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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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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 7 Years Ago
      Hey, I actually own one of these 2009 XRS's with a 5 spd standard... Take it down a winding country road and you get this stupid grin on your face as it hugs the corners. Push on the gas and the stupid grin gets bigger, drop it down a gear and hang on cause this thing will fly! Park it and you come back to a small crowd, and sorry guys but everyone seems to love the looks. My guess is most of the comments here are from people that have never even driven one! Lets see.. so far 2 'red light' drags, both civics... I wish they would put a more attractive nose on those honda's for me to look at in my rearview mirror....
      • 7 Years Ago
      Nice photography work, btw
      • 7 Years Ago
      In other news, Toyota designers watched as a Scion tC, Toyota Camry, and Subaru Impreza got into a horrible accident.
      • 7 Years Ago
      I'd like to take a moment to thank the Autoblog commenters for managing to refrain from making a single joke about New Jersey in 80+ comments. The Garden State thanks you, sorry about the smell.
      • 7 Years Ago
      A few points:

      Yes, the 2.4 doesn't get the mileage the 1.8 does. It does, however, compete well in terms of performance with the iVTEC four in the Si, the Mazda's 2.3, GM's 2.4 or the Nissan's 2.5. If you want mileage, Toyota still sells the 1.8.

      Better interior in the Fusion? I like the Fusion, but the base trim interior (the one without the piano black) is pretty bad. Stepping up to the SEL puts the price way above the Corolla's. And the interior in the Corolla is available right down to the base trim.

      I agree that the XRS is kind of silly, but the Corolla as a whole is a solid product that appeals to a lot of people and I really can't help but feel that this review didn't take that into context. In fact, I don't think that a lot of enthusiast sites really "get" Toyota's product at all.

      Me, I wouldn't buy one, or if I did I'd probably choose the Matrix for the extra versatility. But I can appreciate the virtues of the car and I can completely see why it sells hundreds of thousands per year.
        • 7 Years Ago
        The XRS is not the lower-trim Corollas. It's the top of the food chain, and for that you get the bodykit, material changes in the suspension, and a bigger engine. Fine.

        The sticker that came with the car had a $22,000 bottom line. Now. Go to Ford's website and build a Fusion SEL with the four cylinder. Add the leather seats with the red inserts and stitching and add the Sport Appearance package to the exterior. Then look at the price the Ford site whips up - virtual parity. The Fusion SEL has a nicer interior than the XRS had, and it certainly *DRIVES* better.
        • 7 Years Ago
        Interesting, if I do more or less that in Ford and Toyota Canada, the Corolla is some five grand cheaper. The Ford is built in Mexico, the Corolla in Canada.

        Over here, even the Fusion SE is more expensive than the Corolla XRS.
      onald sprouse
      • 6 Years Ago
      I have owned my 2004 corolla since new in 2004. It is not
      a speed vehicle but a realiable and comfortable car. I
      enjoy driving this car and the gas milage is good also
      32/39. I will get another corolla the next time also. Some
      people have their own negative remarks and some good.
      All I can say is different strokes for different folkes.
      Go Toyota.

      • 7 Years Ago
      I bought a new 2007 Nissan Sentra SER spec-V for $22K out the door incuding tax with every option Nissan could shove in it except sat radio. I know this car is hated by most of you but I really think its a good deal. It was inexpensive its reasonably fast (200hp),fun to drive, and has a pretty stereo, AND gets better MPG than the Carolla. I usually get 27 MPG around town.

      Everyone always says buy a Mazdaspeed3 but they fail to consider its hard to find one, its more expensive, and you cant deal with the dealer on one. It costs what it costs. It is better but who cares it costs a few grand more than the Sentra. A few grand buys lots of other stuff.
      • 7 Years Ago
      $22,000 for a Toyota Corolla...My folks bought their Avalon brand new back in 1998 for $24,000. Ten years ago sure, but isn't it warped that within that time, the price of a COROLLA has crept within two grand of an AVALON?!
      • 7 Years Ago
      wow a more Ulitilatrian appliance with worse economy and worse performance.

      Should sell in droves with press dripping praise all over it.

        • 7 Years Ago
        Selling in droves, indeed. The Corolla routinely falls behind its big brother in America and the Civic and 3 in Canada, but is the best-selling nameplate on Earth. To whom does it sell? Remember Jen, the Honda folks made-up character that they wanted to market the last-gen Civic too? It seems the Corolla has a better take on Jen. (http://goodcarbadcar.blogspot.com/2007/05/aggressive-corolla-drivers.html) There's a lot of 'Jen' buying these cars, and so terribly few people buying them for anything other than appliance duties.
      • 7 Years Ago
      Toyota should have saved the XRS badge for a car that could get out of its own way. Any 05-06 Corolla XRS would run rings around this thing.
        • 7 Years Ago
        Thing is, the _base model_ compacts from every other manufacturer are about as powerful as the XRS. Nearly everyone is in the 150s now, or at least the upper 140s. Yet the base Corolla is in the low 130s, and the XRS is in the 150s.

        _This_ is why the XRS isn't competitive. The 2.4 needs to be standard in the base Corolla, and the XRS needs a more powerful engine at around 200hp, to be competitive with the Civic Si and VW GTI.
        • 7 Years Ago
        Keep in mind, I really liked the Celica GT-S and Corolla XRS.

        Well, yes and no. The old XRS was quick and fun to drive (in that special "shift-like-mad" sense of the word) for it's class, but people were constantly harping on the lack of torque from the 1.8L VVTLi. Toyota remedies this with the 2.4L in the current XRS, and now people complain about it being not extreme enough. They just can't win with you guys, can they?

        I agree that this car ought to be hotter, but short of stuffing the 3.5L V6 (which would be awesome, BTW) Toyota has nothing else in it's North American stable (unlike Honda or GM). This car is quick enough and sporty enough for 90% of the population; the other 10% wouldn't walk into a Toyota showroom even if they did have a hotter model.

        Seriously. Even if this car had an AWD version of the IS350's powertrain, I really doubt that performance buyers would consider it. It's a Corolla, with all the demographic baggage that entails.

        Toyota sells a lot of Corollas. I think that, regardless of what enthusiasts think, they'll continue to do so by making exactly the cars that most people want to buy, not the kind of cars that the gearheard population wants to buy.
        • 7 Years Ago
        I have an '03 Matrix XRS, so I fully understand about the lack of torque from the 2ZZ. Driving with the family and a full hatchback is an exercise in frustration at every stoplight, but the mornings where I take the thinly-populated back roads to work more than make up for it. It's no Mazda 3, but it has way more room and the sound scares the bejezus out of onlookers at 8,000 rpm ;)

        Toyota's 2.4L isn't a great engine, and you're right - there's not much else they could have thrown in there without either borrowing from Subaru (which wouldn't fit anyway) or going back to the drawing board. But my comment was more about the complete package: no more high-rpm performance engine, no more six-speed manual, heavier, unnecessary giant tires, etc. The whole thing just seems to be a case of bigger for bigger's sake, not well thought out engineering.

        Here's hoping the upcoming RWD coupe brings some performance back to Toyota. It's been missing for far too long.
        • 7 Years Ago
        "Seriously. Even if this car had an AWD version of the IS350's powertrain, I really doubt that performance buyers would consider it."

        That would be the JDM Corolla Blade Master G. Build a few hundred of those to US-legal spec and that just might get the Corolla some respect here.
        • 7 Years Ago
        "Thing is, the _base model_ compacts from every other manufacturer are about as powerful as the XRS."

        You see, the thing is, almost nobody in the real world cares. You're blinded by the $$$=HP equation where to others it may be $$$=Reliability, or $$$=Refinement, or whatever. 90% of car buyers just want something that's cheap, gets good mileage, is reliable, is stylish and doesn't drive like a toy. That's why the Corolla is the best selling nameplate in the world. Not Mazda3, not Cobalt and not Civic.
      • 7 Years Ago
      The base car isn't a bad automotive appliance albeit a bit overpriced. But there's no reason to spend money for that ugly GFX kit.
      • 7 Years Ago
      ladies and gentlemen we are proud to introduce to you the 2008 Buick Skylark. Now with performance features like plastic ground effects and fog lights. Very sporty.

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