2009 Toyota Corolla XRS

I won't lie - a Toyota Corolla with an automatic transmission hardly tops my dream car list. Having spent some time with it, though, I'd hasten to add that for the pragmatic buyer, the car still belongs near the top of the compact car heap.

The XRS has a genuinely premium, if not quite sporty, appearance. The seventeen-inch aluminum wheels and body extensions dress up the plain-Jane Corolla quite well. Factor in its considerable size, and you have a compact car that looks like it belongs in the premium mid-size segment.

That impression doesn't fade when you climb inside, where one finds nice leather seating and features galore. The $24,135 sticker on this tester is a bit shocking at first, but isn't any more than one would pay for a similarly equipped Mazda 3 or Volkswagen Jetta, though both of those cars offer more interior style.

The Corolla also drives reasonably well. The biggest surprise is the steering, which actually provides decent feedback. Much, much better than the last Camry I drove. The 2.4-liter four-cylinder provides ample, smooth power, and the 5-speed automatic responds quickly to jabs at the throttle.

Keep in mind, this isn't a Honda Civic Si or Mazdaspeed 3 competitor. In terms of base price, power, and disposition, the XRS lines up better with a Civic EX-L or Mazda 3 Grand Touring. Even then, the Corolla falls a bit short on personality. But for the compact car buyer in need of comfortable, upscale-feeling transportation, the Corolla certainly deserves a look.

David Zenlea, Assistant Editor

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I don't think someone who "aspires to own a shiny new Toyota Prius...someday" would spend $24,000 on a Corolla (the lower models of Prius cost LESS than this Corolla)
Whoa! Those pictures were taken less than a mile from where I work.

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