2009 Toyota Corolla XRS
2009 Toyota Corolla XRS. Click image to enlarge

Preview and photos by Jil McIntosh

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2009 Toyota Corolla

Windsor, Ontario – As the old saying goes, 33 million people can’t be wrong. That’s about how many copies Toyota has sold of its Corolla since 1966, making it the world’s most popular car. And when you’ve got numbers like that behind you, you’ve got to be very careful when it’s time for a redesign.

To that end, the tenth-generation 2009 Corolla walks the line very well. It’s more an evolution than a makeover: the styling is stronger, the engines are more powerful, and there are some long-overdue safety updates. The new model also marks the return of the sportier XRS trim line.

To go along with it, there’s also a new Matrix hatchback model, which I’ll look at separately in an upcoming article; General Motors will also take it and morph it into an all-new Pontiac Vibe.

Pricing hasn’t been announced yet, and that’s going to play a major role in the new model’s success.

2009 Toyota Corolla XRS
2009 Toyota Corolla XRS. Click image to enlarge

At first glance, the new Corolla bears a slight resemblance to a scaled-down Camry. It looks bigger than the model it replaces, but the tape measure tells the story: overall length increases by an imperceptible 10 mm, and the wheelbase is unchanged. The big difference is in the width, which increases by 60 mm; the height, which drops 20 to 25 mm, depending on the model; and the track width which increases an average of 43 mm in front and 68 mm behind. That gives the new Corolla a well-planted stance and considerably improved stability.

Interior space remains almost unchanged, with only a slight loss of headroom, and a little more shoulder space, although the trunk loses 42 litres (1.3 cubic feet) of cargo capacity. The windshield is more steeply raked, which improves the car’s profile, and along with a lower dash, increases the forward visibility immensely, while giving the car a roomier feel inside.

2009 Toyota Corolla XRS
2009 Toyota Corolla XRS. Click image to enlarge

The four-cylinder powerplant in the CE, LE and S models has a displacement of 1.8 litres as in 2008, but it’s an all-new version that increases horsepower from the previous 126 to 132, and with a step up in torque from 122 lb-ft to 128. The CE and S have a five-speed manual that can be optioned to a four-speed automatic; the autobox is the only choice in the LE. The last XRS model, offered for 2006, used a souped-up version of the mainstream 1.8-litre; for 2009, the new XRS carries a 2.4-litre four-cylinder that makes 158 horses and 162 lb-ft of torque, and uses a five-speed manual or five-speed automatic with manual shift mode.

As with the previous model, the new Corolla uses MacPherson struts up front and a torsion beam in the rear; it’s a bit surprising that it’s also the underpinning for the XRS, given that the Matrix XRS has an independent double-wishbone setup for its back tires. Making its first appearance is electric power steering; while such systems can produce vague steering feel, Toyota has dialed this one in very well, with a light, comfortable feel for the regular models, and somewhat sharper performance for the XRS. It’s not going to win brownie points with enthusiasts – the Mazda3 is still the benchmark here – but that’s not the Corolla’s reason for being. Instead, its smooth ride and predictable handling are aimed squarely at the commuter crowd who make up the bulk of this model’s success.

2009 Toyota Corolla XRS
2009 Toyota Corolla XRS. Click image to enlarge

Those commuters should be more than satisfied with the 1.8-litre; my seat time in the Corolla was limited, but the engine proved itself up to the task both on the highway and on city streets, with good acceleration even when merging into traffic at freeway speeds. The four-speed automatic is well-mated to it, and does a good job of keeping it in the sweet spot. The XRS is even more fun; the clutch and shifter have an almost European feel to them, although there’s a tendency for the revs to hang up between shifts. Exclusive to the XRS is a strut tower brace, tempered with an integrated damper to prevent rough roads from jostling the occupants too much.

The Corolla’s body contains a considerable amount of high- and ultra-high-strength steel, which the engineers say is 1.6 times stronger than conventional steel but 40 per cent lighter, and that plus a new curved floor improves torsional rigidity while reducing noise and vibration. Given the Corolla’s quiet cabin, I’m inclined to believe them.

Most notable among the standard features are several safety items that were absent on the previous generation: anti-lock brakes with brake force distribution and brake assist, six airbags and active head restraints are now across-the-board on all models, and the XRS throws in four-wheel discs. Previously, ABS wasn’t available on the base model even as an option, and seat side and curtain airbags could only be added as extra-cost items to the top-of-the-line LE, as part of a package that also included a power sunroof and anti-theft alarm.

2009 Toyota Corolla
2009 Toyota Corolla
2009 Toyota Corolla. Click image to enlarge

Other new items that show up on every model, including the base version, include heated power mirrors, height-adjustable driver’s seat, auxiliary stereo jack, and tilt and telescopic wheel. Other than that, the CE is a fairly base model, although it still includes full gauges, including a tachometer and outside temperature gauge, plus 16-inch wheels, dual vanity mirrors, illuminated entry, floor mats and digital clock. The LE and S models add air conditioning, power locks and windows, keyless entry, alloy wheels and cruise control, and the LE adds glowing Optitron gauges, automatic climate control and “smart key” proximity sensor with (unnecessary) pushbutton start. The XRS builds on the LE and throws in sportier-style seats, an overhead console box, 17-inch alloy wheels, power sunroof, full skirt package, and stability and traction control.

Inside, the Corolla doesn’t break any new ground, but the styling is elegant for the compact segment. The Japanese triumvirate is now sharply divided: Toyota’s cabin is more upscale, the Mazda3s all-red readout is sportier, and the Honda Civic features its futuristic dual dash. The Corolla’s cascading centre stack is reminiscent of Volvo’s waterfall design, but with more storage space, and its large dials and buttons offer the simplicity that should be standard on all vehicles. The last 2007 Corolla I drove wasn’t up to the company’s usual standards of fit and finish, but despite these 2009 models being very early production, it looks like it’s back on track. There are numerous cubbies, including a double glovebox and door pockets that will hold a water bottle, and little pockets on either side of the centre console.

2009 Toyota Corolla
2009 Toyota Corolla
2009 Toyota Corolla. Click image to enlarge

There are also some Canuck-influenced touches, according to chief engineer Shinichi Yasui. For the first time, the Corolla is designed as a single global model; previously, Toyota produced a design for the Japanese market, and then adapted it for each regional market. Production from the company’s plant in Cambridge, Ontario is second only to Japan, and the Canadian factory exports to all of North America. Yasui said that, thanks to input from the team at Cambridge, the Corolla’s pedals are spaced to fit a size 10-1/2 winter boot (the average worn by Canadian men); the door pockets were designed to fit an ice scraper, even though the Canadians had to send one to the engineers in Japan, who’d never seen one; the storage spaces were sized to fit North American electronics, such as cell phones and PDAs, which are larger than those used in Japan; and finally, yes, the cupholders really are sized to fit a double-double from Timmy’s.

Toyota is hoping that its new Corolla will open up the model’s appeal to a broader audience; currently, the average age of buyers hovers around 50-plus. Whether it can actually pull that off remains to be seen, although the appealing styling and the return of the XRS should help move it in that direction. Still, the Corolla still offers plenty of what put it on top in the first place: good performance, nice interior, and a comfortable ride. Updated rather than all-new, the Corolla balances ‘new and improved’ with ‘old and familiar’ in just the right proportions.

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