2009 Toyota Corolla XRS – Click above for high-res image gallery

The Toyota Corolla hasn't stirred passion since the AE86, so it's forgivable to greet an all-new version with a yawn. The Corolla recipe has been refined to the point of grand success for so long now that changes must be approached carefully. A new version must not upset the car's combination of refinement, value, and durability. To be sure, the 2009 Corolla is likely to continue the model's grade point average full of red circles from Consumer Reports. Objectively, it's tough to top - subjectively, not so much.

Photos Copyright ©2008 Dan Roth / Weblogs, Inc.

New duds certainly help. The Corolla has gone from blobby to "baby Camry," and it's one of the handsomest pieces of sheetmetal in Toyota's U.S. lineup. Like the last-gen Corolla S, the 2009 Corolla XRS gets extra body frippery, and the visual appeal of the Corolla XRS rates high. Toyota is still a little flummoxed when it comes to making the track appropriately wide for the bodykit, but it's harder to catch the 2009 model looking uncomfortable in its skin. The red on our test car didn't hurt matters either, and the XRS gets further niced-out with alloy rims, a black mesh-pattern grille, black headlight housings and foglamps for visual distinction. The trunklid spoiler is the only boil we can find on this car.

On the spec sheet, the Corolla XRS pleads its case convincingly. There's four-wheel disc brakes, a firmed up suspension, a strut tower brace, and most importantly for the sporty overtures, a bigger engine. The Corolla XRS uses Toyota's 158-horsepower 2.4-liter four cylinder in place of the 1.8-liter, 132-horsepower standard unit. Nearly 500cc of extra displacement chews the fuel economy numbers down to 22/30, each off by 5 mpg from the 1.8L without delivering a gee-whiz increase in performance. The torque is welcome, but we'd trade it in a second for better control feel and a more supple ride.

The leather-wrapped wheel and shift knob bode well, but only the shifter offers some mechanical feel. Steering feel is largely absent, though the weighting is good and action linear from the electrically boosted rack and pinion. The clutch friction point is equally smothered, making smooth driving a deliberate practice. Drive by wire strikes again, too, making strange things happen on the tachometer upon clutch engagement. At least the chassis can keep up when you get frisky, though it's only feigning interest and the ride can be a jigglefest on some surfaces. The Corolla XRS is not a pocket rocket in the vein of the Civic Si or Mazda3.

If it's not a star athlete, what exactly is the Corolla XRS? A handsome, well-trimmed, economical car. All the safety gear is there; airbags left, right, center, and curtain. Seatbelt pretensioners, active head restraints, and stability control. Leather upholstery is available on the decently bolstered seats, though we tried the cloth. It would be stretching to call the chairs sporty, and the lack of lumbar adjustment and a hard bar across the coccyx left us wishing they'd used some of that motor money for better seating, too.

Power windows and locks along with remote entry are part of the power package that eases everyday use. Also upping the liveability quotient is an upgraded audio system with JBL speakers, a six-disc in-dash CD changer, aux jack, and XM. Only you can decide if the spiffy radio is worth another grand, but it is one of the few audio systems we've ever tried that can make satellite radio's miserable quality listenable.

Toyota's typical obsessiveness results in a driving environment with intuitive ergonomics, and the materials and assembly quality are good. It's not a Lexus, and everyone, even domestics, have stepped up their interiors lately, but the Corolla has a clean design that's executed well. The back seat is fairly accommodating - the Corolla's not the subcompact it once was - and a flat floor across the rear enhances the spacious vibe. The usefully large trunk capacity can be expanded by folding down the rear seatbacks, and elsewhere inside are two gloveboxes, large door cubbies, and an also-capacious storage bin in the center armrest. As a car for the everyman, the Corolla hits all the right notes. For the apex-carver who delights in a little cut and thrust, which is the type of customer the plumage will interest, the XRS will come off as nervous when you request it live up to its image.

The price, too, is less than palatable. The XRS starts above $20,000, and ours was optioned up to $22,000 - a little hard to stomach for a Corolla. That kind of dough will buy a comparably equipped Civic EX-L, while a Spec-V Sentra SE-R brings 200 horsepower to the party for a couple grand less, and the Ford Fusion delivers more space in its nicer interior, virtually the same mileage, and reliability ratings that better the CamCord while riding a far more ebullient chassis than the Corolla XRS.

We're hardly saying the Corolla XRS is a poor choice - it's sharp looking, well built, and capable. Our main beef lies with the speedy-looking bodywork writing checks that the car's dynamics can't cash, which is a bit of a letdown if you allow your eyes to set expectations. A quick four-word summation: "Looks great, less filling."

Photos Copyright ©2008 Dan Roth / Weblogs, Inc.

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