To capture maximum market share, does a car company have to forget how to have fun? Toyota seems to think so. The Japanese manufacturer has spent the last ten years purging its product line of irrational exuberance. It scrubbed the Supra in 1998, canned the V6-and-a-stick Camry CE in 2002, and wasted the Celica and MR2 in 2005. In that same year, another anomaly slipped through the cracks, a car that’s still with us today (at least for a while): the Toyota Corolla XRS.
The Corolla XRS is an econosport sedan in the Nissan’s Sentra SE-R mold. The XRS packs a 164-horsepower 1.8-liter four cylinder engine inherited from the Celica GT-S. Yup, them’s the numbers for the lone rebel carrying the torch for Toyota’s bygone high-output buzz boxes. Unfortunately, due to a low-profile debut and minimal marketing support, not even die hard pistonheads know that the frisky little XRS exists. The model dies as an ‘06. So, um, how should the XRS be remembered?
Well, if we’re talking about looks, it won’t be. Toyota put little effort into visually distinguishing the XRS from its visually undistinguished workaday brethren. The Toyota brand’s [remaining] go-faster guys fit the XRS with goofy side-sill extensions, some blacked-out trim and 16-inch alloys (that look very alone and scared in their wheel wells) with V-rated tires. Combined with the base Corolla’s awkward, pudgy proportions, the effect is about as aggressive as Danny DeVito in a Samurai mask.
Stepping into the XRS’ cabin provides solace from its gawky appearance, but not its mass-market roots. The Corolla’s driving position is optimized for shorter folks, with tall, upright seating, an oddly canted helm and pedals that nudge close to the driver. It’s a happy perch from which to schlep groceries, with all the ergonomic ease that made the Corolla so famous. Well, successful. But– surprise, surprise– the XRS’ cabin is a distinctly dull place from which to hoon.
Of course, Toyota’s trademark sobriety pays off elsewhere. The driver faces a subtle and uncluttered dash, with tighter panel fits and silkier switchgear than the XRS’ $17,880 sticker price suggests. Keen eyes will notice the XRS-specific sport seats, blue-flecked cloth trim and crisp electroluminescent gauges. But the clearest evidence of the XRS’ sporting intent sprouts from the center console: a mandatory six-speed manual shifter.
This glistening plastichrome beacon— and its quick, flinty shift action— offer an invitation to get the XRS boiling, to run its particularly peaky four from the 6200 rpm cam change to the 8200 rpm rev limited redline. Too bad the XRS’ conservative throttle mapping saps much of the mini-mill’s willingness to visit the penthouse. Working up to the lofty redline requires Zen-like patience to achieve the familiar “snap;” as the high lift cams do their fling thing. Celica GT-S pilots will be left scratching their heads: “Mr. Hyde? Is anyone home?”
Switching into cockroach stomping mode doesn’t help matters much. Zero to sixty takes 7.6 seconds. Around town, the XRS’ thin low-end torque, harsh metallic engine note and finicky clutch engagement grate.
Of course, sport-compacts are typically better at switchback dissection than straight-line stomping. In this, the XRS is no exception. In addition to the aforementioned “plus one” wheels and tires, the XRS benefits from a stiffened and lowered suspension, a reinforced steering column and a Yahama strut-tower brace (that features prominently in the car’s marketing materials, should you be able to find them). The result turns in eagerly, grips reliably and keeps its body motions politely snubbed.
If these observations sound a bit sterile, that’s because the XRS doesn’t bond with its driver in the typical sport-compact fashion. Its steering is a bit heftier than a typical Corolla’s, but it retains the base model’s velvety, insulated feel, veiling the road from the driver’s palms. The tall, bluff-sided body squirms when asked to hold a straight-ahead path, while the high-chair seating exaggerates body lean in the turns. In short, the XRS’ dynamics fall in that bad place between insipid and inspired.
So, if the XRS not as passionate as a Mazda 3 or Honda Civic Si, nor as effortlessly competent as a plebian Corolla, what is/was the point? Tough call, especially since this Toyota comes with some uncharacteristic annoyances: an infuriating beeper when you select reverse gear and a fixed rear seatback. I guess Toyota clocked the “failure” of the minimalist, hard-core Celica and MR2 Spyder and took aim at sport-compact buyers seeking comfort and refinement over haste. Both of them.
Toyota guessed wrong, and the XRS tanked. Now that the XRS has been axed, the big question is this: will they try again? Honda’s been doing extremely well with their hot Si’s, and Toyota’s making enough money to kick out the jams– even if they make another mistake. So yes, they will. Who knows? They might even enjoy doing it.