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Minus Style Points, It's Still a Winner

2005 Toyota Corolla XRS

By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 26, 2004; Page G01

It is a frequent query: "What is your favorite car? Which do you love most?"

My answer is as shameless as it is consistent: "I am an automotive gigolo. I tend to love the car I'm with."

2005 Toyota Corolla XRS

Nuts & Bolts

Downside: No one is fooled by the addition of plastic pieces to external body panels to make a car look hip. That's especially true of young people, who now regard those styling cues "old school." Toyota needs to follow some of its rivals and abandon this approach.

Ride, acceleration and handling: The Corolla XRS is an excellent urban runner. It's perfect for commutes and reasonably comfortable for trips of about 500 miles. Acceleration is good, which means you can change lanes quickly with confidence. It handles well in dense urban traffic. Parking is easy.

Head-turning quotient: It's a Corolla. Frankly, that's all anyone cared about.

Body style/ layout: All current Corollas are front-engine, front-wheel-drive sedans with traditional notchback trunks.

Fuel and cargo capacities: All Corolla models have seating available for five people. Maximum cargo capacity is a commodious (for a compact) 13.6 cubic feet. The fuel tank holds 13.2 gallons of regular unleaded gasoline. The Corolla can be equipped to tow up to 1,500 pounds.

Mileage: In the tested XRS, I averaged 26 miles per gallon in city/highway driving.

Engine/transmission: The XRS is equipped with a 1.8-liter, inline four-cylinder engine that develops 170 horsepower at 7,600 revolutions per minute and 127 foot-pounds of torque at 4,400 rpm. The engine uses Toyota's computerized variable-valve-timing-and-lift technology to develop maximum power with minimum fuel and emissions penalties.

Safety: There are dual-stage front air bags; side air bags are available as a $655 option. Buy them. Four-wheel power disc brakes are standard on the XRS, as is a four-wheel anti-lock braking system.

Price: Base price on the 2005 Toyota Corolla XRS is $17,455. Dealer invoice price on the base model is $15,796. Price as tested is $20,145, including $2,150 in options (side bags, sun roof, power windows/locks, trunk and floor mats) and a $540 destination charge. Dealer's price with options and transportation charge is $18,068, according to Toyota, Edmunds.com, KBB.com, and Cars.com, an affiliate of The Washington Post.

Purse-strings note: Beware of options that improve neither the safety nor the performance of the car. They can be costly. Compare with any compact car available. The Corolla, as always, gets an enthusiastic "buy" here.

Truth is, most cars nowadays have something lovable about them. The 2005 Toyota Corolla XRS sedan is an example. Its pedigree is economy. Its pretension is sporty. Its mission is commuter.

The Corolla has been around since 1968, having begun life as a dowdy but exceptionally reliable two-door, rear-wheel-drive subcompact. It became a front-wheel-drive sedan in 1984, a year in which it also began selling as a five-door hatchback. By 1988, Toyota had sold 10 million Corolla models, including wagon versions, in the United States. That number grew to 20 million in 1997, four years after the Corolla emerged from its subcompact status to become a larger compact sedan.

Through all of its model changes, the Corolla remained true to the notion of impeccable automotive quality delivered at reasonable cost. Its generally excellent fuel economy, usually in the area of 30 miles per gallon, enhanced that reputation.

But the Corolla never has been an exciting car, never something that enthusiasts rushed to show off. Instead, it always has been a good friend -- trustworthy, predictable, there when needed.

It is because of those more meaningful virtues that I can forgive the stylistic silliness that characterizes the latest Corolla offering, the XRS, and still find much to love.

Strip away the XRS model's adolescent and functionally meaningless rear air spoiler; knock off all of those plastic "ground-effects" pieces, and you get what you've always gotten in a Corolla -- good, basic, safe, affordable personal transportation.

Over 36 years, that formula helped the Corolla become the world's best-selling car. But Toyota's marketing people -- these ideas always seem to come from marketing people -- believe the Corolla's image needs an update.

In the car industry, "updating" often means "repositioning" a product to attract younger buyers. But after spending a week driving the XRS, I can't figure out where those marketing people get their ideas of "youth." Teenagers who looked at the XRS dumped on the spoiler. Their question, in summary: What's the point?

Grief! Some of those teens even called the plastic lower-body cladding "old school." You've got to pay attention to that kind of criticism from people who haven't yet finished high school.

But young and old alike gave top marks to the XRS model's interior. It is simple, ergonomically intelligent. Everybody loved the Lexus-like gauges in the instrument panel.

Most people, teenagers and their middle-aged parents, praised the back-hugging, side-supporting comfort of the front seats of the XRS. No one seemed to want to sit in the rear. I volunteered. But I'm a short dude at barely five feet six inches. For what it's worth, I felt okay back there.

Of course, Toyota did some more substantial things to help distinguish the XRS from its lesser Corolla brethren -- the base CE, the popularly equipped (the way most people buy the car) LE, and the slightly sporty S model. Primary differences include engine power, suspensions and transmissions.

The CE, LE and S all come with Toyota's 1.8-liter, 130-horsepower, inline four-cylinder engine, which can be accompanied by a standard five-speed manual or optional four-speed automatic transmission. The XRS gets a 170-horsepower version of that engine, which is linked to a six-speed manual gearbox. No automatic transmission is available for the XRS.

But the XRS offers an upgraded suspension for tighter, more responsive handling; and it has larger wheels -- 16-inch diameter versus 15 inches for the CE, LE and S.

Those mechanical changes also appealed to all age groups, as did the car in general. Why not? The name "Corolla" means something beyond fashion, or the latest automotive technology. For consumers, it translates to, "It works." What's not to love about that?

© 2004 The Washington Post Company