RALEIGH-DURHAM, NC – Toyota Motor Corp. must have been telling the truth when it denied reports its second-best selling U.S. car, the Corolla, was being delayed, sent back to the drawing board after executives saw the new Honda Civic.

Because, unlike what Honda Motor Co. Ltd. did with its compact car – a total rip-up, boundary-pushing redesign, Toyota has delivered a downright boring Corolla for ’09.

Appearance has changed hardly an iota from its predecessor, and performance and handling characteristics aren’t terribly adrenalin inducing, either.

While it’s true the Corolla hasn’t suffered the same sales slump as the Civic did prior to its ’06 makeover – U.S. deliveries were up 3.3% through November, it still is disappointing Toyota took the safe route in redesigning the car.

In Toyota’s defense, the Corolla/Matrix is the best-selling small car in America. So why mess with success? Because playing it safe is part of what got Detroit in trouble.

Other than a borrowed grille from the Camry SE, some “character lines” in the sheet metal and the Camry’s 2.4L 4-cyl. engine/5-speed automatic transmission in the top trim, there’s little to get excited about with the new model.

Styling and driving dynamics fall flat in comparison with the now 2-year-old Civic and 4-year-old Mazda3. Toyota says it is aiming to conquest Mazda3 buyers, the youngest demographic in the segment, with its new Matrix hatchback rather than the Corolla, but that seems shortsighted. A more dynamic Corolla would have given Toyota more ammunition with which to target that crowd.

Unfortunately, the next-generation Corolla, on sale in February, represents another in a string of blah compacts to come of late from Asian auto makers, among them the Nissan Sentra and Hyundai Elantra.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the highly competitive Upper Small segment has seen sales slip this year, down 3.7%, while newer, more exciting models in the Lower Small sector have boosted segment sales 35.4% through November.

The ’09 Corolla is available in five trims, up from three currently: standard, LE, XLE, S and XRS.

Only the upper three trims were available for test-drives, despite the fact Toyota forecasts the two least expensive models to make up nearly 70% of ’09 sales.

We drove the XRS, expected to account for 2% of ’09 sales, and the mid-grade XLE, targeted to appeal to 7% of buyers.

The XLE pairs Toyota’s new smaller, more powerful 132-hp 1.8L 4-cyl. with a 4-speed automatic. Handling is similar – competent but uninspiring – to the current-generation model with the old 122-hp 1.8L. Engine noise has been reduced some but remains noticeable, and steering hits a middle ground somewhere between twitchy and overly assisted.

Observed fuel economy averaged 28 mpg (8.3 L/100 km) on suburban streets, not much better than the Corolla XRS with 2.4L and 5-speed automatic, which returned nearly 30 mpg (7.9 L/100 km) over the same route.

’09 Toyota Corolla XRS
Vehicle type Front-engine, front-wheel-drive 4-door sedan
Engine 2.4L DOHC 4-cyl. with aluminum block, head
Power (SAE net) 158 hp @ 6,000 rpm
Torque 162 lb.-ft. (220 Nm) @ 4,000 rpm
Compression ratio 9.8:1
Bore x stroke (mm) 88 x 96
Transmission 5-speed automatic
Wheelbase 102.4 ins. (260 cm)
Overall length 178.7 ins. (454 cm)
Overall width 69.3 ins. (176 cm)
Overall height 57.7 ins. (147 cm)
Curb weight 2,965 lbs./1,345 kg
Base price range TBA
EPA fuel economy city/hwy (mpg, est.) 22/30 (10.7/7.8 L/100 km)
Market competition Honda Civic, Mazda3, Ford Focus, Volkswagen Jetta
Pros Cons
Bigger, quiet 4-cyl. Only accounts for 2% of sales
Smooth 5-speed Only accounts for 2% of sales
We're stumped Overall disappointment

The XRS also is quieter and boasts more responsive steering, but pricing could be a factor for many buyers, especially if the model is positioned too close to a 4-cyl. Camry. Prices will be announced closer to the car’s sales launch.

On the inside, the new Corolla is nothing if not comfortable, like a La-Z-Boy on wheels. Unlike the Matrix, headroom is substantial. But while improved, the interior appears dated, especially in comparison with the Civic’s futuristic 2-tier instrument panel.

Fit and finish is above average, but the switchgear, specifically the side mirror buttons carried over from the outgoing model, should have been updated.

Despite a few more bends in the sheet metal, taillights that are a bit more rectangular and an overall lower profile, there’s little to grab your attention on the outside.

In all, the new Corolla offers the type of improvements that usually come with a mid-cycle refreshening, and it’s hard to see why this car wasn’t ready for the market two years ago.

Corolla sells to a wide range of buyers, 20-somethings as well as 50-somethings, and that likely presents a design conundrum for Toyota. However, older buyers often flock to cars styled with youth in mind (witness Toyota’s own Scion xB), and it’s questionable whether a fresh, new look would have been a sales killer.

Certainly the move to offer a 4-speed automatic in all but the uppermost trim, while the Civic has moved up to a standard 5-speed automatic, is at the very least embarrassing.

The Corolla has been a best seller largely because it’s a Toyota.

But with Toyota’s quality reputation beginning to suffer just as competitors are building better small cars, there’s no guarantee the auto maker will be able to continue selling “350,000 appliances a year,” as a competing OEM exec recently put it.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com