Toyota Corolla: King of the Compacts

The 2009 Toyota Corolla has been redesigned to offer more power but the same high gas mileage and quality. Too bad it's still so bland

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Fuel economy, decent price, comfort, reliability, available stick shift

The Bad: Unexciting styling, lack of sportiness

The Bottom Line: Toyota should have made its top-selling compact edgier

Up Front

Fuel-efficient compact cars are hot right now, for obvious reasons. However, there's a big question hanging in the air for anyone considering buying a new compact to save on gas: Which is better, the new '09 Toyota (TM) Corolla or the hot-selling but aging Honda (HMC) Civic, which last got a major redesign for the '06 model year?

The Civic has been gaining ground and could very well pass the Corolla as America's top-selling compact car this year, at least if you include booming sales of the Civic Hybrid. On that basis, the Civic has outsold the Corolla through April, 111,695 units to 99,482.

But that's an unfair comparison because the Corolla's sales undoubtedly have tailed off as many shoppers waited for the redesigned '09 models to hit Toyota showrooms. Also, if you exclude the Civic Hybrid (as is only fair since it competes mainly against the Toyota Prius, not the Corolla), the two archrivals are running neck and neck this year, even though Corolla sales fell 18.2% through April after declining 4.4%, to 371,390, in 2007.

The question now is whether the redesign will make the Corolla attractive enough to boost its cachet with consumers. I've just test-driven it, and for me Toyota played it too safe by not making the new Corolla's styling and handling edgier. In my humble opinion, the newly redesigned car isn't a huge improvement over the bland model it's replacing. I still prefer the Civic.

However, many compact car shoppers couldn't care less if the new Corolla isn't particularly exciting to drive—or look at. Those put off by the Civic's more outré styling touches, such as its robotic-look center stack and sharply raked windshield, may even prefer the new Corolla's more conservative design. Indeed, according to the Power Information Network (PIN), nearly two-thirds of compact car buyers borrow money to make the purchase, and a relatively high 45% of them are female. I'd guess from these statistics that safety, reliability, low price, and excellent fuel economy are more important to many buyers than looks and handling (the top priorities of male car reviewers).

I test-drove the Corolla XRS, the sport version of the car, and let me say right off I wouldn't pay extra for that model. The XRS comes with a big, 2.4-liter, 158-horsepower four-cylinder engine that's the same as the base engine in the Toyota Camry, as well as a five-speed automatic or manual transmission, bucket seats, a small rear spoiler, and some extra cladding along its flanks. Not surprisingly, the XRS is the most expensive Corolla: It starts at $19,420 with a stick shift and $20,610 with an automatic transmission.

Even so, the XRS isn't particularly sporty. And the tradeoff for the bigger engine is that the XRS only gets 22 mpg in the city and 30 on the highway (in 207 miles of lead-footed mixed driving, I only got 23.7 mpg).

If fuel economy is a priority, go with the LE, XLE, or the sporty S—or, if you really want to scrimp, the bare-bones Standard. They all come with a 1.8-liter, 132-hp four-banger, and a four-speed automatic or manual transmission, and are rated to get an impressive 26-27 mpg in the city and 35 on the highway. Their prices are lower, too, starting at $15,910 for a Standard with a stick shift, ranging up to $18,210 for the relatively fancy XLE with an automatic. (Manual transmissions always provide better fuel economy as well.)

The version that appeals to me is the Corolla S, which starts at $16,980. It only has the small engine but is available with a five-speed stick shift.

It also has many of the same add-ons as the XRS, including a front underbody spoiler, sport seats, black headlamp housings, and fog lamps.

Corollas aren't fancy, but they come with a surprising amount of standard equipment. The entry-level model may only have manual roll-down windows, but it still comes standard with a tilting and telescoping steering wheel, intermittent windshield wipers, 60/40 fold-down rear seats, tire pressure monitors, and power steering. The LE adds power windows, while the XLE has wood-grain interior trim, variable intermittent wipers, and remote keyless entry. (Only the XRS has four-wheel disc brakes; all the other models, including the S, only have 9-in. drum brakes in back.)

Corollas are manufactured in North America. Production is split between a plant in Ontario and the NUMMI plant in Fremont, Calif., a joint venture with General Motors (GM) that also makes the new Pontiac Vibe.

Corolla sales will probably pick up substantially now that the new models are available, but competition from the Civic will likely remain fierce. Even excluding the hybrid, the Civic's sales were up 13.8% in the first four months of 2008, and up 4.6% to 298,520 in 2007. Include the hybrid, and the Civic's growth was even faster.

Other rivals have been gaining on the Corolla this year, too. Sales of Ford's (F) Focus were up 29.1%, to 72,920, through April, after falling 2.1%, to 173,213, last year. And North American sales for Nissan's (NSANY) Sentra have climbed 4.8%, to 34,206, in the first four months of this year, after having dropped 10% last year, to 106,582.

Behind the Wheel

The new Corolla is almost exactly the same length as the previous model. The big change is that it's 2.5 in. wider and an inch lower in height than before. The car feels slightly roomier inside, even though head, leg, and shoulder space are the same as before. There's plenty of room for four normal-size adults to feel comfortable on long rides. Among other changes, Toyota rerouted the exhaust pipe to make the floor nearly flat, which improves comfort in back. However, I don't agree with Toyota's assertion that three adults would be comfortable in the bench-style rear seat (three kids, maybe). And tall and heavyset adults probably need a bigger vehicle.

I was surprised by how fast the Corolla XRS accelerates from a dead stop. I clocked it at 7.9 seconds in zero-to-60 runs. At highway speed, though, the XRS isn't very responsive. There's a long hesitation when you punch the gas. And powered by the small engine, the Corolla is downright pokey. Motor Trend magazine says it only does zero to 60 in 10.3 seconds with an automatic transmission and about 10 seconds with a five-speed stick shift. Even the basic Honda Civic is quicker and handles better.

The Corolla's strong suit is comfort. There's nothing luxurious about the cabin, but the materials are high quality and everything is well made and conveniently laid out. The ride is very smooth for a small economy car. Several times, I found myself inadvertently cruising down the interstate at 85 mph thinking I was doing 65 because the cabin remains so quiet and the ride so smooth at higher speeds.

The Corolla's redesigned rack-and-pinion power steering system is also impressive. A compact motor, speed reducer, and torque sensor vary the assistance the system gives the driver according to engine and road speed. It doesn't give you a lot of road feel, but steering is nearly effortless, whether at highway speed or in a tight parking situation.

The Corolla's cabin has numerous convenient storage cubbyholes. For instance, there are pockets built into both the front and rear doors, all with enough space to hold 20-oz. bottles. There's also a cool new two-tier, two-door glove box, with a top drawer that opens upward and a bottom one that opens downward. The 12.3-cu.-ft. trunk is about average in size for a compact car, but it's unusually deep for a compact car. Toyota says it will hold four golf bags.

Buy It or Bag It?

The Corolla is an excellent choice for buyers who want Toyota reliability and great mileage at a reasonable price. If sportiness is a priority, be sure to test-drive the Civic Si against the Corolla XRS. If a touch of luxury is important, consider the Civic EX-L, which has leather interior trim, as well as the Corolla XLE.

Expect to pay a bit more if you go with a Honda. The '09 Corolla sells for an average of $17,851, about $700 less than the '08 Honda Civic, according to PIN. Another, slightly more expensive alternative to consider is the new, imported-from-Europe Saturn Astra (average price: $18,361). If you're on a tight budget, the '08 Hyundai Elantra ($15,393), the Ford Fusion ($15,372), and the Sentra ($16,334) all sell for less than the Corolla, on average.

The Corolla is the middle-of-the-road alternative. It will lower your gas bill and get you from here to there in comfort, but exciting it isn't.

See the slide show for more of the 2009 Toyota Corolla.

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