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2005 Car Review: Toyota Corolla XRS

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PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)


2005 Toyota Corolla XRS

``High-performance Toyota Corolla.'' Sounds like a classic oxymoron, a combination of contradictory words, right? The Corolla has an enviable reputation for reliability and solid construction, very positive attributes in the compact sedan class, where dependable transportation is king. And Toyota is obviously doing something right with the Corolla, as, built and sold in slightly different form around the world, it is the best-selling car in the world. But there is another market for compact sedans besides basic transportation, and there the Corolla has been a non-presence.

This is the sport-compact segment, made of small sedans with high levels of performance and fun-to-drive character that sell for a reasonable price. It seems that nearly all compact sedan makers have had an entry, with the notable exception of Toyota. Which was surprising, considering that the Corolla GTS model made fifteen or so years ago could readily be considered an ancestral sport compact. In a day when dual overhead cam engines were still mostly the province of expensive sports cars and racers, the Corolla GTS had a rev-happy dual overhead cam engine, and let the world know with blatant ``Twin Cam'' lettering on the side. But since the GTS's demise in the early `90s, Toyota performance has moved on to other models. Until 2005, and the debut of the Corolla XRS.

The Corolla S that has been sold for the past few years is merely a cosmetic package, with a factory-installed ``aero kit'' of front and rear spoilers, side sills, and a small rear wing, and a minor tire upgrade. It has the ``tuner car'' look, but the same performance as other Corollas - good, but not high. The XRS is a different car entirely. As with its cousin, the Matrix XRS, Toyota has taken the drivetrain found originally in the Celica GTS, and, with minor modifications aimed at civilizing it ever so slightly without diminishing its screaming high-performance character, found it a new home.

I've been driving a new Corolla GTS for the past week, and have been impressed and entertained. It has the same build quality and roomy interior as other current Corollas, and is just as practical for everyday use. The suspension, while firmer than stock, is not at all uncomfortable in the real world of bad pavement. Below the engine's cam switchover point, it doesn't feel all that different from any other Corolla; above that it's a crossover vehicle - between a commuter compact and a Toyota Atlantic racer.

APPEARANCE: A current Corolla is a medium-small sedan with rounded contours. Angular character lines in the hood and a creased shoulder line on the side give it definition; a long, moderately-high passenger cabin, with the base of the windshield nearly at the front axle centerline and the bottom of the backlight behind the rear wheel line gives emphasis to its passenger-carrying ability. The CE and LE models sit high. The S and XRS are visually lowered by a Matrix-like front fascia with lower ``chin spoiler'' extensions, side sill extensions, and a rear bumper fascia that also extends downward. A small wing atop the rear of the trunk and 16-inch alloy wheels are the finishing touches.

COMFORT: The Corolla's large cabin is no illusion. Plenty of room and very good space utilization give it a pleasant and uncramped interior. The XRS has features found in cars costing somewhat more, and which help the driver stay comfortable and alert. Bolstered sport seats, covered with grippy cloth, are above average for the class, and the relationship between the leather-covered, tilt-adjustable steering wheel and the short, leather-and-chrome shift knob is conducive to high-performance driving. The pedals are rubber, not the flashy, trendy, and slippery metal and rubber found in some competitors - substance before style, thank you. Silvery, metal-look plastic is found on the console around the shift lever and around the window lifts on the doors, but is matte-finished and doesn't produce significant glare. Very unusually for its class, the XRS features electroluminescent ``Optitron'' gauges, as in a Lexus, for excellent visibility day, night, or with sunglasses. Storage space for the front passengers is good, with a large glovebox and console box, and small door pockets and storage bins in the dash. The outside rear passengers have plenty of room considering the Corolla's size, and a third adult could fit in the middle. Trunk size is also good, and a split-folding rear seat and trunk passthrough are standard in all models except the XRS.

SAFETY: Front airbags with occupant classification sensors, three-point safety belts for all seating positions, side-impact door beams, and four-wheel antilock disc brakes are some of the safety features of the 2005 Corolla XRS.

ROADABILITY: The Corolla XRS may look nearly identical to the S model, but it isn't the same under the skin. While it shares the same basic MacPherson strut front, torsion-beam axle rear suspension design as other Corollas, the XRS's springs and shocks are a touch firmer and lower the car half an inch. A Yamaha-developed strut tower brace in front and extra bracing across the bulkhead between the passenger cabin and the trunk (which does prevent specification of a folding rear seat and trunk passthrough) add extra chassis rigidity. Combined with V-rated tires and a special steering rack, these changes give the XRS very good steering response and cornering ability, with no major degradation of ride comfort. And there is still plenty of clearance under the front spoiler, reducing the chance of damage while parking. The XRS is as solid, practical, and comfortable as any other Corolla - it's also much more fun to drive.

PERFORMANCE: Toyota engines usually have excellent low- and midrange rpm torque and are not particularly rev-happy. This is an excellent strategy for everyday use, particularly with an automatic transmission. But such a specification earns ``poseur'' status in the sport-compact class, and the XRS is no poseur. It also is not available with an automatic, only a six-speed manual. The 1.8-liter 2ZZ engine, with the ``VVTL-i'' system which adds variable valve lift to the VVT-i system's variable cam phasing, is retuned slightly from its 180-hp form in the Celica GTS, for a less-peaky power band, and makes 170 horsepower at 7,600 rpm, and 127 lb-ft of torque at 4,400 rpm. It has enough low-end and mid-range torque for good low-speed acceleration - equal to the regular Corolla engine, actually - and so copes with daily driving very well. But it really shines in ``kick in the afterburner'' full-throttle runs to redline, and high-rpm performance driving. Variable cam phasing kicks in some power in the midrange, but the real power is at the top. The switch between regular and high-lift cams happens above 6,000 rpm, where the regular Corolla engine signs off. There is an insistent shriek and surge of horsepower from that point through the 7,600 rpm power peak until the rev limiter kicks in at 8,200. Things happen quickly in the power zone, and use the six-speed gearbox is necessary to keep in the power band. But that is what modern high-rpm performance is all about, and the XRS is a fine example.

CONCLUSIONS: The Toyota Corolla returns to its GTS roots with the new high-performance XRS model.

2005 Toyota Corolla XRS

Base Price			$ 17,455
Price As Tested 		$ 20,581
Engine Type			dual overhead cam, 16-valve
inline 4-
				  cylinder with VVTL-i variable
				  timing and lift system
Engine Size			1.8 liters / 110 cu. in.
Horsepower			170 @ 7,600 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			127 @ 4,400 rpm
Transmission			6-speed manual
Wheelbase / Length		102.4 in. / 178.3 in.
Curb Weight			2,670 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower		15.7
Fuel Capacity			13.2 gal.
Fuel Requirement		91-octane unleaded premium
Tires				195/55 VR16 Michelin Pilot
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / solid disc,
				  antilock standard
Suspension, front/rear		independent MacPherson strut /
				  torsion beam axle
Drivetrain			front engine, front-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		26 / 34 / 28
0 to 60 mph				7.6  sec

AM/FM/in-dash 6CD changer audio 	$   200
Power windows and wireless door lock	$   605
Sunroof and side-curtain airbag 	$ 1,400
Carpet floor mats			$    87
VIP RS3200 security system		$   319