2009 Toyota Corolla Review

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer

Every forty seconds, another new Corolla rolls off a dealer’s lot. Statistically speaking, it’s piloted by a middle aged woman without a college degree. She could be your house cleaner, mother or receptionist. For forty years, the Corolla has satisfied her with its predictable blend of reliable, economical and durable transportation. These days, old is out, youthful is in. Toyota’s PR professed and ambitious goal for their tenth generation Corolla: “to connect, more than ever, with younger buyers on every level” (Toyota’s italics/underlines). So, has the new Corolla hooked up?

The first half of Toyota’s “Plus-Alpha” program to attract younger buyers is “creative style packaging.” Corolla designers were sent to Italy for four months to discover “What would stand out, even on the streets of Turin?” I’m thinking a Fiat 500 Abarth SS. Their answer was not quite as dramatic. In fact, on the lowly streets of Eugene, the new Toyota Corolla was utterly lost in the sea of… older Toyota Corollas.

Goal number two is the “plus-alpha criteria of new value ‘improvements in sensitivity performance.’” What sounds like an ad for a sexual dysfunction remedy is actually all about improving the “five-meter impression” (no, not THAT “five-meter impression”). In Toyota-speak, it’s the aesthetic appeal as the customer approaches the vehicle, gets in and drives the car for five meters.

The presumption that the Corolla will sell itself within 16.4041994750656 feet is not without merit. It’s safe to say that the majority of Corolla buyers are pre-sold by the sea of virtually unbroken “happy faces” in Consumer Reports’ reliability stats, as well as the class-leading EPA mileage numbers (27/35).

Within my first five meters of acquaintance with the new car, I had an overwhelming “improvement in sensitivity performance”– from my nose. As I opened the door, my olfactory sense was assaulted by the intense smell of the still-polymerizing plastics. A pungent reminder of Toyota’s industry leading “just-in-time” manufacturing process? I cautiously touched them to make sure they weren’t still hot.

My other senses weren’t any happier with the plastics. The Corolla’s interior looks and feels distinctly cheaper than the preceding model. The flimsy ventilation controls feel much more Tianjin than Toyota City. I notice that my NUMMI built tester’s domestic content is down from 60 to 50 percent relative to last year. How else is Toyota going to offset the cost of an extra 150lbs of steel in the new model and keep their profit margins healthy?

Toyota deployed the extra metal to widen the Corolla by a couple of inches, as well as make it quieter. The only noticeable result: the hard, sharp-edged plastic door panels were that much more prominent in my field of vision. For a middle-aged man who’s 6’4” tall, the Corolla’s rear seat leg, hip and head room is woefully inadequate. But the cleaning-lady carpool will be happy enough.

Even in those first five meters, the Corolla’s new electrically-assisted steering made a powerful impression. Mother will love its over-boosted lightness in the Costco parking lot, but not me. It’s a necessary trade-off to keep the EPA numbers up (what with that extra body weight), but its synthetic feel and unpredictable weighting are a let down from the predecessor’s perfectly adequate hydraulic tiller.

That first drive almost turned into seven meters. The Corolla’s brake pedal felt like it was going to drop to the floor. We’re talking seriously mushy stoppers, unlike the firm ’08 comparison tester at hand. In sum, my five-meter impression was not a success; every time I hopped out of the ’09 and sat in the ’08, my “sensitivity performance” improved, and not just because of the smell. If any connection was going to happen, a longer drive was in order.

The revised 1.8-liter engine offers a few more horsepower. More importantly for the Corolla’s target market, it’s noticeably quieter. Given Toyota four-cylinder engines’ long, flat torque curves and the car’s intended mission in life, the four-speed automatic is adequate. With improved sound insulation and a soft ride, the Corolla is truly the Lexus of small car freeway cruisers. Your receptionist will love it.

When it comes to spirited driving, highlight and delete. The “old” ’08 is clearly the more dynamically engaging of the two models, with its pleasant steering and firm brakes. Or maybe I was just getting bored.

The 2009 base Corolla automatic lists for $16,050. That’s none too cheap, considering it has manual window cranks. Call me an old crank, but I don’t foresee a wave of new younger buyers connecting with the new Corolla. In fact, some traditional Corolla buyers may begin to question the price/value equation, in light of the cheap interior and the improved competition. That still leaves the Corolla’s stellar reliability reputation; hopefully the development team’s four months in Italy didn’t have an affect on that.

Paul Niedermeyer
Paul Niedermeyer

More by Paul Niedermeyer

Join the conversation
2 of 115 comments
  • Dean Swiatek Dean Swiatek on Jul 28, 2010

    I'm 6'2" and the seats in this car are the most uncomfortable seats ever used in any automobile that I can fit in! It feels like I'm sitting on steel, and the lumps in the back, that are designed to support the back of people who are 5 feet tall or less dig into my back. Surprisingly by cutting back on rear-seat, trunk and engine compartment space they have finally made a Corolla I can actually get inside -- the older ones I had to lay down across the backseat and do a cannonball, because they were too small for me to get inside any other way! But that still leaves the car incredibly underpowered, and for a little more money you can get a much nicer car, even if you are in the 80+ year old audience that Toyota markets to.

  • Greg Perkins Greg Perkins on Dec 12, 2010

    i own a 2009 corolla. the interior is pretty cheap feeling, but looks ok. the mp is great about 34 or so mpg's. the civics interior feels more expensive. when you touch stuff the plastics just feel more solid and of quality. i like the exterior style of the new corolla alot better than previous generation. it dosnt drive very well at all and if there is a choice and you like music upgrade, the stereo. trunk is roomy. toyota reliabilty. assurance it wont break down, but its realy not a satisfying experience.

  • MaintenanceCosts Last year, I rented a closely related Audi A3. The overwhelming impression was of cheap build quality, although the drive wasn't bad. It had ~45,000 miles and the sunroof sunshade and passenger side power window were already not working correctly. Lots of rattles, too.
  • Lou_BC As others have pointed out, some "in car" apps aren't good or you pay for upgrades. My truck did not come with navigation. It was an expensive option. There's a lame GM maps app that you need to subscribe to "in-car" data. The map does not give you navigation other than to tell you where restaurants and gas stations are located. I'd want Android auto since I already pay for the phone.
  • Theflyersfan Given so many standard nav systems aren't the best and updating could mean a dealer trip, and I stream all music, Android Auto is an absolute must. Wireless isn't necessary and some wireless chargers overheat the phone. And there are some hacks that let YouTube stream on the screen - excellent for listening to concerts.
  • Jeff I going to guess by the condition of the body and interior that there is little to no rust on the frame. Appears to be a very well maintained car.
  • MaintenanceCosts Would not buy a new daily car without it.