Corolla a capable all-rounder
New model in tune with times, blending safety, practicality, and economy
STOWE, Vt. - Forget tawdry profit motives. More than 40 years ago, when Tatsuo Hasegawa was chief engineer for the very first
Since his original model went on sale in Japan in 1966 - it reached American shores two years later - the Corolla has laid claim to being the planet's best-selling line of passenger cars. And while Hasegawa's admirable goal of worldwide happiness remains elusive, at least the new 10th-generation Corolla can improve the general welfare by conserving fossil fuels.
The Corolla LE achieved 32 miles per gallon overall in Consumer Reports' real-world tests and 40 miles per gallon on the highway. The magazine called that "among the best gas mileage CR has seen in a conventional gasoline-powered car with an automatic transmission."
I also tested a 2009 Corolla LE, the best-selling version, with the same 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine and 4-speed automatic transmission. Federal fuel economy estimates are 27 mpg in town, 35 on the highway and 30 combined.
I took the Corolla on a loop through Vermont that included a stretch on Interstate 89 to Burlington, a segment on two-lane roads from South Hero to North Hero on Grand Isle in Lake Champlain, then a twisty-turny drive on Route 108 that included a brisk ascent to Smuggler's Notch on the way to Stowe. For the trip, which included mountain roads that penalize fuel economy, I averaged slightly less than 38 mpg.
Aside from admirable mileage, the new Corolla is a good all-around choice among compact cars.
This is, in a sense, the universal car: With two 4-cylinder engines, five trim levels, and a choice of transmissions, there is a Corolla for just about everyone. Prices start at $15,910 (including the $660 delivery charge) for the Standard model with a manual transmission and rise to $19,420 for the XRS.
A 5-speed manual transmission is standard with both engines. Aside from the 4-speed automatic, which is available with the 1.8-liter engine, a 5-speed automatic is offered with the 2.4 engine.
By happenstance, I also had a new
My LE test car started at $16,650, including the automatic. A few options, including electronic stability control ($250), brought the total to $18,453.
At no time during my 350-mile test loop did I feel that the 132-horsepower engine was wimpy or inadequate. Although this engine was used in the previous-generation Corolla, it has been reengineered and now has variable valve timing "with intelligence," to improve performance and fuel economy.
The reworking makes for a fairly responsive engine that works well with the 4-speed automatic. But the small engine could benefit from a 5-speed automatic (like the one in the Civic or the Corolla with the larger engine).
This year, for the first time, the Corolla has electric power steering, and the system varies the amount of power assist depending on the speed of the car.
While electric steering has been around awhile, a common complaint is that it can feel numb. But that wasn't the case with the Corolla. My LE had decent road feel, although the steering hardly felt sporty.
Corolla shoppers who want a sportier-feeling car can turn to the XRS, which has the 158-horsepower 2.4-liter engine. Its steering and suspension are tuned differently for more driver engagement. A strut-tower brace connects the front shock towers, giving the XRS a more rigid feel. The tradeoff is a slightly harsher ride.
The Standard, LE, and up-level XLE take a more relaxed approach with a suspension that is compliant without being sloppy. But like most front-drive cars, the Corolla can feel nose-heavy on turns, as was the case on some thread-the-needle curves on the way to Smuggler's Notch.
But here is a refreshing change: This is a redesign that grew very little. The 2009 Corolla is a fraction of an inch longer than the last generation, and an inch lower. It did get wider by 2.5 inches, providing a bit more hip and shoulder room.
The Civic beats the Corolla by a bit in headroom and legroom, except in the rear. The Corolla's 36.3 inches of rear legroom exceed the Civic's 34.6 inches, and the Corolla's flat floor is more comfortable for passengers stuck in the back. The Corolla has a whopping 16.6 cubic feet of trunk space, while the Civic has only 12.
The Corolla's rear seatbacks can be folded, but it's not a one-step process. Because this is a compact car, and the rear seats have head restraints, it is necessary to scoot the front seats forward before flipping down the rear seatbacks. Then the front seats have to be moved back so that you can drive the car. The Civic is the same way, though with its new Fit, Honda found a way for the rear seat to fold no matter how the front seat is set.
While Honda gave the latest Civic an interior that is more youthful-looking and fun, the Corolla's cabin is quite conventional. It also loses econo-elegance points because it looks as if it were dipped in plastic. The furry seat upholstery in my test car seemed somewhat low-rent.
But interior storage is good, with a number of nooks and crannies to hold the stuff that Americans haul around. There is even a storage bin above the glovebox.
Front, side and head-curtain air bags are all standard, as are active head restraints that move up and forward in a crash to protect against whiplash. Antilock brakes are standard on all models. Stability control, which helps to keep the car from skidding out of control, is standard only on the XRS. It is a stand-alone $250 option on other models
In crash tests by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration the Corolla received four of five possible stars in front crash protection for both driver and passenger. In the side crash tests, the Corolla got five stars for protecting the driver but only four stars for rear passengers.
In more severe frontal tests by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the Corolla received the highest rating of "good."
With its emphasis on safety, practicality, and economy, the new Corolla seems more in tune with the times than ever. In 2007, the outgoing model had its best year ever in the United States even though it was the final year in the car's model cycle. So even in a grim economy the new version should have no trouble building on the Corolla's total cumulative global sales of 34.4 million.
Clearly this is a car that has satisfied a lot of people. As for bringing about a global state of happiness, at least the Corolla is making an effort.