To drifters (the kind that slide cars around tracks, not the ones who come into town on freight trains) there’s no more revered icon than the “AE86,” which was known over here as the 1985 to 1987 Toyota Corolla GT-S. With rear-drive, a solid rear axle, minimal curb weight, and a multi-valve 1.6-liter four in its nose, it’s a car that wants to be driven sideways. But the history of the Corolla since then has been one of steadily diminishing performance aspirations and steadily increasing utilitarianism. With the new Corolla XRS, Toyota finally tries to retrieve some street cred and it’s the most satisfying Corolla sold in America since the AE86.
To quote ourselves when this generation Corolla was introduced, “if Toyota really wants to attract more young buyers to the brand, they need to bring back more than just a single four-door body style in three modest trim levels to the market. How about an S sedan with the 180-horsepower engine and six-speed manual transmission they’re offering in the Matrix XRS and Celica GT-S to start?” Well, that’s pretty much exactly what the XRS is.Corolla Outside, Celica Inside
The current Corolla is basically a mini-Camry. In fact it’s not even all that mini as, at 178.3-inches long, it’s exactly the same length as original 1983 Camry. Available only as a four-door sedan, it’s solid (like a Camry), staid (like a Camry), it’s front-drive (like a Camry), extremely well built (like a Camry) and pretty boring (like, yup, a Camry). And it looks like a Camry too.
The Corolla sells well in base CE, slightly luxurious LE and slightly sporty S trim and all three perform about identically since they’re all powered by the same 1.8-liter, all-aluminum, DOHC, 16-valve four equipped with Toyota’s VVT-I variable valve timing system. Making 130-horsepower, it’s not a bad powerplant and generally comparable to those in the mainstream Honda Civic and Nissan Sentra models. Whether backed by a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic, the engine is a fine companion, but never an exciting one.
On the outside there’s little that distinguishes the XRS from the S (grille texture, larger five-spoke wheels and 195/55R16 Michelin Pilot Primacy tires are the big things), but the car in fact has a completely different heart: A new 170-horsepower version of the 2ZZ 1.8-liter, DOHC, 16-valve, engine used in the Celica GT-S. While this engine shares nominal displacement with the one used in other Corollas it is in fact a completely different beast and it features the VVTL-i system that includes variable valve lift alongside variable timing.
Toyota lopped ten horsepower off the 180-horsepower rating the 2ZZ carries in the Celica and Matrix in order to improve torque through the low- and mid-range in the Corolla. The torque peak now occurs at 4400 rpm instead of the 4800 rpm it does in the Celica. But this is still no V-8 with the peak 127-pound feet of torque actually down three from the 130-pound feet in the Celica. Beyond that the ordinary 130-horsepower Corolla makes its peak 125-pound feet of twist at an even lower 4200 rpm.
As in the Celica and Matrix, the 2ZZ is wed to a six-speed manual transmission and its throws are both short and precise. Unfortunately engaging reverse brings with it (as in the Celica) an annoying warning beeper.
Keep the simmering 2ZZ below 6000 rpm and the XRS drives like any other Corolla. It’s only past 6000 rpm, as the engine heads to its 8400-rpm redline, that it begins to wail. This is smooth engine that loves to rev, but it has a rougher edge than the K20 in the Acura RSX Type-S. And it’s no less fun to open this Toyota’s throttle than that Acura’s — even though it gives up 30-horsepower.
According to Toyota the Corolla XRS will waltz from 0 to 60 in less than eight seconds and mid-sevens feels right. But drop out of the sweet spot between 6000 and 7600 rpm and the acceleration curve flattens instantly. This is a quicker Corolla, but it’s not a particularly easy car to keep on the boil. If you want brainless speed, buy a Mustang or Corvette.
There’s nothing earth-shaking about the XRS’s suspension. The suspension is dropped a half-inch from other Corollas and there are increased rate coils and shocks at each corner, so the XRS sticks better. The ride penalty is slight too, but the steering could be quicker and more rear roll stiffness would delay the transition into understeer. The four-wheel disc brakes come with ABS standard, work well and don’t fade much barreling down mountain passes.
Simply put, the Corolla interior is the nicest of any economy car’s. And the XRS interior is even better with perfectly shaped front seats under a loose-weave cloth upholstery, a neat three-spoke steering wheel wrapped in cowhide, electro-luminescent gauges and neat metallic-like trim. It’s also roomy. There are larger, more expensive cars that would be better if they had this interior.
There’s no doubt that the XRS is the best Corolla even though it lacks the cutting edge of an AE86, robust torque production of big-engine competition like the Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V or competition pedigree of a Subaru WRX. It’s also a bargain with prices starting at $17,455. That’s just $2730 more than a Corolla S and $3775 more than a base Corolla CE.
2004 Toyota Corolla XRS
Base price: $17,455
Engine: 1.8-liter in-line four, 170 hp
Drivetrain: Six-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 178.3 x 66.9 x 57.4 in
Wheelbase: 102.4 in
Curb weight: 2600 lb (est.)
EPA City/Hwy: 25/32 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags
Major standard equipment: AM/FM/CD player, tilt steering wheel, 60/40 split rear seat
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles