Wednesday, May 7, 2008

2009 Toyota Corolla Road Test Review

The ninth generation of Toyota Corolla was not so much old, though it definitely had outstayed its welcome, as it had become boring. If fact, say that bo-ring, with the emphasis on the first syllable, as in Beauregard. Not grammatically correct, perhaps, but more exciting to talk about than the Corolla was to drive.

Not that economy cars have any right to be exciting or even entertaining, but there’s no reason why frugal wheels must be Exhibit A in a mattress commercial. And that’s what the Corolla had become: a rolling snooze. Need any more proof? Scion is Toyota’s confession that its smaller offerings had induced enthusiasm comas among the young.

Of course, the team working on the tenth generation Toyota Corolla could have yielded the field to Scion, but that also would have left Corolla’s market share open to poaching by competitors and left themselves contemplating unemployment.

So instead of another generation of generic econoboxes, Toyota pulls the wrap from a 2009 Corolla that’s surprisingly striking for an economy sedan from the company whose logo is the man wearing a sombrero.

Indeed, the 2009 Corolla is no box, econo or otherwise. While not as daring as the Honda Civic, the Toyota has a few styling flourishes of its own including a chic drooping snout behind a wide grille. A neat feature is how the Toyota logo suspended from the leading edge of the hood is matched by an indent in the lower edge of the grille surround, certainly a result of some designer’s aha! moment.

Toyota breaks with boring design with organic crests growing atop the hood, leading not to the shoulder line but to the A-pillar. The clear-covered headlamp array contours back to the front fender and down along the side of the vehicle. Toyota kicked the base of the A-pillar forward for a “faster” windshield and gave the backlight a flatter angle as well. The shape of the trunk continues the shoulder line with a step along the rear flanks, similar to Volvo but with clear red taillamps that project from the body.

The 2009 Corolla has five trim levels: standard, LE and XLE, and the sporty accented S and the high performance—relatively speaking—XRS. The latter two have “ground effects” trim along the rocker panels and under the rear bumper, plus “sideburn” (our term) spoilers on both front corners.

The interior matches the exterior. Plain it’s not but it doesn’t have the sci-fi dash like the Civic. Instead, the instrument panel is topped by a double curved cowling matching the large, legible speedometer and tachometer. The steering wheel has tilt/telescoping as standard equipment on all trim levels, as are XM satellite radio ready audio, air conditioning, front seat side and side curtain airbags, intermittent wipers and 60/40 split folding rear seats. The price leader “standard” model has hand crank windows; to get central locking means moving up to the LE trim level. At the other end of the Corolla sedan spectrum, the XLE includes variable intermittent wipers, center console, wood grain trim and fancy “optitron” gauges, also used on the XRS. The latter is Toyota simply putting your money where your eyes are.

The S and XRS have front sport seats, cruise control and a leather-trimmed steering wheel. The XRS improves sport driving with 17-inch alloy wheels with P215/45R17 tires, rear disc brakes to replace drums, and a strut tower brace to stiffen the chassis for better handling. The XRS also has stability control standard, otherwise optional on all trim packages.

The exterior dimensions of the 2009 Toyota Corolla increased by less than a half inch in length and just short of 2.5 inches wide while decreasing about 1 inch in overall height while maintaining the same interior space. The greater width yields increased shoulder room and Toyota says there’s more room for an over-six footer to sit in comfort…which we can’t confirm because we aren’t over six foot, but folks, can half an inch more legroom make that much difference?

Toyota also says it gave special attention to wind noise around the A-pillar, plus a five-layer acoustic glass windshield, with two layers of glass sandwiching a layer of acoustic material. Side window vibration was also reduced and the carpeting was modified for better sound insulation.

A choice of two new engines comes with three different transmissions. An all-new 1.8-liter 16-valve four doesn’t skimp on technology with variable valve timing on the intake and exhaust sides. The result is an impressive-for-its-size 132 horsepower and 128 lb-ft of torque. A five-speed manual transmission is standard with a four-speed automatic optional. The automatic has hill sensing technology which, based on throttle position, vehicle speed and acceleration, determines whether the car is going up or downhill and selects gear ratios accordingly, including shifting down on downhills for moderate engine braking.

The other engine is Toyota’s 2.4-liter four, though completely redesigned for use in the Corolla. It’s rated at 158 horses, but it’s the gain in torque that makes the bigger engine worthwhile. At 162 lb-ft, the extra grunt improves acceleration and around-town drivability. It too comes with a 5-speed manual as standard equipment but the optional automatic is a five rather than four-speed.

We had the opportunity to drive two Corollas, one with the 1.8-liter and four-speed automatic, and the other with the 2.4-liter and the manual shift five-speed in an XRS. They were about as far apart on the Corolla spectrum as possible, as was the performance. Simply put, although the 1.8-liter was smooth and quiet, at full throttle it had a raspy exhaust note. Performance was more an accumulation of velocity rather than acceleration.

The automatic shifted smoothly but it gave the impression of soaking up torque like California absorbs rain…when it finally does, rain in California, that is. On the highway it feels like the transmission, although in drive, was left in an intermediate ratio. It sounds like the engine wants to be shifted up, except there’s nothing more up to shift up to.

Corolla drivers will find the handling comfortable and familiar. A soft ride compromises ultimate cornering but the Toyota is confident up to its limit, with plenty of warning before it’s reached. We do recommend the stability control, however, to keep things on the up and up...literally.

Performance of the XRS was pleasantly perky, and casual driving took a lot less throttle to accelerate away from traffic lights without feeling like a traffic cone with wheels. The five-speed manual was reasonably crisp and didn’t suffer from synchronizer lockup when revved to its redline. Not, of course, that the forces are that great to begin with. Still, it scoots entertainingly and with more security than lesser Corollas, thanks primarily to the lower profile tires with less sidewall squirm. What the XRS lacks is a true sport suspension with firmer springs and shocks and well-sorted anti-roll bars.

The Corolla XRS, to that extent, is sort of an odd bird. It is, according to a Toyota spokesman, not a car one seeks out for its own characteristics. Rather it’s something that someone who has already decided on a Corolla will spec up to as better than an ordinary Corolla. Perhaps. Still, Toyota expects about five percent of Corolla sales to be the XRS.

Whatever trim level, we see the tenth-generation Toyota Corolla as a significant improvement over its predecessors (though not so much in quality because there was less room for gains there). The 2009 Corolla rescues the model from the mundane just when its competitors are spicing up their mainstream econocoaches. Bo-ring? Not now. Not if you don’t want it to be.

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