- The Washington Times - Friday, February 20, 2009

It’s not the most exciting car you’ll drive, but if you can find a more broadly competent machine for the $18,453 as-tested price of the Corolla I drove, buy it.

Sometimes the auto-enthusiast crowd laughs at cars like the Corolla because they’re bland and don’t offer much in the way of driving feedback. I’ll agree the Corolla’s styling is about as intriguing as a cigar box.

And for the enthusiast set, driving exhilaration usually involves some kind of handling peccadillo that borders on uncontrollability. So if that’s the yardstick of desirability, then the Corolla fails in that respect, too, because you couldn’t find a car with more predictable responses.

What the Corolla lacks for the pure enthusiast is paid back in economy and value - crucial factors for people who drive just to get there, rather than for the experience of getting there.

How about that 27 mpg in the city and 35 mpg on the highway from a car with a reasonable if unambitious 132 horsepower coming almost noiselessly from its sophisticated little 1.8-liter four-cylinder? There are cars in this class with bigger and better numbers, but the Corolla rarely feels underpowered, gliding along with a frictionless ease that usually has you rolling 5 or 10 mph faster than you think.

If there’s one disappointment with the Corolla’s driveline, it’s the old-as-dust four-speed automatic transmission (base models get a 5-speed manual for those who still like a clutch pedal). Most competitors have moved at least to five-speed automatics, although the lack of extra gears hasn’t much hurt the Corolla’s mileage numbers - Honda’s Civic, with eight horsepower more and a five-speed automatic, does 1 mpg better on the highway but 2 mpg worse in the city.

There’s no quibbling, meanwhile, with the Corolla’s safety gear. Every Corolla gets a safety arsenal that would’ve made a Mercedes blush just a few years ago: front airbags and side bags mounted in the front seats, as well as two big ol’ side-curtain airbags. The front seat belts have pretensioners that yank up slack in an impact and sophisticated active head restraints for the front-seat occupants.

Our test car also had what has to be the biggest steal in the auto industry: Toyota asks just $250 for the option of stability control, a safety “overlay” for the standard anti-lock brakes that helps prevent the car from skidding or fishtailing, a particularly useful feature in nasty weather.

You’d probably call the Corolla’s interior a what-you-see-is-what-you-get proposition. The controls are logical and uncomplicated, and there are features that still aren’t universal in this class of cars, including a tilt-and-telescope steering wheel and height adjustment for the driver’s seat. I also appreciated the prominently placed auxiliary jack to plug in my audio device.

Interior materials are mostly what you’d expect from an $18,000 compact car - a fruit cocktail of stuff that’s yummy (nice plastic on the center stack and upper dash) combined with some less-tasty ingredients: the raw-looking plastic for the inserts surrounding the power-window switches and the otherwise crafty two-piece glove box, not to mention the queasy Aunt Bea seat upholstery.

Regardless of some stumbles in tastefulness, though, the Corolla’s interior feels screwed and glued together with an inimitable tightness that is embodied throughout the car, underscoring the impression the Corolla is a value-laden transportation module designed to give numerous years of low-cost and unassuming service, leaving the excitement to something else in your life.

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