Don't even think about installing Hello Kitty seat covers...
If there was anything that was dogging Toyota in the decade or so before the current unintended acceleration fustercluck, it was that the company had a reputation for only churning out dull, floppy-handling transportation appliances that make enthusiasts cry. Sure, it was one thing to euthanize all the dedicated sporty cars like the Supra and MR2, but why did they have to eliminate all the fun variants of their more mundane models? The thing is, that wasn’t entirely the case; one of the most notable (yet seemingly forgotten) examples of this species is the original Corolla XRS.
After the heady ‘80s, which saw sports model after sports model after sports model for the Corolla family in the U.S., they became a bunch of sellouts right around the dawn of the ‘90s. By the time the 20th century was history, the nameplate was more closely associated with college coeds than canyon carving on the cheap. This became even more prevalent when the E120 model arrived in March 2002 as an ’03 model. Seriously, foreign tourists would be forgiven for assuming that leopard print steering wheel covers, sorority license plate frames and high school graduation tassels or leis hanging from the rearview mirror were standard equipment on U.S. market E120s. (Same can be said of Mk. 4 and 5 VW Jettas, but I digress…)
But in late 2003, Toyota wanted to show America it still had a wild side, and it did so by showing a nearly production-ready concept version of the Corolla called the XRS. For the 2005 model year, the concept went into production. The biggest upgrade in the XRS’s arsenal was the drivetrain, which consisted of a detuned version of the Yamaha-developed 1.8L DOHC four found in the Celica GT-S and wagon-esque Matrix XRS producing 170hp and 127 lb./ft of twist coupled with a 6-speed manual transmission. (2007-and-up XRSs feature considerably milder powerplants.) Other upgrades included sport bucket seats, faux-aluminum interior trim, 5-spoke 16” alloy wheels, upgraded suspension with front and rear strut tower braces, and the same subdued body kit as the Corolla S.
If all this sounds like more fun than a barrel of balloon-animal-making monkeys, you’d be right…provided you’re willing to rev the bejeezus out of the engine. Yes, the engine is worryingly docile below 6,000rpm or so, but once the computer switches over to the high-lift cams, look out; it’s the internal combustion equivalent of Dr. Jekyll becoming Mr. Hyde, throwing the TV into the hotel swimming pool and asking a few strippers to come over and jump on the bed. Not everyone relished having to row through the gears to keep the engine out of a semi-vegetative state, particularly when you were just driving as a means of getting from A-to-B and weren’t in an especially playful mood.
Since the O.G. Corolla XRS is still fairly new, prices haven’t gone down that much from new, but the typical price today seems to be in the neighborhood of $10,000. Sure, that seems like a lot for a four- or five-year-old compact sedan, but when you consider how much muscle is hiding under that fairly dowdy exterior, and how robust and reliable Toyotas are even with their recent snafus (though upgrading to a high performance oil pump gear is highly recommended if you really tend to lean on the engine), a hundred Benjamins seems like a pretty good deal. Unsurprisingly, there were very few made relative to the Corolla’s more vanilla-ish trim levels, but they are out there. Happy hunting!