2009 Toyota Corolla XLE review: 2009 Toyota Corolla XLE

2009 Toyota Corolla XLE

Wayne Cunningham

Wayne Cunningham

Managing Editor / Roadshow

Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.

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2009 Toyota Corolla XLE

The Good

The 2009 Toyota Corolla delivers economical performance and easy driveability. The optional navigation system looks good and refreshes quickly.

The Bad

You can't get the premium sound system and navigation in the same car. The four-speed automatic transmission makes every shift felt in the cabin.

The Bottom Line

The 2009 Toyota Corolla is your classic commuter, good on fuel economy and reasonably comfortable. But its cabin tech isn't particularly impressive and doesn't go out of its way to work with personal electronics.

Editors' note: Toyota issued a recall for vehicles of this model and year on January 21, 2010 to replace the accelerator pedal mechanism, which has been known to get stuck, causing unintended acceleration. For the latest recall information, please visit the Toyota Web site.

Although second from the bottom of the Toyota model lineup, the 2009 Toyota Corolla inherits tech that goes all the way up to Toyota's high-end Lexus brand. The optional navigation system on the Corolla uses a similar interface to that in the Lexus GS 460. And the Corolla also gets electric power steering, as does the Lexus. Unfortunately, the Corolla doesn't get the standard iPod integration found in the less-expensive Scion xD.

The body styling on the Corolla is unassuming, refusing to stand out like the Scion does. But as a small, four-door sedan, it offers usable cabin space and a reasonably sized trunk. The Corolla comes in four trims: base, LE, XLE, and XRS. Our car was the XLE, and as such, it came with a sprightly 1.8-liter engine. Either a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic transmission can be had as standard equipment on the Corolla XLE.

Test the tech: Geocaching Corolla
When we got into the 2009 Toyota Corolla and looked at its navigation system, we noticed that, along with taking street addresses, points of interest, and intersections for destinations, we also had the option of entering GPS coordinates. This feature isn't incredibly useful for a road-bound car, as your friends are more likely to give you a street address when they invite you over. But we couldn't resist the opportunity to take the Corolla out geocaching, a recreational activity where you get the location of a hidden treasure, and find it using GPS.

We set our locations in the navigation system, which can hold multiple destinations.

We found two nearby locations, named Guns over the Gate and Heart of the Mountain, on the Geocaching.com Web site. Before we could put the coordinates into the car's navigation system, we had to convert them from decimal format, as they are listed on the site, to degrees, minutes, and seconds, the only format the car would take. Obviously this navigation system isn't up with the latest trends in GPS.

We were impressed that we could enter both sets of coordinates and have the navigation system calculate a route from our location to both destinations, letting us determine the order that they appeared on our route. And the system was smart enough to place each destination on the actual road, at its nearest point to the actual coordinates. We wouldn't want to explain to Toyota why we tried to drive the Corolla down a mountain side.

The first cache was right across the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Corolla proved capable in the city and on the highway. Its little 1.8-liter engine gave us the acceleration we needed as we zipped around slower traffic. It didn't exactly stroll up the hills, but when we really mashed the gas pedal, the automatic transmission kicked down and the rpms ran readily up to 6,000rpms with an audible growl.

Our first location is a foggy World War II shore gun emplacement, meant to protect the San Francisco Bay.

The navigation system directed us to a World War II era gun emplacement overlooking the approach to the San Francisco Bay, where what would have been a spectacular view was obscured by fog. We called this part of the trip a success and continued on our route. The next location was a little further north in Mount Tamalpais State Park. Although the Corolla isn't exactly the most powerful car on the road, we were constantly stuck behind slower traffic, wanting to put the Corolla through its paces. The electric power steering made the car feel easy to throw around corners.

Unfortunately, we were denied our second destination, as the road leading up to it was closed due to excessive fire hazard. Now that's something this navigation system won't warn you about. To keep the navigation system from continuing to tell us to "Turn right here," we tried to shut it off, which was not an intuitive process. Under a hard button marked Menu, there is a touch-screen button that says Suspend Guidance. That button turned off the route guidance, but we had to go into the destination menu and actually delete our destination before we were really done with it.

In the cabin
The interior of the 2009 Toyota Corolla XLE fit its $19,320 base price, with plenty of plastic and cloth, and few amenities. All the windows are power, of course, but only the driver window is automatic, and that's only for rolling it down. There were no controls on the steering wheel, something we would have liked. There was also faux wood trim in our car, which just wasn't necessary. One surprise tech feature was automatic headlights, something we don't expect to find in a car at this price.

The main tech gadget was the navigation unit, which mounted into a double DIN slot in the dashboard. The fact that this factory-installed unit fit so well is good news for those who might want to get the car without navigation, and add their own aftermarket unit. This DVD-based system uses maps with good resolution and we had no trouble figuring out our way around the interface, as we had just seen a similar layout in the Lexus GS 460. Getting the navigation from a $50,000 car in a $20,000 car is a pretty good deal.

This interface is the same as you would get in a Lexus.

Unlike the Dodge Journey, where the navigation interface looks as if it was designed by engineers, there is some graphic finesse in the Corolla's interface. The touch screen makes the system fairly intuitive to use, and even though it is DVD based, we found it refreshed the map graphics quickly enough that we could pick destinations right from the map. We mentioned the multiwaypoint feature above. The feature's only problem is that the system can't automatically order your destinations along the most efficient route.

This navigation system offers a very full points-of-interest database, but it's not particularly advanced otherwise. It doesn't have text-to-speech or any traffic services. It does offer rich graphics to display upcoming turns. When we deliberately turned off of its route, the system quickly calculated a new route along the direction we had chosen without complaint.

The navigation screen also displays audio information. There is a single-CD slot hidden behind the navigation screen and an auxiliary audio input jack at the bottom of the stack. XM satellite radio is also an option, as is an upgraded stereo system with a six-disc changer. Unfortunately, the premium stereo and the navigation system are mutually exclusive, just like on the Toyota Matrix. On the plus side, if you get the premium stereo, you also get Bluetooth.

Choosing folders from an MP3 CD is easy with this touch-screen interface.

With an MP3 CD loaded, the system makes it easy to choose music, displaying a list of folders. You can also choose to display full ID3 tagging information for any track. Although the system says it plays WMA tracks, as well, it wouldn't play songs we had bought from the Microsoft Zune Marketplace. We assume this is because of Microsoft DRM on the files.

The base audio system in our Corolla consisted of six speakers, tweeters on the A-pillars, and woofers in all the doors. As such, the sound quality wasn't impressive. The system did about equally well in reproducing the highs, mids, and lows, but the sound was generally muted, with poor separation. What we did like about this system was the digital signal processor. It does a good job of letting you pinpoint the sweet spot for the sound in the cabin.

Under the hood
Along with the 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine in our 2009 Toyota Corolla XLE, the higher trim XRS comes with the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine we previously tested in the 2009 Toyota Matrix. The smaller engine puts out 132 horsepower at 6,000rpms and 128 foot-pounds of torque at 4,400rpms, which felt like adequate power to get the Corolla moving. The larger engine gets 26 more horsepower and an extra 34 foot-pounds of torque. We didn't feel a significant power difference between the Corolla and the Matrix, although our Matrix also had all-wheel drive.

The automatic transmission only has four gears, which means you will feel every shift.

Toyota has been at the forefront of developing variable valve timing tech, which optimizes engine efficiency, and the company takes it a step further with this new 1.8-liter engine by incorporating what it calls dual-variable valve timing. The engine controls the timing of the intake and exhaust camshafts through oil pressure, based on the engine's computer, which tries to determine the most efficient level of operation. You won't be the fastest driver on the freeway, but we easily maintained speeds of 70 mph to 80 mph.

Passing at speed can be a bit slow, but mashing the gas pedal results in a quick kickdown of the four-speed transmission. The small number of gears means you will feel the shifts, as the rpms change dramatically. You also feel and hear the road, as the suspension on the Corolla fits its economy car status. We drove the Corolla down one stretch of freeway that went through three types of rough pavement, and felt every change.

Electric power steering keeps the power assist even for the entire rotation of the wheel.

The car also uses electric power steering, a new trick for saving gas that is just coming into vogue among automakers. At low speeds, you can hear the whir of the electric motor as you crank the wheel around. The system operates with ease, adjusting the power ratio depending on the car's speed.

For fuel economy, the 2009 Toyota Corolla gets an EPA-rated 27 mpg in the city and 35 mpg on the highway. The emissions rating hasn't been published for the 2009 Corolla as of this review, although previous year models have only met the minimum LEV II requirement. However, the 2008 Toyota Corolla made it on to the ACEEE's 12 greenest cars list, and there's no reason the 2009 model shouldn't follow suit.

In sum
Our 2009 Toyota Corolla XLE came in with a base price of $19,320. Our major electronics option, the navigation system, came in a package for $1,960. A sunroof added $890, while stability and traction control, a must-have feature, only cost $250. Other sundry options and the destination charge brought the total up to $23,529.

In scoring the Corolla, we had mixed feelings about the cabin gadgets. The navigation system is pretty good, although not particularly cutting edge, but you are forced to choose between that or a better stereo system with Bluetooth. You can't have it all in the Corolla. As for performance, we were impressed by the car's economy and its all-around driveability, but it's not particularly inspiring. The price also gets a little high when optioned up, as with our test car.


2009 Toyota Corolla XLE

Score Breakdown

Cabin tech 6Performance tech 7Design 6


See full specs Trim levels XLEAvailable Engine GasBody style Sedan