Editor's note: This review was written in July 2009 about the 2009 Toyota Corolla XRS. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2010, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
Next to the larger Camry, the Corolla is the most important car in Toyota's lineup, but its redesign last year left most of us here at Cars.com flat. The exterior is beyond conservative, the interior doesn't compare well to rivals from Honda and Mazda, and its base engine is anemic.
Enter the more powerful XRS trim level. The last generation of the XRS was a fun-to-drive favorite of mine. Some of that joy is felt here, but with a $18,860 starting price — my test car's sticker hovered near $23,000, and that didn't include navigation — it doesn't come close to the experience of driving a performance-oriented model like the Honda Civic Si or Mazda3 s, and it barely manages to hold its own against its competitors' non-performance base models.
The biggest upgrade to this more expensive trim comes with the engine. The base Corolla's 132-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder is replaced with a 158-hp, 2.4-liter four-cylinder, and the larger engine can be teamed with a smoother five-speed automatic transmission rather than the base model's somewhat-outdated four-speed. A five-speed manual is standard for both engines. The new engine translates to a much more enjoyable driving experience compared with the rest of the Corolla lineup, but that's like saying a Big Mac is more impressive than a 59-cent hamburger. It should be.
What shoppers should consider is how the XRS stacks up against the competition. I'd rate it far behind the 197-hp Honda Civic Si in terms of thrills, and behind the redesigned 167-hp Mazda3 s in terms of all-around performance. I'd also say the base Mazda3 sedan, with its smaller 148-hp engine, is on par with the XRS. Even a base Civic and its trademark high-revving, 140-hp engine would fare well against the pricier XRS.
The XRS' braking is also much improved over the standard Corolla, but again, that's because the baseline is so inadequate.
Mileage obviously takes a hit because of the upgraded power. The XRS gets 22/30 mpg city/highway, compared with an extremely frugal 26/35 mpg for the base model with the manual transmission. The Civic Si gets 21/29 mpg but has nearly 40 hp more than the XRS.
A highlight of the XRS trim is its appearance. The somewhat boring look of the standard Corolla is tarted up here with more aggressive body moldings, larger wheels — 17-inchers replace standard 15-inch wheels — and a rear spoiler. My red test car did indeed look sharp, and a little less like the economy box it is than does the base Corolla.
My XRS tester had an optional Leather Package. The seats themselves were quite comfortable, wrapped in fairly high-quality black leather. But that's where the highlights end. One of the Corolla's big disappointments is its bland, somewhat roughshod interior. While Toyota has always been one of the leaders in terms of interior quality no matter the segment, the Corolla's plastics look and feel cheap, and the controls are awkward. In short, nothing impressed.
The XRS doesn't get an altered interior, although my test car's all-black interior hid some of the flaws I noticed in other Corollas. Quality isn't on par with the Civic, and the new Mazda3 has both beat in terms of interior design, with its swooping lines and innovative locations for displays and controls.
The Corolla's backseat is also tight. Even though rear legroom and headroom numbers are close to the competition, hip room in back is significantly less than in the Civic or Mazda3. I didn't have a problem placing a convertible child seat in the Civic or the last-generation Mazda3, yet in the Corolla my 15-month-old son's feet were dangling between the bucket seats, pretty close to the front occupants.
At 12.3 cubic feet, the trunk is more than adequate; it's larger than the Honda's and Mazda's.
Toyota offers a number of a la carte options, which in theory lets you pick and choose the ones you want. Most dealers, though, only order cars that have the packages with the most popular options. My test car's heated leather seats were $1,490, a Power Package was $635 and the automatic transmission was $1,190, bringing the total with destination charge to $22,925.
Corolla XRS in the Market
With its significant price tag, it's clear that the XRS falls well behind in the competitive compact segment. I would compare it closely with Nissan's SE-R, but even that car features more handling prowess.
However, the XRS was never designed to be the best performance compact; it's just a step up from the base Corolla. In that it does well, but when you think of all the fun-to-drive compacts with superior interiors that can be had for the same money — like a Civic, Subaru Impreza or Mazda3 — the Corolla quickly becomes an afterthought.
None of this seems to have deterred car buyers, though. The Corolla remains the most popular compact car in the country and is consistently one of the best-selling vehicles of any type.
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