Third Look: The Toyota Corolla XRS Has Issues

By Chris Martens

April 07, 2010

When you first see the Corolla XRS’ jaunty looking aero package you might be tempted to think, “Hmm, maybe this thing has some potential as an entertaining ride.” Unfortunately, that illusion melts away the moment you take the Corolla out for a spin. Allow us to explain.

At the risk of sounding like the eleven-millionth guy to kick Toyota when it’s down, let us simply state the facts. The Corolla XRS seems entertaining in its way and practical, too, but in reality its vehicle dynamics are very disappointing and is also insanely overpriced for what it is. So what’s wrong with the car? Where shall we begin?

Steering is reasonably direct, but offers little in the way of road feel or communication. But steering, as it happens, may be a moot point, since the suspension is simply a mess. The problem is that this car is under-sprung, harshly damped, and sorely lacking in roll stiffness, so that you get the worst of several worlds. You’re stuck with a small car that feels heavy and ponderous, that is neither nimble nor comfortable, whose ride quality that is harsh, and whose body motions are poorly controlled. What’s to like about that? Nothing.

When you give the steering wheel quick, decisive inputs you can almost count off “one-Mississippi” aloud before the ensuing body roll (of which there will be lots) finally commences. So, you have scary sensation that the Corolla chassis stores and then releases pent up energy—but in a weirdly time-delayed way. In short, body motions seem to take place way out of sync with the inputs that caused them, which just plain feels wrong.

Then, we come to the motor/drivetrain. The XRS comes with a 2.4-liter, 158-horsepower four coupled with a five-speed automatic, which—on paper at least—sounds pretty promising. But unlike some fours that Toyota offers, the XRS engine doesn’t seem too happy when spun toward the meaty end of the power band meaning redline is a place you’ll not often want to visit. The five-speed auto is OK, but its manu-matic mode is downright frustrating. Slip the tranny into manual mode and ask for an upshift, and you’ll suddenly feel as if the Republicans and Democrats are down in the gearbox debating the merits of shifting (or not). Who needs that grief? At the end of the day it’s simpler to leave the thing in “D” and let it shift for itself.

We could almost forgive these problems if the car was a bargain, but it’s not. In fact, our leather-trimmed XRS stickered for a whopping 25 large! What’s galling is that Toyota actually makes a perfectly fine small car (the Scion tC) that is better and a lot more fun than the Corolla in almost every way, yet sells for thousands less.

Building desirable cars at fair prices—that’s the way for Toyota to win back our trust.