- The Washington Times - Friday, February 15, 2008

If there’s an automobiles that resembles comfort food, it would be the Toyota Corolla.

For generations, it has been the first new car for countless middle-class families and young singles, and the used car of choice for millions of frugal immigrants, working-class Americans and kids headed off to college. The common denominator was the Corolla’s durability, reliability and low cost of ownership.

Now with world-wide sales of more than 30 million, it’s the best-selling passenger car in history. It came to the U.S. in 1968 and, with the introduction of the 2009 model, is now in its 10th generation.

Although at times it was manufactured with different drive trains and body styles, the latter-day Corolla was a front-wheel drive four-door sedan until Toyota introduced the Matrix, a four-door hatchback, in 2003. Now, they’re cozy siblings, sold as the Corolla sedan and the Corolla Matrix.

The reason it gets that designation is its slightly higher driving and seating positions, and the fact that one version, the Matrix S, is available with all-wheel drive. It comes with only one drive train: a 158-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and a four-speed automatic transmission.

Others, with front-drive, are the standard model, which comes with a 132-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine and a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission, and the XRS, with the 158-horsepower engine and either the five-speed manual or a five-speed automatic.

The Matrix, and especially the XRS, is aimed at a younger, sportier customer, so the front seats have more side bolstering to keep the torso in place during spirited cornering, and the handling and ride have a tauter feel than the Corolla sedan.

With the Matrix or the Corolla sedan, the five-speed manual gearbox is the epitome of ease and tactile feel, and the clutch has a light and progressive engagement so it’s easy to drive without hiccups. It would be a good choice for people who might want a bit more driving involvement.

But there’s no fuel economy advantage. The Corolla’s four-speed automatic and the stick shift with the 1.8 motor get the same rating of 27/35 miles to the gallon on the EPA’s city/highway cycle. The five-speed automatic on the 2.4, at 22/30, even does slightly better than the manual’s 22/29.

Although the Corolla comes only as a four-door notchback sedan, there are five versions for 2009: Standard, LE, XLE, S and XRS. The last uses the 2.4 engine, which is the same as the base power plant in the mid-size Toyota Camry, and it can be ordered with the five-speed manual or five-speed automatic. The other four versions come with the 1.8 motor and either the four-speed automatic or five-speed stick.

Toyota expects the bulk of the sales, more than 40 percent, will be of the automatic-transmission LE model, which starts at $17,310 and comes with a decent level of standard equipment, including anti-lock brakes, side air bags and side-curtain air bags, air conditioning, an audio system with CD player and pre-wiring for XM satellite radio, tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, manual height adjuster for the driver’s seat, outside temperature gauge, and power door locks, outside mirrors and windows.

The test car was an LE with options that included traction and stability control, remote locking, cruise control, a motorized glass sunroof, an AM-FM and MP3 audio system with a CD changer, and a cold weather package. It had a suggested delivered price of $19,335.

On the road, the new Corolla exhibits a quiet competence, but without much driving involvement or excitement. It has neither the crisp feel of the Mazda 3 nor the cutting-edge ambiance of the Honda Civic.

But that likely was intentional. When you have a lock on a loyal base of customers, you don’t want to do anything to alienate them. So it’s best to think of the Corolla as a car with incremental improvements in design and engineering. It might have been even less incremental because Toyota had an earlier new Corolla design ready, but substituted this car because the first one wasn’t considered new enough.

The 2008 Corolla is a compact, which means it has tidy dimensions. It is less than 15 feet long and has 92 cubic feet of passenger space. Up front, there’s plenty of space for the driver and right-seat occupant in cloth-covered seats that are comfortable and supportive, though without much lateral support. (The S version gets leather-trimmed seats).

Out back, things get tighter. Anybody taller than about 5 feet 9 inches will bump their head on the headliner. There’s no excess of knee room, either. The center seating position in back is surprisingly better than on most cars, though still without much space for the feet.

The rear seatbacks fold down to carry additional cargo. The releases are conveniently located in the trunk, but you have to lean way inside to push the seatbacks down. It would be easier if they were spring loaded and flipped down on their own. They do not fold flat.

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