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Expert Reviews 2 of 9
By Kelsey Mays
April 23, 2008
Toyota's redesigned Corolla is a bit like the healthy-fare portion of a restaurant menu: On paper, its qualities should draw plenty of left-brained buyers, but like the overcooked tilapia you're always stuck forking through, its overall appeal is missing something. If compact sedans drew only on prudent sensibilities, this Corolla could have risen to the top — and, indeed, with rising gas prices, it still might. Given that today's best small cars manage to pique both sides of the brain, however, Toyota's latest entry underwhelms.
The Corolla comes in Standard, LE and XLE trim levels; most include an automatic transmission. Click here to see a comparison with the 2008 model. A sportier version is offered in S or XRS trims, while the redesigned Toyota Matrix and Pontiac Vibe serve as hatchback offshoots. I drove a Corolla XLE. How it Moves Most trim levels, including the one I drove, have a 1.8-liter four-cylinder. As I've generally found to be the norm among compact cars, the Corolla's accelerator responds with a light touch, giving the engine an eager feeling around town. Highway acceleration is less energetic, where the Corolla's four-speed automatic becomes something of a liability, especially if you're carrying passengers. Prompting the transmission to kick down from fourth to third takes a concerted prod on the gas, and accelerating from 30 to 50 mph sometimes requires second gear — and quite a bit of engine noise — to get up to speed. The Honda Civic, which we had in the Cars.com fleet the week before the Corolla, has a five-speed automatic, and its drivetrain feels decidedly more up to the task of high-speed passing.
A 2.4-liter four-cylinder powers the Corolla XRS. Here's how the two engines compare:
Standard, S, LE, XLE
Horsepower @ rpm
132 @ 6,000
158 @ 6,000
Torque (lbs.-ft. @ rpm)
128 @ 4,400
162 @ 4,000
Five-speed manual or four-speed auto
Five-speed manual or five-speed auto
Source: Automaker data
Though I didn't drive the Corolla XRS, I've driven that engine in the new Matrix, and it's a remarkably flexible powertrain. Its mileage penalty is significant, though: In the Corolla it returns 22/29 mpg (city/highway) with a stick or 22/30 with an automatic, compared to 27/35 mpg with the 1.8-liter engine and either transmission. The mileage figures for the base engine are particularly impressive:
EPA Gas Mileage (City/Highway, mpg)
Source: EPA for 2008 models (except 2009 Corolla) with base engine.
Antilock brakes are standard, though all trims but the XRS have low-tech drum brakes in back. The pedal in my test car seemed a bit mushy, especially compared to the braking response from four-wheel-disc cars like the Hyundai Elantra or uplevel Civics. Senior editor Joe Wiesenfelder took the Corolla out in the rain, and he found in one instance that ABS kicked in prematurely and resulted in an unsettling lateral lurch as the car came to a stop.
Suspension hardware includes an independent front and semi-independent, torsion beam rear — again, inferior to competitors with four-wheel-independent suspensions. (Certain Matrixes have an independent rear suspension, but even the Corolla XRS sticks with the torsion beam; a Toyota spokesman said that's because the Matrix is an inherently sportier car.) Highway ride quality is acceptable, with limited wind and road noise, but otherwise the Corolla imparts a sloppy driving experience. Hit an expansion joint while rounding an offramp, and the wheels shimmy sideways significantly. The steering wheel has a comfortable on-center feel, but it turns with a numb, distant feel, and hard corners elicit plenty of body roll.
The Civic and Lancer, which both have four-wheel-independent suspensions, seem more precise in all three regards. The Corolla XRS might prove sharper, too — it has a quicker steering ratio and a suspension-stiffening strut-tower brace, so if you're looking for better handling, it's probably worth checking out. Note that the XRS has a disappointing 36.3-foot turning circle, while other trims make it in 35.6 feet. The latter figure is competitive with the Civic and Sentra, though it loses to the Elantra (33.9 feet) and Lancer (32.8). How it Looks The Corolla's latest expression, which Toyota says it developed with the help of design studios in Italy, seems more aggressive than that of the Japanese-market Corolla. Triangular headlights and an indentation in the grille for Toyota's logo make it similar to the larger Camry, while the tail recalls the outgoing Corolla's. It's an orderly look that takes few risks, and I doubt it will find many fans or detractors.
Wheels range from 15 to 17 inches in diameter. The Corolla S and XRS add fog lights, bumper extensions and a rear spoiler, raising the styling mercury to somewhere around that of the body-kitted Camry SE. You can decide whether that's a good thing. The Inside For the most part, the Corolla's cabin seems affably tidy — the two-tone dash in my test car had consistent, if not outstanding, quality, and everything from the center controls to the gauges seemed tailored for straightforward usability. The turn signals and window switches operate with precisely fitted movements, and though most plastics are hard to the touch, overall fit and finish is respectable. Storage areas abound, with two stacked glove compartments, an ample center console and even small pockets flanking the center controls.
I'm not sure mere tidiness cuts it, however. The Civic's cabin elevates control precision to another realm — the Corolla's A/C dials feel clumsy in comparison — and the Elantra boasts soft-touch materials and upscale amenities. The Lancer and Focus go for broke with interior styling. Caught in the crossfire, the Corolla seems unremarkable — dumbed-down, even — and that may not be a place Toyota can afford to be.
Front-seat headroom is adequate, though my test car had no moonroof, which would take away about an inch of overhead space. The cloth seats were the subject of much debate at Cars.com: I found the upholstery comfortable and nicely groomed, but editors Mike Hanley and David Thomas thought it was dated and low-grade. The driver's seat adjustments won little favor — a height-adjustment jack is standard, but the seat has limited rear movement for taller drivers.
Perhaps that's a good thing; if the front seats traveled any farther back, rear legroom would become untenable. As it stands, legroom and headroom in back are just adequate for adults. Kudos to Toyota for keeping the floor between the rear seats hump-free, which means a fifth passenger might actually be able to tolerate a short trip in the center seat there.
Trunk volume totals 12.3 cubic feet, which is at the low end of this segment. Here's how interior volume compares:
Cargo Space Compared
Cabin volume (cu. ft.)
Trunk volume (cu. ft.)
*Sedan versions Source: Automaker data for 2008 models (except 2009 Corolla). All specs for cars without moonroofs.
Safety The 2009 Corolla earned the highest score, Good, in frontal crash tests from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. IIHS has not yet evaluated the car for side-impacts. The Corolla's six standard airbags include side-impact airbags for the front seats and side curtain airbags for both rows. Active front head restraints and antilock brakes are also standard; a number of competitors make ABS optional.
Traction control and an electronic stability system run as a $250 package on all trims but the XRS, where they're standard. The option is well worth the price, given that many competitors reserve stability control for higher trim levels or don't offer it at all. The outgoing Corolla charged $650 for the feature. Toyota says it's installed on just 14 percent of all '09 Corollas, though, so it may take some searching to find one with it. Features & Pricing Without the destination charge, the Corolla starts at $15,250. Standard features include air conditioning, power mirrors and a CD stereo with an auxiliary jack. Note that there's no iPod-specific hookup like Scion, Toyota's sibling nameplate, offers.
The Corolla LE adds power windows and locks, while the XLE gets fake wood trim, backlit gauges and keyless entry — a $245 option on the LE that really ought to be standard. Both the LE and XLE include an automatic transmission. The S and XRS sport various exterior add-ons, along with sportier seats and a leather-trimmed steering wheel with audio controls. Both models revert to manual door locks and windows, though — particularly disappointing for the XRS, which costs more than the better-equipped XLE. Power accessories, heated leather seats, a moonroof and a navigation system are optional.
Load an XRS to the hilt, and the sticker comes up just shy of $25,000. All told, the Corolla doesn't boast quite as much value for the money as some of its competitors do. Check out how a comfortably equipped model compares:
Compact Sedan Prices
Price to equip w/auto transmission, basic power accessories, ABS, curtain airbags, remote entry, A/C, CD stereo and cruise control
$16,090 (2.0 ES)
$16,375 (2.0 GLS w/Popular Equipment Package)
$16,535 (2.2 1LT w/cruise control, ABS)
$17,000 (2.0 SE w/cruise control, ABS)
$17,070 (2.0 S)
$17,145 (1.8 LE w/keyless entry, cruise control)
$17,495 (2.0 i Touring Value)
$17,760 (1.8 LX)
Source: Automaker data for 2008 models (except 2009 Corolla), excluding destination charge.
Corolla in the Market Gas mileage and safety credentials lend the Corolla plenty of textbook appeal, and if the car's 40-year history is any indication, the latest version should prove as reliable as the sunrise. Barring any quality snafus — a significant unknown, considering the latest Camry V-6's track record — these factors could be enough to drive the Corolla's success.
As a compact car that hits on all fronts, however, the Corolla disappoints. It's the sort of choice born out of your inner sense of responsibility — a solid pick, perhaps, for parents shopping for their teen driver. The problem for Toyota is that a lot of competitors have managed to package textbook sensibilities with compelling styling and fun-to-drive appeal. Judged against these rivals, the Corolla comes off as an also-ran.