2009 Toyota Corolla

2009 Toyota Corolla

Thinking about trading in your clunker for a nice, new, fuel-efficient car? Take a breath; the first-week success of the Car Allowance Rebate Systems (CARS) program, better known as "Cash for Clunkers," looks to be continued at least through Labor Day.

Last Friday, the US House of Representatives to vote to transfer $2 billion to the CARS program from an energy-loan guarantee fund. Yesterday, despite early opposition from Republican Senators, the Senate voted 60-37 to approve the new funding.

Starting in the last week of July, the program has worked unexpectedly well both in improving gas mileage and boosting new-car sales. Dealers must disable the engines of the cars traded in, though the rest of the vehicle can be sold to dismantlers or recyclers.

Baseline: 22 mpg or better

The minimum requirement to get a $3,500 allowance is that the new car gets an EPA combined gas-mileage rating of at least 22 miles per gallon. But to get the maximum of $4,500, the new car must be rated at least 10 miles per gallon higher than the trade-in.

This means lots of low-mileage sport utility vehicles, minivans, and pickup trucks have been traded for compact or midsize sedans and hatchbacks with combined ratings far higher than the base 22 mpg.

By numbers sold, the top three are the Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus, and the Honda Civic. All three are compact four-door sedans, built in North America, whose base prices vary by less than $200, from $15,350 (Corolla) to $15,520 (Focus).

All three cars get city mileage in the low- to mid-20s, but highway economy figures in the mid- to high-30s. Here's what you need to know about these top clunker replacements:

COMPARE: 2009 Toyota Corolla vs 2009 Ford Focus vs 2009 Honda Civic

2009 Toyota Corolla

2009 Toyota Corolla

2009 Toyota Corolla

The basics: 1.8-liter four-cylinder, 132 hp (XRS, 2.4-liter four-cylinder, 158 hp)

Price: $15,350 and up

Fuel economy: 22/35 mpg (manual)

Rating: 7.8 out of 10

The 2009 Toyota Corolla is almost a Jekyll-and-Hyde car. The base edition is bland, and suffers when compared to the Honda Civic in both performance and styling. But then there's the sporty Corolla XRS model, which does better on all counts but costs enough to push it almost into midsize territory.

We assume that most clunkers buyers will go for the base engine, so that's what we're focusing on in this review.

On the plus side, the latest Corolla is quiet and comfortable. Its controls are entirely intuitive, and it has the rock-solid assembly quality and superb reputation for reliability that most Toyotas (although lately, not all) have enjoyed for decades.

But offsetting that are a few flaws that disturbed us. While Toyota isn't known for its styling prowess, the new model is so similar to the previous iterations that we're hard-press to know whether it's a 2009 or a 2004.

More importantly, though, the interior is simply cheaper than we've come to expect on Toyotas. The LE adds features, while the XLE gets wood trim, and the XRS adds some leather and better seats. Still, rear seating is tight if you ever need to carry five people.

Finally, most automatic models still use a four-speed transmission, rather than the five- or even six-speed automatics that are spreading quickly into midsize and even compact cars. That extra gear or two really can boost your fuel economy, and the Corolla's numbers are in the middle of this pack.

Despite its blandness, the Toyota Corolla scored 7.8 out of 10 from the editors at TheCarConnection.com, in part because of its extensive safety equipment.

Our Bottom Line? The 2009 Toyota Corolla is far from the world's most stylish compact, but the XRS adds a dash of sportiness. Reliability is legendary, safety equipment is lavish, and the interior is serviceable and uncluttered, if unremarkable.

2009 Ford Focus S

2009 Ford Focus S

2009 Ford Focus

The basics: 2.0-liter four-cylinder, 140 hp (143 hp, coupe)

Price: $15,520 and up

Fuel economy: 24/35 mpg (manual)

Rating: 7.0 out of 10

The latest edition of the Ford Focus proves that there's life left even in older cars, as long as you're comfortable with the glitzy styling. We also recommend replacing the base trim level with a more upscale version, and adding anti-lock brakes and traction control, which will be money well-spent if you ever need them.

The styling is a matter of choice; some call it choppy and dull, while others don't mind it. Thankfully,  last year's garish chrome fender vents quietly vanished for 2009. The comfortable, quiet interior of the Focus should keep you happy even on miserable roads.

But the knockout feature is clearly Ford's SYNC system. Neither the Toyota Corolla nor the Honda Civic have anything close to it, and it's the factor that's kept the aging Focus toward the top of the sales charts.

Sync isn't standard, but more than two-thirds of Focus orders include it, and we're big fans. It lets you pair your phone to the car and use hands-free voice commands to dial friends, change entertainment channels, and manage other options.

Keeping your hands on the steering wheel is one of the safer things you can do, of course. And coming up for 2010 is a 911 Assist feature that automatically dials 911 through your linked phone if an airbag deploys. (It will be an upgrade for 2009 models too.)

The Focus leads the pack on city gas mileage, getting 24/35 mpg with either manual or automatic transmissions. We're not happy that the base cars omit stability control and even anti-lock brakes; in 2009, that's just a way to compete on price while pumping up the sticker for buyers who want those critical safety feature.

Technology aside, the Focus isn't the most compelling drive in the world. The handling is soft and numb, especially compared to the sporty Civic, and the back seat's far from roomy in the coupe (sedans are pretty cozy, though).

Overall, the Focus scores a 7.0 out of 10 from TCC's editors, penalized most for its looks and lack of some standard safety equipment.

Our Bottom Line? The 2009 Ford Focus is a good, solid choice if you're looking for a roomy car that rides well, especially if you prefer a domestic brand or you're intrigued by Ford's recent success. But while the price starts around $15,000, you will want to add optional ABS and stability control, which will boost that bottom line.

2009 Honda Civic

2009 Honda Civic

2009 Honda Civic

The basics: 1.8-liter four-cylinder, 140 horsepower

Price: $15,505 and up

Fuel economy: 26/34 mpg to 25/36 mpg (base to EX-L sedans, manual and automatic transmissions)

Rating: 8.6 out of 10

The perennial sales leader among compact four-doors, the Honda Civic is far sportier and "younger feeling" than either the Toyota Corolla or the Ford Focus. It has less interior space, but offsets that with excellent driving feel, fuel economy, and quality.

Even the base DX versions feel energetic, though the 1.8-liter four is slightly smaller (and higher revving) than those in the Corolla and Focus. The Civic's sweet manual transmission is a joy to stir, mating perfectly with the engine. The automatic's good too--and, as is increasingly common, beats the manual for fuel economy.

The Civic built Honda's reputation in the US for smart, fun, realiable transportation, and on that front, nothing's changed. Safety gear is comprehensive--stability control is an option only on base models--but crash test scores are strong. The ride is firm and direct, even a little busy, unlike the Corolla and Focus which both tend more toward the slushy.

Unlike the competition, Honda offers both a mild hybrid and a natural-gas version, the only carmaker to do so. Daring drivers will go for the Civic Si model, with its stratospheric redline and six-speed shifter.

You might not care for the latest Civic's fast, wedgy shape, and it definitely damages rear-seat space. The interior, particularly the tiered instrument panel, has an unusual design that looks like nothing so much as a starship command deck.

Despite these minor quibbles, TheCarConnection.com gave the Honda 8.6 points out of 10, enough to bring it to the head of this group.

Our Bottom Line? The Honda Civic lineup rates well for safety, handling, and overall frugality, though those who plan to carry cargo or frequent backseat passengers should look elsewhere.

Other Competition

Other compact four-door sedans remain in the hunt with the Corolla, Focus, and Civic. The new 2010 Kia Forte is a strong contender in every way—a surprisingly good-looking, enjoyable-to-drive car that will hold the budget down. The Hyundai Elantra is another top pick in this class, but the Forte is cleaner and more elegant from the outside.

The Chevrolet Cobalt is especially roomy and has a good ride, but skimps on the features, has a grim interior, and will be replaced next year by the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze. Finally, TCC has always been fond of the "zoom-zoom" sporty Mazda3, but it has its flaws and loses out on standard equipment.

Compare Cars

You can compare any cars of your own choosing at TheCarConnection.com. Just vist our comparison page, select your preferred vehicle type, price range, model year, and brands, and then choose up to three vehicles to compare on a single page.

By the way, the rest of the Top 10 clunker purchases are: Toyota Prius, Toyota Camry, Hyundai Elantra, Ford Escape (FWD), Dodge Caliber, Honda Fit, and Chevrolet Cobalt. We'll do more comparisons soon.

[Detroit News]