2009 Toyota Corolla

2009 Toyota Corolla 2009 Toyota Corolla
First Drive Review

Toyota sells a lot of Corollas. With 30 million units out of dealership doors in 40 years, the Corolla is the bestselling passenger car in history. So it pretty much goes without saying that this is a critically important car for Toyota.

Furthermore, Toyota claims that one in three of the 272,000 people who bought Corollas in 2006 will eventually trade in his or her car for another Corolla—yes, not just another Toyota, but another Corolla—easily earning it one of the highest customer loyalty rates of any automobile. And it's probably safe to say that many of those other buyers trade up to the larger Camry, which is currently the bestselling passenger car in the U.S.

So it makes sense for Toyota to closely tie the Corolla in style and character to the Camry. And that's exactly what the company did this time around. Corolla shoppers (and anyone else entering the Toyota showroom after February) will find a pleasant if unremarkable sedan that is little more (and little less) than a Camry that's been scaled down in pretty much every respect.

Faint praise, yes, but well-earned faint praise.

Familiar Styling

From pretty much every angle, including the window line, the cut-lines on the hood, and the head- and taillamp graphics, the Corolla and the Camry appear to be two sizes of the same dress. Sportier S and XRS trim levels even have the same style of body cladding as the Camry Sport models (does anyone find it curious that, even as GM issues a moratorium on body cladding, Toyota steps it up on the cheap stuff?). But we approve, since the overall look is pleasing enough to the eye and considerably bolder than before, although still rather far from exciting.

Two Personalities

Corolla buyers, Toyota says, are split between both ends of the age spectrum: older empty nesters on one end, young singles and couples just starting out on the other. Previous Corollas have taken a one-size-and-style-fits-all approach, but the '09 model branches out with five trim levels—two of which are on the sporty side—to more effectively reach buyers in the crucial younger demographic.

At the bottom of the ladder is the "standard" array, which should appeal to the budget-minded of both groups. While hardly a luxury car—with crank windows and manual locks—the base Corolla features such good stuff as a telescoping steering wheel, air conditioning, and an exterior-temp gauge. More significant, perhaps, are the Corolla's six standard airbags, ABS, and available stability control (on all trims), which bring the humble sedan into the realm of safety once reserved for family and luxury cars.

From there, the LE and XLE trims will continue to appease the conservative, older set, with power accessories and other comfort items, as well as a lengthy options list that now includes a navigation system.

For the young 'uns, the S and the new XRS branch out with a slightly different set of priorities, i.e., with more emphasis on cosmetic and performance enhancements than comfort amenities. For example, with the S, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and more-supportive (and comfortable) sport seats come standard whereas power windows remain optional. Black headlamp trim and a chrome exhaust tip dress up the exterior of the S, and the XRS goes even further with 17-inch wheels, a spoiler, and 26 more horsepower (more on that in a bit). And for the gadget geeks, all the standard and optional features that come with the LE and XLE trims are available on these variants as well, although usually as options.

Even so, we're disappointed with the design and materials used throughout the interior. The peanut-butter-jar lids doubling as rheostat dials for the climate controls are particularly horrifying from a company that could probably buy any one of Detroit's Big Three automakers with the change in its pockets. If Toyota wants to maintain its lead in this business, we dare suggest it benchmark some of GM's interiors and then do better, not worse.

Besides, the bestselling car of all time deserves better, doesn't it?