When we auto journalists jump into another new car or truck, we can't help but compare everything about it—consciously or not—to the best vehicles in its segment, if not beyond. Thus a perfectly good interior, a perfectly smooth and responsive engine, a perfectly crisp-shifting transmission may not measure up to our personal favorite(s).
Such is the case with Toyota's perfectly good new compact Corolla. Most would agree that GM (yes, GM!) raised the bar in this long underappreciated class with its 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt. It thoroughly eclipsed the Cavalier it replaced and was better than anything else in its size and price segment at the time.
That lasted a year before Honda moved the mark again with the '06 Civic. So everyone expected Toyota to step up to that challenge with its 2009 10th-generation Corolla. But has it?
For starters, we think this new Corolla is far better looking than the near-invisible car it replaces early next year. And it steps up in power and torque to a 158-hp, 162 lb-ft, 2.4-liter 16-valve VVT-i (Variable Valve Timing with "intelligence") four-cylinder engine...but only in the sportiest XRS model. The other four models, from bargain-basement base through better-equipped LE, XLE and semi-sporty S, make do with a fairly anemic 132-hp (up from the 2008 Corolla's 126) dual-VVT-i 16-valve four that pumps out just 128 lb-ft of twist (up from 122). That compares to a healthier 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 base '08 Cobalt's 2.2-liter four.
The good news arrives on the fuel economy front with the 1.8-liter EPA rated at 27 city, 35 highway and 30 combined (with either the standard five-speed manual or the optional four-speed automatic transmission) vs. 22/29/25 for the 2.4-liter XRS with five-speed manual and 22/30/25 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. By the way, that five-speed automatic also is available only on the XRS; all other models offer a ratio-challenged four-speed auto.
These new Corolla sedans roll on the same 102.4-in.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. Leg room is increased about a half-inch in front and nearly an inch in back, but front head room 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 Corolla's newly developed MacPherson strut/L-shaped lower control arm front suspension is mounted to a front subframe for improved isolation. A newly developed 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, since the fronts do most of the work anyway, but domestic makers get roundly trashed car reviewers for using them. Ditto for four-speed automatics.)
Seldom seen standards
On the other hand, these new Corollas boast some useful standard features seldom found in this segment: tilt/telescopic steering wheel, a 60/40 split rear seat with release knobs in the trunk, a Tire Pressure Monitor System (TPMS), anti-lock brakes (ABS) with Electronic Brake Force Distribution (EBD) and Brake Assist (BA) for emergencies, a full half-dozen airbags, neck-protective active front headrests and a handy hook on the console's passenger side of the 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 price 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 mode—the sporty, best-looking one 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 rocker panel and more. Guess which one we liked the most.
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 good and their handling typical, 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 their much-maligned rear drums.
Not surprisingly, the top-of-the-line XRS up the ante 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-to-60 performance improves to a tick under nine seconds, which Toyota optimistically calls "excellent". But it's no competition for Civic Si or Cobalt SS.
So, for someone moving out of an older Corolla or almost any other small car, these much-improved new ones should be highly satisfying. They will not be lowest in price, but their Toyota badge alone should ensure that they sell quite well. But for those of us privileged with the knowledge and experience to be spoiled by the best in class, they are not quite there.
2009 Toyota Corolla
Base price: $15,000 (est.)
Engine: 1.8-liter four, 132 hp/128 lb-ft; XRS: 2.4-liter four, 158 hp/162 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed manual or four-speed automatic (base models); five-speed manual or five-speed automatic (XRS); front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 178.7 x 69.3 x 57.7 in
Wheelbase: 102.4 in
Curb weight: 2,723-2,965 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 27/35 mpg (1.8-liter); 22/29 mpg (manual 2.4-liter), 22/30 mpg (automatic 2.4-liter)
Safety features: Dual front, side and curtain airbags anti-lock brakes; stability control standard on XRS
Major standard features: Air conditioning; power steering; tilt/telescopic steering wheel; 60/40 split folding rear seat; AM/FM/CD (XM satellite ready) radio; outside temperature gauge; two 12-volt power outlets; driver vertical seat height adjuster
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles