In the world of small cars, the Corolla makes even the Civic look young. The Corolla is celebrating its 35th year in the U.S. for 2004, and we decided to celebrate with the XRS model, which is new this year. This tuner-like iteration borrows a 170-hp 1.8-liter four-cylinder from the Celica GT-S and the Matrix XRS and mates it to a 6-speed transmission, adds a firmer suspension setup and sixteen-inch wheels, and finishes the package off with an interior spruced up with more supportive seats and sportier trim. Toyota says this more athletic Corolla is meant to target single young males, a demographic other Corolla models are struggling in.
The first thing that surprised us about this car was that the seventeen-inch wheels found on the Matrix didn't make it on this car, since "bigger is better" seems to be a winning formula when it comes to wheels, especially on cars targeted at young males. But on the road, the confusion quickly evaporated, as our Corolla quickly established itself as the back-breaker of the group, more so than even the larger-wheeled 3. We also expected more from the class-leading power. We feel Toyota's variable valve timing, which is incorporated into the engine, could use some fine tuning, as the power comes on disappointingly late. We finally felt all 170 ponies up near 6000 rpm and enjoyed a few quick revs before shifting gears and falling back out of the powerband. Most drivers will never reach such high engine speeds in regular city driving; the power would be welcome lower on the tachometer.
Compared with the somewhat generic exterior styling of the Corolla (may we mention the unnaturalness of that body kit?), we were impressed with Toyota's clean, luxurious cabin treatment. The Corolla made us feel as if a Lexus has somehow found its way into our group. We were delighted with the seating comfort. The six-speed shifter had a great feel, and the dash buttons were large and logically placed - a big advantage for four-eyed drivers. The Corolla came off as the most well-put-together car in the group, living up to Toyota's long history of superior build quality.
One staffer referred to our XRS as having a "Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde" type of character. On one hand, it is a tightly sprung, high-revving sport sedan, and on the other, it ultimately doesn't feel particularly confidence inspiring on twisty roads. Despite the stiff suspension, bumps and camber changes upset the XRS more than the Focus and the 3. The XRS also understeers considerably more than those cars. Based on the late arrival of enjoyable power and our chiropractor bill, the XRS seems like a poor compromise. Those desiring comfort, refinement, and the best quality and reliability for less than $20,000 will feel right at home in the tamer Corolla LE, but those desiring a bit of econo-excitement should look elsewhere.