Picture it: it was 2004. America was gearing up for a run in the middle east, radios were being seduced by the edgy tones of Evanescence, and Spider-Man 2 was breaking box-office records. Morale was all over the place and a lot of people were trying to mull their post-9/11 woes in as many mediums as possible. The car industry reflected this 100%.

In the 1990s, the car industry was more about evolution, manufacturers were all about setting the next big trend in the industry. The 2000s however, seemed to be shaping up to be an era of revolution, as most manufacturers were quickly pumping out all-new designs and all-new cars to shed the facet of the 90s and face the new world, and to some of these manufacturers, the way to go was the Fast and the Furious craze.

The first two movies had grossed big numbers by the end of 2003, and the companies were taking notice. What this meant is that people wanted fast, crazy looking sporty cars for cheap, and the manufacturer’s were more than happy to oblige. This craze gave us such interesting concepts as the Honda Civic Si and the arrival of the US market STI and Evo. But, while those are widely remembered, there are some concepts from the time that have fallen by the wayside of time, and one of those is the Toyota Corolla XRS.

(Disclaimer, due to the wishes of the owner of this Corolla, I was not able to procure many photos of the car in question. I will be using official photos from Toyota USA in this review, except for the one below).

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If you know the concept of the Honda Civic Si or Mitsubishi Lancer RalliArt, then you should be familiar with the Corolla XRS already. Basically, Toyota was as interested as any to capitalize in the sensation that was the early 2000s sport compact race. At that time, the Celica was getting a bit long in the tooth, and slow sales were spelling the inevitable end of the little sports coupe (as well as Toyota sports cars as a whole until the GT86 came around). Toyota knew if they just let the Celica wither and die they’d be left behind in the young, adrenaline-junkie market, where such cars as the Camry Solara just wouldn’t cut it.

Around this time, Toyota was also pushing out the concept of Scion, which was ultimately intended for that market, but while the admirable xB and xA pushed the thoughts of the hip hop generation forward, they didn’t exactly promote ideas of high-performance, per se. So, Toyota turned to the Corolla, and decided, “We can do something with this, right?” And so they did. Enter the Corolla XRS.

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The XRS was honestly a basic concept when viewed on the surface. Toyota had given it slightly more athletic looking exterior treatments, however most were shared with the regular S model that was slated just below on the hierarchy at the time. It received a set of classy 16 inch wheels that honestly looked more proper on a luxury model of a Corolla rather than a sporty model. You may notice a trend here, as this could be the XRS’s biggest downfall in the grander scheme of things: it just doesn’t look unique enough.

Compared to the Civic Si and others that it was so adamant in competing against, the Corolla looks basic, and that’s not the best thing considering the mindframe that were buying these types of cars at the time. If you can’t tell the XRS from a regular Corolla S, then what’s the point of it?

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Inside, things were much of the same. The basic interior was largely unchanged from the Corolla S. Toyota applied some rather nice faux-aluminum pieces here and there to brighten things up, and they fitted the standard 6-speed manual gearstick (I’ll get back to that in a minute) with a fancy chrome and leather shifter. The most interesting factoid may be the fact that they use Optitron gauges, similar to a Lexus from the era. Otherwise, it was the same old basic story as pretty much any other Corolla’s interior: dark, drab, and depressing. That being said, it is a very functional interior, with controls that are easy to reach and everything is mostly well-built...mostly.

So, basically, yeah, on the surface the XRS may seem a bit underwhelming. However, you can’t judge a book by its surface, and boy, is that ever a true statement here.

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What Toyota failed to do on the outside, they definitely made up for it under the skin. Powering this pocket rocket of a Corolla is the famous Toyota 2ZZ-GE engine, pushing 170 bhp to the front wheels at 7600 rpm, and 127 lb ft of torque at 4400 rpm. This, mated to the standard 6-speed manual makes for a hell-of-a good time to drive around town. The box is a close-ratio system borrowed from the Matrix, and is a hoot to shift, even if the clutch is a rather large b**ch to engage into first gear sometimes (that could be my fault and the fault of the condition of the car I drove, so mileage may vary).

The suspension also received a large number of spicy enhancements to make it a lot more worthwhile in the end. The XRS is lowered by approximately 13 mm compared to the regular S, with a far more sporty-tuned suspension in play. Yamaha designed braces are found within the front strut towers, complimented by a rear X-brace, and the brakes all around are upgraded to larger disks for better performance The tuning is all done with a far firmer ride with more rigidity in the corners, and it all helps in the end. Due to all the drastic changes, the XRS is a fun, small car to dip into the corners, it responds well to your input and will leave you with a small smile on your face, if anything.

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So, if the XRS was such a fun car to drive in the end with the engineering to make it a competent competitor in the hip race of the early-2000s, why did it end up failing to capture the market, and why has it been forgotten? Well, I place it down to my qualms about the appearance, and the fact that Toyota didn’t really care much to advertise it like it really needed to be. Before really looking into it, I didn’t really know that this car existed as it did, I didn’t really know that it had such a potential for this market. I didn’t know it was that special, and honestly I would have never looked twice at it before now, and it’s a shame, because I feel like the XRS deserves a second chance.

Courtesy of Jeremy Rafanan on Flickr

Overall, the XRS really was a valiant attempt at this market, and while it may look a little boring, it definitely deserves your time. It’s fun, cheap, and will leave you happy, and honestly, isn’t that all that really matters?