Second Opinion: Toyota Corolla XRS

March 26, 2008

Trust me, I've heard all the complaints. "It feels like an appliance," the enthusiast magazines chime. "It's only a Toyota," a friend says. So what? After a week in the new Toyota Corolla XRS, I'm pretty convinced that folks who commute for a daily living don't need anything more than this four-door to entertain themselves.

When we reviewed the 2009 Corolla XRS last fall, we wrote that "its steering is more tightly tuned, it gets around corners more smartly without much sacrifice in ride, and its 0-to-60 performance improves to a tick under nine seconds, which Toyota optimistically calls 'excellent.'" Gary Witzenburg went on to write that put up against the Honda Civic and the Chevrolet Cobalt, the Corolla didn't measure up.

I'll differ strongly on that point. After having driven the various Civics often in the past two years, and the Cobalt as a rental car, I'd put the Corolla ahead of both, even though the XRS version may not be the quickest of the pack.

The Corolla I tested was easily the best one I've ever tested. The feeling of quality sank in immediately -- even though the plastic on the dash was hard, it felt and looked better than the soft-touch plastic I've seen on some recent Chryslers. The fit of the interior panels was superb, and the sporting touches were slight but smart enough to make this look a little sharper than an average Corolla.

Performance? The Corolla's 158-hp, 2.4-liter four spun happily and smoothly to redline a lot this past week, and the five-speed shifter is slick and sweet enough that I'd teach my 17-year-old niece on it. It can't get down in the 7-second, 60-mph runs that the Cobalt SS can, but put it this way: would you rather hear someone do their job happily, or hear them grousing all the time?

The Corolla easily wins the taste battle here, too. The interior doesn't go for the space-age set like the Civic, and its comfort level is still tiers above and away from the Cobalt. The driver seat was comfortable for me, and the back seat offered up plenty of room even with my legs extended in driving position. And for equipment, all you need is the available Bluetooth, iPod jack and XM satellite radio -- you're driving too distracted as it is.

Now, if we're talking a week in Napa, I'd want a Jaguar XKR. And if it were Vermont, I'd prefer a Range Rover Sport, thanks very much. But for the everyday slog up Georgia 400, or the 101, or the A1A, I'd rather just spend $22,000 for a car with some surprising driving satisfaction, a stellar reputation for reliability, a very handsomely finished interior and faultless performance. And above a Civic or a Cobalt, I'd choose this Corolla, shelling out the extra bucks for the XRS' extra power, stability control, and tighter ride.

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