Sunset or sunrise, there's a high-performance Toyota Corolla that offers a great escape from everyday motoring while maintaining enough pace and power to keep you happily entertained till the cows come home.
All new for 2009, Toyota's Corolla XRS offers traditional Corolla buyers a little extra for their hard-earned cash with a bigger engine, highly tuned sports suspension and an upscale interior. It also maintains its old-school appeal through good fuel efficiency, reasonable resale values and reliability ratings that are off the chart.
Trick here is that, in the last couple years, I've tested four of the Corolla's main competitors – the Honda Civic Si, MazdaSpeed3, Volkswagen GTi and Chevy Cobalt SS – and all were just a little more fun off the line and through tight curves than the Corolla. To get full value out of the XRS, drivers will quickly realize, you've got to push it at slightly higher speeds.
Off the line the Corolla just shades the Civic and loses to the Speed3, GTi and the Cobalt SS, and it actually feels slower off the line – there's a noticeable lack of excitement here, even though it'll hit a mile a minute in about 7.8 seconds. Where it gets real fun, though, is when you put the foot down at 50-plus miles per hour.
Here, you get all the benefit of the 2.4-liter engine's 168 horses, which lend quite a kick to the 2,952-lb car and propel it quickly forward with little need to drop a gear in my variant, a high-revving five-speed manual (the automatic box is four-speed). At freeway speeds or when overtaking, it sounds every bit as good as the GTi or SS and matches their exhilaration when you plant the right foot. It takes just four seconds to get from 45 to 65 mph and will hit the quarter mile in 16 seconds.
It feels real good, also, with its tuned suspension including
Macpherson struts, coil springs and
anti-roll bar up front, and
coil springs, torsion beam and another
anti-roll bar at rear. Ride is stiff enough to be fun without being jarring, which lends itself to
short performance bursts alongside
longer road trips, and handling is excellent in curves, when you can really experience the front wheels grabbing the road beneath you and delivering some pretty good feel through the wheel. You might lose a bit of
fuel efficiency – which is good for a performance car at 22 and 30 town and town and freeway – but, jeez, this car was built to be driven fast.
The XRS represents pretty good value. It's a couple thousand above the mid-range LE, which gives you pretty near power everything, and is not much of a step up when you consider the base price of the XRS at $19.420 falls somewhere in the middle of its bracket and is very affordable to young drivers or those who want a little fun on a tight(ish) budget. All-leather interior is a welcome addition but will cost you nearly $1500 extra, but 17-inch rims come standard alongside wheel-mounted paddle shifters inside and XRS branded floor mats and trim. The 440-watt stereo sounds great and optional upgrades include Bluetooth capability and satellite radio. Touch-screen nav system is also an optional add-on.
One gripe is with the stability/traction control, which like almost all of these systems doesn't allow you to fully test the car's ability to handle tricky maneuvers at speed. Some would say it also manages to kill some of the maneuvers that people who will buy this car most look forward to trying out (but may keep a driver from killing themselves, or others). Strangely, electronic stability control is listed as an optional extra, which is weird in an age where many safety testing agencies require stability control as standard. Safety, otherwise, is good for a compact car. Power steering comes standard, and I loved its 35-foot turning circle, which worked great in parking lots and on tight neighborhood streets.
Rehab-wise, Toyota designers aped the shape and high beltline of the older sister Camry, building out the wedge shape of the car and raking the windshield a touch more steeply – echoing the Civic -- while upgrading headlights and tail-lights. The front cone is aggressively styled with the new dropped front and the XRS has all the honeycomb grille work and performance badges to keep boy and girl-racers happy.
Toyota's interiorologists have sought to build upon perhaps the weakest aspect of traditional Corollas – their frequently underwhelming interiors – and have sought clean lines and an integrated central stack system. Seats are neither as wide nor as thick as in previous models, adding to a sportier feel. Still, the interior trim here remains more Matrix than Lexus. The car's reworked outer shell lends itself to a spacious feel inside for a small sedan and trunk space is good at about 13 cubic feet.
Toyota like many other carmakers has fallen into a sales slump as a result of market conditions in the wider economy. The perfectly functional and competent XRS, however, may yet prove that Toyota's sun is rising still.