RALEIGH, N.C. -- Well past the morning rush, traffic flows at a brisk clip along the I-440 beltway ringing Raleigh as we head out to follow a meandering course through the pine forests of North Carolina.
Objective of this jaunt is to assess the poise and capability of a Toyota subcompact sedan -- Corolla.
This particular Corolla in luxurious XLE trim and bearing the model-year designation of 2009 represents an entirely new design for a venerable Toyota nameplate.
Launched in Japan in 1966, Corolla reached the United States two years later. In the Seventies it led the small-car field for affordable but dependable transportation.
Successive generational designs in the 1980s and '90s improved with each incremental step to the point with the eighth version rolling out in 1998 that Corolla became the best-selling passenger car in history -- and now a decade forward that means more than 30 million units sold in over 140 countries around the world.
Although Toyota markets Corolla globally, for North America a special version skewed toward American tastes was developed, beginning in 1993.
Designs for the American Corolla originally came out of Toyota's California design center in Newport Beach, with assembly occurring at a California plant in Fremont that Toyota operates in a joint venture with General Motors, at Toyota's Canadian factory in Cambridge, Ontario, and in Toyota's homeland at Takaoka, Japan.
Styling for the 2009 Corolla was worked out by Toyota Design in concert with styling studios in Turin, Italy.
The new treatment improves Corolla in virtually every aspect, from the overall size of the package -- with an all-new body which adds room to the passenger compartment and trunk -- to the performance of a new fuel-efficient engine, the proliferation of standard safety features and a new chassis and suspension for an enhanced ride quality.
Structure for the new Corolla stretches long and wide, which makes the resultant vehicle not only look large but produces more room in the cabin for as many as five full-size riders.
Exterior styling appears shapely and contemporary but also athletic, even muscular.
From the top edge of the front bumper, slick lines sweep up a slanted hood and canted windshield, across the lowered roof and over back pillars along creased edges of rear fenders to a blunt back bumper -- in this dynamic motion defining a new low profile for Corolla.
The new car measures about a half-inch longer than the previous edition, more than two inches wider and almost an inch less in height at the roof.
Numerous modifications to the structure were taken to reduce noise and vibration -- from raising a cowl louver to stem the air flow on windshield wipers to a flush-mounted windshield made with sandwiched layers of clear acoustic material, extensive insulation wrapping the passenger space, even improved air management below the car with engine undercovers added.
Corolla's new chassis is more rigid and strong now, due to high tensile-strength steel in place for gussets and crossmembers. This creates a more solid structure for attaching suspension components, so Corolla's overall ride characteristics improve and set up a more agile platform.
Suspension components draw from L-arm-type MacPherson struts up front with stabilizer bar and a new compact torsion beam in back with coil-over-shock arrangement.
Steering, through a direct rack and pinion system, draws power assistance through an all-electric device. It eliminates the conventional hydraulic apparatus along with the power losses of an engine-driven pneumatic pump, and also pares excess pounds.
Expanding Corolla's structure becomes apparent inside the five-seat cabin, which feels quite spacious now despite the small-car classification.
Corolla's cockpit is a more efficient design and shows improvements in styling and the tone of materials, with more comfortable seats in place and more useful instruments and controls plus more standard equipment aboard.
The conventional layout includes a pair of buckets up front flanking a center console which holds the transmission shift lever, with the rear bench built for three but scooped for two.
Trim tiers for 2009 models consist of five designations -- Corolla Standard, the upgraded LE, luxurious XLE, sporty S and top-model XRS, which totes a bigger engine with stronger brakes and larger tires.
The standard four-cylinder powerplant, composed of lightweight aluminum, displaces 1.8 liters and packs dual cams on top plus Toyota's valve wizardry, labeled VVTL-i for variable valve timing and lift with intelligence.
It generates up to 132 hp at 6000 rpm, an improvement of two power points over the previous Corolla's 1.8-liter four. Torque climbs to 128 lb-ft at 4400 rpm, with more pep in the mid-range of gears used for stop-and-go city driving.
This plant also earns impressive fuel economy numbers -- as high as 35 mpg for highway driving.
Transmissions include the standard five-speed manual or an optional electronically controlled four-speed automatic.
Corolla XRS uses a four-cylinder plant out of Camry.
The twin-cam 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine with dual VVT-i produces 158 hp at 6800 rpm plus 162 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm.
This four-pack plant qualifies for Ultra Low Emission Vehicle (ULEV) status and delivers fuel economy numbers up to 30 mpg.
Transmissions for Corolla XRS extend to a manual five-speed or an electronically controlled five-speed automatic.
Toyota maxes hardware for safety on Corolla, with eight air bags aboard including curtain-style air bags concealed in headliners above side windows for front and back seats.
All trims tote computerized ABS (anti-lock brake system) with EBD (electronic brake-force distribution).
Additional electronic vehicle controls are offered optionally (yet standard for XRS) -- vehicle stability control (VSC), which corrects lateral skidding, plus traction control (TRAC) to check wheel spin and a brake assist (BA) system to add maximum braking pressure during an emergency stop.
Price points for the 2009 Corolla seem fair, beginning at $15,250 for the base trim with a manual transmission, or $16,050 with an automatic.
MSRP for the premium Corolla XRS tallies to $18,760 with manual transmission and $19,950 with the automatic.