- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 23, 2004

Toyota has a new weapon in the effort to bring legions of young buyers into the corporate fold, the XRS version of the popular Corolla. For one final model year young buyers looking for some excitement in the driving experience will be able to purchase the sporty Celica coupe and the tiny MR2 Spider roadster, both of which are falling victim to slow sales. They also can buy the station-wagonlike Matrix, which combines a reasonable price with practicality and performance, depending on option choices.

For 2005, there is a new kid on the block, the Corolla XRS, which offers a distinctive blend of practicality and performance. Although it features some exterior trim enhancements to make it look more aggressive, the hottest Corolla will pretty much travel incognito as just another compact commuter car.

It takes a look beneath the sheet metal to learn that this Toyota has been tuned to travel with the front-runners in the factory pocket-rocket segment, say the Honda Civic Si or the Ford Focus ST.

The centerpiece is a dual-overhead-camshaft engine, a high-revving 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine that produces 170 horsepower and 127 foot-pounds of torque. Toyota fans will recognize it as a slightly detuned version of the 180-horsepower screamer in the 2004 Matrix and Celica.

But in this case less is actually more. As Matrix and Celica owners know, the engine’s variable valve and lift system helps the engine to extract its full 180 horses only when the engine is screaming between 6,000 and 7,600 rpm.

Maintaining such high engine speeds is great fun at the track and on certain back roads, but basically impossible in most everyday driving situations, so the Matrix and Celica often seems short on power instead of the opposite.

The revised engine offers more midrange pulling power — torque, if you will — and that allows a driver to keep up with traffic without having to downshift the six-speed manual transmission all the time.

Drivers with an itchy accelerator foot will enjoy 0-60 mph runs in under eight seconds. Those with a lighter touch will appreciate the 26/34 mile-per-gallon rating from the EPA, but will be less thrilled with the requirement for premium fuel.

Helping to manage the front-wheel-drive XRS’ power is a sport-tuned version of the Corolla’s independent suspension. It features stiffer springs and shocks on all four wheels and a strut tower brace mounted between the shock-absorber towers to improve ride and handling. In addition, a nonmovable rear seat back replaces the cargo-enhancing fold-down ones and a rear cross brace has been added to further stiffen body structure.

Rounding out the performance package are 16-inch alloy wheels with performance tires: four-wheel, antilock disc brakes with tire-pressure monitors; and a revised rack-and-pinion steering system that improves feedback.

The result of all this is a Corolla that is more responsive to driver’s demands and handles markedly better than its pedestrian counterparts without unduly compromising ride quality.

Inside, where there is plenty of room for four adults, the XRS has bolstered front bucket seats and special trim to accent the car’s sportiness. Unfortunately, the instrument designers apparently forgot that drivers often wear sunglasses. The result is a panel that is hard to read when the glasses are on.

Base price of the Corolla XRS is $17,455, and that includes air conditioning, cruise control and an AM/FA/CD sound system. Opt for all the extras, including an upgraded sound system, power windows, remote locking, sunroof and side-curtain air bags and the price jumps to $20,332.

Toyota-loving enthusiasts now have access to a hot compact that can run with the competition.

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