Thursday, May 30, 2013

2009 Toyota Corolla LE - The Distilled Mediocrity

I had a privilege of driving a 2009 Toyota Corolla LE for 2 weeks while my 2004 Infiniti G35 was repaired after being rear-ended. I have to admit that with this car, Toyota has achieved an nonparallel level of... mediocrity.

The car I drove was in excellent condition with 17K miles on the odometer.

My first impression about the car's exterior was "generic but agreeable". The shape is relatively sleek and in driving at higher speeds that results in pretty quiet motoring. The car slips through the wind pretty well.


Once I got into the car and got accustomed to its controls, seats and adjustments thereof, I started getting mixed feelings. The seats are rather comfortable and have a decent side/lateral support. The visibility backward is rather good (both through the mirrors and the C-pillars). The 3-spoke steering wheel looks sporty. Unfortunately, these are the only positives I can think of.

The dash and door plastic is hard and doesn't try to conceal this fact. The panel gaps are uneven and are rather exposed, especially between the dashboard and the door panels. I wouldn't mind in a cheap car, but the Corolla is not cheap. But wait, there is more.

Once I decided to reset the trip odometer, I was unpleasantly surprised by how the button behaved. It is a rather long cylinder and whereas on most (if not all) other cars I used it was made of hard plastic, in the Corolla it is made of the material that partially resembles a pencil eraser. So when you push on it, it slightly bends sideways. OK, weird, but not lethal.

The range of adjustments made the seat rather comfortable and the mirrors are electrically adjusted with ease. The appealing steering wheel turned out to be a bit inconvenient, whereas the positions where your hands lay naturally are too low. Toyota should have studied how other car makers make steering wheels, 3-spoke (e.g. my Infiniti G35) or otherwise (e.g. my wife's Honda Accord).


This is when the gold medal in mediocrity should be rightfully given to the Corolla. In fact, this is probably the car with the worst driving characteristics I have ever encountered, but since the road irregularities are absorbed so easily and the noise from the road and wind is so low, we arrive at the complete mediocrity. It is a perfect car for people who don't like to drive and would simply like to get from point A to point B in relative comfort and silence.

Strangely, when driving this Corolla, I found that it feels like you are driving a much larger car. Not in the solidity, but in the feel that the car is significantly larger than it is. It feels larger than my G35 or Honda Accord. But it isn't. The suspension is very soft, which requires constant small corrections at highway speeds. It behaves very similarly to Camry in this regard.

None of these faults are caused buy the Corolla's size. I drove a small Volkswagen Polo (smaller than Jetta or Golf) in Germany for several hours straight at almost 130 mph with complete confidence. And it felt way more solid than this Toyota apparatus and was better in every way.


Let's start (if we must) with the drivetrain. The 1.8-liter engine has enough power to accelerate at city speeds and a 4-speed transmission is anachronic, but sufficient. But at full throttle the engine sounds like an angry vacuum cleaner and the freeway merging and acceleration are pretty unimpressive. And because you are constantly revving the engine, the supposedly good fuel economy is rarely achieved. In 80% freeway driving with relatively gentle gas application, I averaged 34 MPG. Impressive? Maybe, but I get the same or better MPG in the 2.4-liter Honda Accord. Without being subjected to appauling Corolla's dynamics. In fact, I can get over 38 MPG in the accord if I use the Marvel Mystery Oil in its gas and drive to maximize the fuel economy.

Transmission Shifter

For some reason, Toyota insists on installing transmission shifters that need to be led to your selection in a maze. Perhaps they think that this is something that makes a car appear royal and prestigious. Jaguar did it and so did Mercedes-Benz. In a Corolla it is just silly. Some might like it. I don't care for it at all.


But wait, it gets worse. The steering completely lacks any on-center feel. Scratch that, it lacks feel. Period. This is the first car I have driven (and I have driven quite a few) where you can turn the steering wheel with the engine off using one finger about 15 degrees left or the same 15 degrees right. At low speeds, you can turn the wheel 15 degrees and the car will keep going straight. It is spooky.


Another first for me. When you come to a complete stop, the brake pedal can be depressed about 4-5 inches further with little increase in the force applied to it. The brakes are super mushy with very non-linear stopping power comparing to the force applied. The pedal travel before any braking happens is also among the longest I have seen.


There are airbags aplenty and according to authorities the roof is pretty strong. So this Corolla gets many starts in the crash tests. If you buy one, you will need all the airbags you can get, because with unresponsive brakes, steering and engine, this is an accident waiting to happen. Strangely both times I needed a rear bumper replaced it was because of Toyota products. The first was caused by an older Corolla running into my parked car in the parking lot and the recent incident by a Scion xB. My wife's car was rear-ended by a Lexus LS (no damage) and later by a Camry (bumper replaced). I don't mind it as long the drivers have insurance, but the trend is present.


The trunk is rather large and has a couple of small compartments in the right corner, which work well to prevent smaller items from sliding around. The trunk upholstery is good.


The windshield wipers worked well during a rain we had. The stalks have good feel.


The CD player can play MP3 and has an aux input. The sound was ok, about what one can expect from an inexpensive car. Radio reception was adequate.

Instruments and A/C

The instruments were legible. The A/C had very good power (and the fan is very powerful), but the mechanically-linked controls for it required way too much effort and felt very cheap overall.

Pros: Good seats, visibility, low noise, soft ride, decent fuel economy, features, good A/C.
Cons: Unresponsive brakes and steering, unrefined engine, cheap interior and controls, anonymous looks.


I highly recommend this car if you don't like to drive, like low noise, comfortable seats and soft ride, can get it for cheap and like the interior. 

If you like to drive, need some steering and brake feel, responsiveness, decent engine note, reasonably nice interior or above average acceleration, look elsewhere. A used Honda Accord is head and shoulders above the Corolla in virtually all respects.

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