All hail the world’s most popular automobile nameplate – no, it’s not Ford’s storied Model T or the air-cooled Volkswagen Beetle. With more than 40-million units produced since 1966 and counting, Toyota’s humble Corolla continues to roll down countless highways and roll off of numerous assembly lines around the globe to claim that title.
In Canada, it has typically been the country's second- or third-best-selling car for several vehicle generations.
What’s the appeal, exactly? Probably not its dowdy styling or somnolent performance, nor its ability to disappear in parking lots. Over the years it’s dropped the adventuresome hatchback and wagon and morphed into a bland sedan shape a second-grader could draw with ease. It’s barely distinguishable from a four-door refrigerator.
It doesn't break
But here’s the thing: Corollas generally don’t often break. They run and run, despite the myriad types of climates they have to endure, from the oppressive heat of Saudi Arabia to the relentless cold of Canada’s Arctic. They simply work – which is why car buyers continually return to the reliable Corolla.
A long-distance commuter living in Jacksonville, Florida, reportedly racked up one-million kilometres on his 2005 Corolla while traveling to and from his workplace in Savannah, Georgia. He went through a lot of tires and fuel, but little else. That’s the kind of dependability Corolla owners quietly boast about.
Is the tenth-generation Corolla, which was introduced early in 2008 as a ’09 model and continued with minimal change through 2013, as good as its predecessors? Let’s take a closer look.
Features and powertrains
While it looked substantially different, the 2009 Corolla was hardly all-new. It rode on the same length wheelbase but was wider and slightly lower and longer overall than the outgoing model. Toyota even carried over its 50-litre fuel tank, presumably to keep costs down.
One significant change was a switch to electric power steering in place of the old belt-driven hydraulic assist to reduce drag on the engine.
The new styling was reminiscent of the popular mid-size Camry – a good thing, maybe. But the cabin materials were roundly criticized for feeling cheap and cheerless, considered a step backward from the previous model’s Lexus-lite furnishings.
“The dash is made up of outdated-looking ovular shapes injection-moulded in hard, shiny grey plastic. Rolling mediocrity,” summed up a blunt post by a Zipcar user.
The austerity wasn’t all bad. Even base models had seat-height adjustment, a tilting-and-telescoping steering wheel, two glove boxes, a centre armrest and cup holders.
The floor was flat in the back and the bench seat could accommodate three moderately-sized adults reasonably well. All models had 60/40-split rear seatbacks that collapse to extend cargo capacity. A good thing because the trunk itself was a little on the small side.
Toyota’s all-too-familiar 1.8-L DOHC four-cylinder engine powered most models as before, but it was fortified with 132 hp on tap, up from 126. Peak torque was 128 lb-ft. The improvement was attributed to variable valve timing on both the intake and exhaust sides, instead of the intake only.
Toyota also saw fit to bring back the XRS model, transplanting the Camry’s 2.4-L four- cylinder to offer a little more spunk in the form of 158 horsepower and 162 lb-ft of torque.
Both engines were ULEV-II certified for low emissions. A five-speed manual transmission was standard issue, while a four-speed automatic was optional (the Camry’s five-speed autobox came only with the XRS).
All 2010 models benefited from Toyota’s so-called 'Star Safety System', which provided vehicle stability control, traction control, antilock braking (ABS), electronic brake-force distribution and brake override as standard equipment.
The Corolla earned the top “Good” rating in the frontal-offset, side and roof strength tests in Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash testing.
Toyota’s compact received a mid-cycle refresh for 2011 with revised front and rear fascias and new wheel designs. The interior gained updated upholstery, some metallic trim, and more standard features for the LE grade that included cruise control, keyless entry, additional audio speakers and variable intermittent windshield wipers.
Driving the Corolla
The Corolla was not exactly built for speed. The 1.8-L four propelled the wee sedan to highway velocity in 8.6 seconds with a stick, and took almost a full second longer with the old slushbox. The 2.4-L XRS wasn't a whole bunch faster, requiring 7.9 seconds to breach 97 km/h.
The ride was relatively hushed for an econobox and the Corolla tended to float over bumps like a larger car (say, a Camry). Handling was reasonably secure, save for one serious faux pas – its steering system could be vague and lifeless to the point of being disconcerting.
“The electric power steering is atrocious. It’s been 30 years since I’ve driven a car that required so many steering corrections on the highway,” one owner posted online.
Where the Corolla did excel was in passing gas stations. Drivers reported that the compact largely delivered on its promise of impressive fuel savings, typically garnering 8.0 litres/100 km (29.4 mpg (US)) in mixed driving.
Corolla drivers are mostly happy with one of the world’s most enduring nameplates, citing the car’s relatively roomy interior and refined and economical drivetrains as deal closers.
Negatives include the wandering steering, poor-wearing trim pieces, some blatant cost-cutting (the four-speed automatic and rear drum brakes come to mind) and pedestrian styling.
The Ontario-built Corolla generally shines in terms of reliability, although there are a few noted deficits and some owners wondered aloud whether Toyota may have cut too many corners in order to compete with relatively new models from Hyundai and Kia.
Early examples of the 2009 Corolla used a short-lived water pump; plenty of owners have sprung for new water pumps and serpentine belts. Toyota has an improved pump available. In addition, a leaking water pump can potentially degrade the alternator, shortening its service life as well.
There are reports of oil consumption by the 1.8-L engine as well as the 2.4-L Camry engine, which may be related to fast-wearing piston rings. Toyota has rebuilt some engines after oil consumption tests, but not all engines are eligible. Corolla owners are advised to keep an eye on their dipsticks.
The Corolla’s electric steering not only introduced some unwelcome wandering, but the system has been known to quit altogether. There are lots of complaints on the U.S. NHTSA website regarding steering issues.
In addition, there are a few reports of leaking struts, easily chipped paint, vibration at speed and annoying interior rattles.
Overall the Corolla remains a relatively sound used buy, but for Toyota buyers who habitually return to the brand for its legendary reliability, the tenth-generation sedan may be a little disappointing – especially at the elevated prices it commands on the used-car market in Canada.
2009-13 Toyota Corolla
Typical price range: $9,000-$13,500
> Made in Canada
> Genuine gas sipper
> Flat floor great for back-seat travelers
> Obvious cost cutting
> Ancient four-speed automatic
> Spooky lane wandering
Things to Watch Out For:
> Leaky and failed water pumps
> Oil consumption
> Odd steering
> Bad alternators