- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 2, 2004

A Toyota Corolla with moxie?

Can’t be. It’s a Corolla. It didn’t get to be the biggest-selling nameplate in automotive history by having sporting pretensions. Nope, its basic strength throughout has been bang for the buck — cheap, durable transportation for the masses.

But with the increasing fragmentation of the automobile and light truck market, manufacturers everywhere are latching on to every niche imaginable. One of those onrushing niches is the so-called tuner customer — the young person who hops up or customizes an eight-year-old Honda Civic.

Toyota is determined to woo some of these kids into new cars, and perhaps carry along some 30- and 40-somethings who like their family transportation with a shot of jalapeno. Some of the company’s other efforts include the new Scion tC coupe, along with the Scion xA and xB and the Matrix hatchback.

So it probably was a no-brainer to take the humble Corolla, a four-door compact family sedan, and inject it with some testosterone. The result is the 2005 Corolla XRS.

The basics are simple: A 170-horsepower engine hooked up to a six-speed manual transmission. That’s right: A six-speed, which you usually only find on upscale sports machines. Toyota also uses the 1.8-liter engine in the Celica GT-S and the Matrix XRS, though the tuning is slightly different.

Though not as pronounced, the feel is somewhat similar to that of a turbocharged engine, where the power comes on strongly as the revs build.

To handle the extra performance, tighter springs and shock absorbers combine with a stiffened body structure and 16-inch alloy wheels to keep the XRS tracked truly around the curves. The combination imparts a sports-sedan feel. It most definitely does not feel like an economy sedan.

It still looks like a Corolla, though, despite a rear spoiler and some other outer-body embellishments. So it means you can sit benignly at a stop sign and smoke some of the unsuspecting competition. With the free-revving 1.8-liter engine, you can lop off a zero-to-60 acceleration time in a whiff over seven seconds.

Because of the way the gear ratios are set up, however, you find yourself driving around town mostly in third and fourth gears. Fifth and sixth are strictly for cruising on the open road, and first and second for the stoplight sprints.

The shift linkage has a few minor bumps as you move through the gears, but shifts are easy and positive. The clutch action is similarly light, though the clutch pedal is located close to a big dead pedal, which means you might get your foot stuck between the dead pedal and the clutch.

Up front, the cloth-covered bucket seats are firm and comfortable, with good lateral support to hold the torso in rapid maneuvers on twisting roads. The steering wheel is a nice three-spoke affair.

There’s plenty of storage, including a center console that doubles as an arm rest.

Overall, the interior design has a clean, uncluttered look, with large knobs for controlling the audio system and the heating/air conditioning. In typical Toyota fashion, the materials and workmanship have a quality feel and look.

The XRS has a starting price of $17,970, which is $2,535 more than a similarly equipped Corolla LE, the top of the line from an amenities standpoint. But that’s not a huge price tag considering it covers the more powerful engine, six-speed gearbox and the suspension modifications.

Other standard equipment includes antilock brakes with electronic brake distribution, a tire-pressure monitoring system, air conditioning, a stereo system with CD player, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and motorized outside mirrors.

The test XRS had a short list of options, including side air bags and side-curtain air bags, an upgraded audio system with a six-disc in-dash CD changer, power windows and remote power locking. That brought the suggested delivered price to $19,587 — not cheap, but not outlandish, considering the performance.

With the XRS, Toyota now has a full range of performance-oriented cars for people without megabucks. There’s a neat coupe, the Scion tC; a fastback sportster, the Celica GT-S; a four-door hatchback, the Matrix XRS, and a couple of boxy blank sheets for creative customizers in the Scion xA and xB.


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