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2009 Toyota Corolla
Basic Transportation Done Right
By Colum Wood, Jan. 15, 2009

FAST FACTS

1. All-new 2009 Corolla gets complete exterior redesign.

2. Familiar 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine gets slight upgrade in power to 132hp and 128 ft-lbs of torque.

If Martians came down to earth today and asked you what a car is, you might try to explain to them that it has four doors and wheels and an engine. Or you could just show them a Toyota Corolla.

For 40 years now Toyota has been building the Corolla and with all the success it has had doing so, we’re likely to see Corollas on the road for another 40 years. The reason is that the Corolla defines the term “car.”

This point was made all the more obvious when we tested a base model 2009 Corolla. The only real option on this model was the automatic transmission, which brings the asking price from $15,350 up to $16,150.

All-new for ‘09, we thought this would be a great way to really tell what improvements have been made to the car without any distractions from the optional bells and whistles.

WHAT’S NEW FOR 2009

As is most obvious (or perhaps not) the 2009 all-new Corolla features a completely redesigned body. The new look isn’t breathtaking, or offensive, it’s just sort of there – although with our tester’s red paint we could upgrade our aesthetic evaluation to “pleasing.”

Surprisingly, this new body is actually smaller than the outgoing model. The ’09 Corolla is half an inch less in length and 2.5-inches thinner. It is, however, half an inch taller.

Under the hood, there are no big changes. The familiar 1.8-liter Toyota powerplant makes 132hp at 6000 rpm and 128 ft-lbs of torque at 4400 rpm – a modest increase of both six hp and torque. A more powerful engine is offered, but only in the $18,860 XRS model, which comes with a 2.4-liter four cylinder that makes 158hp and 162 ft-lbs of torque. It also comes with a five-speed automatic, as opposed to the four-speed auto available on the other trim levels.

The 2.4 is a good optional engine but if you’re looking for a sporty and fast econobox we suggest looking at manufacturers other than Toyota. Even with 160-ish horsepower the car engine has nowhere near the output of performance versions of the Civic, Sentra or Cobalt. To be fair, however, it is also priced accordingly.

Also new for ’09 are some suspension upgrades and they certainly make a difference. The car now has a more sporty demeanor than in the past. It’s no Honda Civic but it’s a marked improvement.

WORLD CAR: BUILT FOR INTERNATIONAL APPEAL

For 2009 the Corolla is, for the first time, a world car – meaning that it was designed with all markets in mind and not created for the Japanese market and then adapted for Europe or North America afterwards.

This is a part of the reason for the improved handling says Toyota. Of note, the ‘09 Corolla gets, for the first time, electronic steering and the Toyota seems to have got the responsiveness right on the first try.

INTERIOR: BETTER THAN EXPECTED

When it comes to the interior, there are immediate pros and cons. On the base model the materials are decent and the build quality is superb. Annoyingly, however, is the fact that the shift knob is coated in leather but the steering wheel isn’t – and considering how much time you spend with your hands on the wheel, this small upgrade could make a big difference in the tactile appeal of the car. Alternatively, Toyota, could just forget the leather on the gear stick and you’d never even think of it.

What really makes the Corolla’s interior a step above what it could be is the two-tone dash. And with the faux-brushed aluminum bars that run on both sides of the center stack, it looks significantly more premium level than a base model.

One complaint about the center stack, however, is that the radio controls are at the top with the climate controls at the bottom. That isn’t necessarily a problem, it’s just that this places the audio controls far away from the shifter – and means you can’t rest your hand on the shifter while you scroll through your presets as you sit in traffic. For the record, the base Corolla comes equipped with an AM/FM/CD player with MP3 capability – that actually produces decent quality sound despite just four speakers.

Impressively, the steering wheel is both tilt and telescopic – the latter option being something that is often forgotten on far more expensive vehicles.

The gauges are easy to read and while there is an information display for things like fuel economy and fuel range, it is very small. This display also houses the digital clock which just isn’t an ideal location.

Behind the wheel, it’s amazing how high-up the seating position is. In the Corolla you are high enough to look through the windows of minivans and SUVs so you can tell what is beyond them. The down side is that the command seating is inherently less sporty – but that isn’t likely to matter to anyone serious about buying a Corolla.

THE (SILENT) DRIVE

The cabin of the Corolla is surprisingly quiet for an economy car and the ride quality is excellent. As we mentioned, it handles better than you might expect.

The four-speed automatic is actually very good and power is sufficient. As for fuel economy, it is impressive with an EPA rating of 26/35 mpg (city/highway). Our tester achieved a real-world 32 mpg. That being said, we can’t help but wonder how incredible that number might be with a five-gear tranny.

Arguably the four-speed is one of the reasons Toyota is able to keep the Corolla so competitively priced – another reason is the use of drum brakes in the rear.

SAFETY: STABILITY CONTROL OPTIONAL

In term of safety features the base Corolla comes with six airbags, including dual-stage river and passenger airbags as well as front and rear side/curtain airbags. Unfortunately vehicle stability control and traction control are an option.

THE VERDICT

The 2009 Corolla in base trim does the job of an A-to-B-type car while offering a nicer interior and better ride than it has to. We’re still not taken with the styling but that is par for the course when it comes to Corollas. This may be the first Corolla world car, but Toyota has long designed its popular compact car to be as widely accepted as possible by employing a design principle of blandness.

If you’re shopping for basic transportation, the Corolla is easily the top of the list. If you’re looking for more, however, models from other manufacturers become increasingly attractive as you move up the scale.

What is truly amazing about the Corolla is that it is a testament to its heritage. The car is a top seller for Toyota despite the fact that the company offers other products that might suit many buyers’ needs better. Those who really just want basic transportation could go with the Yaris and those who need more space could chose a Matrix. And yet the Corolla thrives.

The ’09 Corolla does what all past Corollas have done, namely, to be a car in the most general sense of the term and to do so particularly well.

PLUS

Fuel economy
Interior design (and telescopic steering)
Command seating

MINUS

4-speed auto
Hard to find clock
Exterior design