I don't know about you, but when I think about the largest selling passenger car ever, the Toyota Corolla, I don't normally think "sporty" at the same time. The 28 million sensible Corollas sold in the U.S. since 1969 have established Toyota's enviable reputation as a company that builds high quality cars. So, when I got a chance to drive a Corolla with 170 horsepower, I said, "send it right over!"
The engine and transmission package in the Toyota Corolla XRS, as this new sporty model is called, is neither brand new nor exclusive to the XRS. Happy buyers have already sampled it in the Celica GT-S and the Matrix XRS. It comes only with a six-speed manual gearbox, which beeps when you put it into reverse. That's because Reverse is located left of first gear, and the sound helps you avoid accidentally backing into someone when the light changes to green.
Mated to the slick six-speed is a dual-overhead-cam, 16-valve, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine that revs way up to around 8,000 rpm. With a relatively modest 127 lb.-ft. or torque from the 1.8 liters, you need to push the engine to 7,600 rpm to get the full 170 horses to gallop. If you keep the revs around 3,000 the Corolla feels, well, like its normal self. It's when you punch it that its secret sporty personality emerges.
The XRS earns good mileage ratings, considering its mission in life-26 City and 34 Highway. Sadly, its higher performance drivetrain requires premium fuel. The other Corollas get 32/41 with a five-speed manual.
Even if you keep the tachometer in the middle, that doesn't mean that the XRS is exactly like the other three flavors of Corolla. Toyota engineers improved the chassis by tweaking the suspension tuning and adding an interesting looking front shock tower brace. They also added a rear cross brace, which is nice, but it meant eliminating the folding rear seatbacks. XRS models get 16-inch alloys, one inch bigger than other Corollas, with exclusive alloy wheels wearing Michelins.
This newest, seventh generation Corolla may be the best looking yet, but it is still definitely a four-door sedan. That configuration hasn't stopped America's young men from drooling over certain other Japanese four-doors, especially the ones with horsepower in the high 200's (and high prices to match), but the Corolla still doesn't scream out for attention.
My test car, in a somber Phantom Gray Pearl, didn't look that exciting until you really checked out the neatly integrated spoiler, lower body cladding, upgraded wheels, and front air dam with fog lamps. This appearance package debuted on the Corolla S model, but the XRS the guts to back up the looks.
The XRS may resemble the S model, but it is filled with upscale equipment from the upper level LE model. The XRS looks a little more aggressive, with sport seats in a unique honeycomb patterned cloth, leather wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, and silvery accents. The "Optitron" gauge package looms in the darkness until the key is turned and it blinks awake. Most of the goodies you want are there, from power locks and mirrors to cruise control and a six-speaker AM/FM/CD system.
Strangely, power windows and keyless remote are optional ($605). Also strange is that the remote lacks a trunk release button. The dash and door surfaces are made of hard, if handsome, plastic, which doesn't impart quite the sensation as the higher level sport sedans.
The XRS is a safe car, with the requisite dual-stage front airbags and high-tech seatbelt systems featured on all Corollas. The XRS also gets a standard antilock braking system with Electronic Brake-force Distribution. With the ABS system, you also get a handy tire pressure monitor. My tester had optional side curtain airbags in a package with the power sunroof ($1,400).
The XRS retails at a very reasonable $17,455. My tester added in an in-dash six-disc CD player ($200), a security system ($319), and the aforementioned sunroof and power windows, to come to $20,581, including transportation charges. In today's market, with the equipment it has, that's a good deal. While not the most exciting choice in the compact segment, it may very well outlast them all. And you will be comfortable and safe while you are roaring around at 8,000 rpm.