 1.8-liter's EPA ratings of 27 city, 35 highway with either the standard five-speed manual or the optional four-speed automatic vs. 22/29 for the 2.4-liter XRS with five-speed manual and 22/30 with the available five-speed automatic. For comparison, the 2008 Civic's 1.8-liter is EPA-rated at 26 city/34 highway and the Cobalt's more powerful 2.2-liter earns EPA ratings of 24/33 mpg. FYI, that five-speed automatic also is available only on the XRS; all other models make do with a ratio-challenged four-speed automatic.

These new Corolla sedans roll on the same 102.4-inch wheelbase as their predecessors but sit 0.4-inches longer, 2.8 inches wider and 0.8 inches lower. The added width provides additional shoulder and hip room in front, though (for some reason) a couple inches less rear hip room. Legroom is increased about a half-inch in front and nearly an inch in back, but front headroom is down a half-inch due to the lower roofline. The overall result is a slightly roomier, quieter and more comfortable cabin usable for four adults but very tight for five.

The '09 Corolla's newly developed MacPherson strut/lower-control-arm front suspension is mounted to a front subframe for improved isolation, while a new torsion beam arrangement holds up the rear. Brakes are ventilated disc front, leading-trailing drum rear (only the XRS gets four-wheel discs). Note: rear drum brakes cost less and work fine on a car of this size and power, since the fronts do most of the work anyway.

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Better Features

On the other hand, these new Corollas boast some useful standard features seldom seen in this segment: tilt/telescopic steering wheel, a 60/40 split rear seat with release knobs in the trunk, anti-lock brakes (ABS) with Electronic Brake Force Distribution (EBD) and Brake Assist (BA) for emergencies, a full half-dozen air bags, neck-protective active front headrests and a handy hook on the console’s passenger side for a bag or purse. An “entry level” (no voice recognition) navigation system and XM Satellite Radio with real-time traffic information are upscale options also rare in this class.

Still, the 15-inch-wheeled "Standard Grade" price-leader Corolla is pretty stripped. Moving up one notch, the LE gets power windows, locks and mirrors. The mid-range XLE adds 16-inch wheels, remote keyless entry and interior woodgrain, and the "sporty and youthful" S bolts on a rear-deck spoiler.

Then there's Corolla's lead model-the sportiest, best-looking one that you'll see in all the ads-the "spirited and performance-driven" XRS. It packs the aforementioned 2.4-liter four and four-wheel discs, Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) with traction control (TRAC), 17-inch alloy wheels, sport seats, leather-trimmed shift knob, a front air dam, a rear deck spoiler, racy looking rocker panel and more.

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Driving Impression

Not surprisingly, the XRS leads the line in looks, handling and performance. Its steering is more tightly tuned, it gets around corners more smartly without much sacrifice in ride, and its 0-60 performance improves to a tick under nine seconds, which Toyota optimistically calls "excellent." But it's no competition for Honda's Civic Si or Chevy's Cobalt SS.

We found the lesser models just okay. Their interiors are cheaper than expected. Their performance is adequate with five-speed manual, less so with automatic. Their ride is decent and their handling better than previous rent-a-car Corollas-due largely to their two-inch wider front and 2.9-inch wider rear tracks-but not up to best-in-class. Part of the problem, at least subjectively, is their ultra-light, feedback-free electric power steering (EPS). On the plus side, their brakes are strong and fade-free in our on-road testing due to their larger front rotors and "high-performance" pads, and despite those much-maligned rear drums.

For someone moving out of an older Corolla or almost any other small car, these much-better new Corollas should be highly satisfying. They will not be lowest in price, but their Toyota badge alone should ensure their popularity. Compared to the best in this fast-maturing class, including the more spirited Mazda3 and Suzuki SX4, this latest iteration of the Corolla is not quite there, but it will definitely hit the mark with those looking for quality, comfort, and economy. (www.toyota.com)

About the Author

Former automotive engineer Gary Witzenburg has been writing about the auto industry, its people and its products for major magazines, newspapers and web sites for more than 20 years.

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