In 2011, Toyota collaborated with Subaru to design the first front-engine, rear-wheel to join Toyota’s lineup of fuel-efficient, family-friendly vehicles since the turn of the twentieth century. In 2003, I was introduced to the world of drifting through a good friend of mine who went on to write and publish a book based on the popular automotive subculture. And in 2005, I stepped foot inside what I thought was going to be Toyota’s continuing baby step towards what we all came to witness with the unveiling of the GT 86.
Now, nearly seven years and 110,000+ miles after production ceased on this now rare breed of Corolla history, the 2006 Toyota Corolla XRS resurfaces again; this time, in the form of this photographer’s daily driver and closest A-to-B confidant, as well as for an opportunity to glamor up and show online photographer and automotive communities that while the XRS fell short in certain respects to Toyota’s attempt at affordable sport performance in a compact sedan, it made up for with the test of time through proven reliability and mechanical stability.
Check out my photos of the black sand pearl XRS under the proverbial limelight after the jump.
First off, why the Corolla XRS of all cars to use as a daily driver? Unfortunately, most of my words are biased because of my family’s heavy involvement with Toyota vehicles since my parents’ 1985 Celica GTS, so it only seemed natural to stick with the brand when I discovered how much power a simple 9th generation Corolla had. After I had my MR2 Turbo stolen prior to this car, it seemed fitting as a sporty tribute to the only real sport offering from Toyota. Besides, it does help that I saw some performance test drives by the folks at Longo Toyota to get me even more curious about the car in the pre-buying stages.
After seeing the test drives in person and being attracted to the buzz of the car being one of the few solidly built sporty sedans of its class and price range, I knew that I wouldn’t mind switching to one in the untimely event that I would have to put my Ferrari-red MR2 to pasture; little did I know at the time of the literal kidnapping of that little red riding hood that would take place some two years later. And with the growing appeal of a rarity of a car Toyota set to cease production on, I had the impression that many auto enthusiasts were scrambling to find one at a local dealership, only to be turned away in disappointment after finding out there were no more XRS models to be found.
We, however, got lucky. I needed a new daily driver after the MR2′s disappearance, and there was a bit more than enough to put a down payment on this Corolla. Luckily, a Toyota dealership in Corona had one, ready to be sold to the next available customer. The rest is (short-term) history.
Bottom line, the first iteration of the Corolla XRS lineup from 2005 to 2006 was an enigmatic sleeper car in its prime and is now something of a relic only treasured by those who still own or have owned one in the past. Qualifying features? Well, let’s start with the this: design collaboration between Toyota and Yamaha which lead to a high-revving 1.8L engine capable of hitting roughly 180 horsepower at almost 9,000 RPM… in a four-door Corolla S body? Unheard of. Six-speed manual transmission, larger exhaust port, sport-tuned suspension with a quarter-inch lower ride height compared to other Corollas of its class, front and rear disc brakes, and 16-inch alloy rims, all from the factory? Hey, now we’re talking. Of course, that’s pretty much where the differences ended across the Corolla family. After that, the XRS wound up being like any other Corolla out on the streets – daily human transporter, grocery getter, and somewhat fuel-efficient weekend cruiser. Just with slightly more ‘oomph’. Hey, that sounds like how the new GT86/FR-S/BRZ is shaping up to be!
I kid. While the FR-S’ story is similar to the XRS’ in terms of collaboration by Toyota with other car manufacturers to introduce another true sport-compact car, the similarities starkly end when one realizes how much more performance potential the FR-S has in the long run. My Corolla still has the oomph it first had seven years go, but it will always be a Corolla in most people’s eyes.
This is where my words should finally come together. The Corolla XRS was hugely defined as a unique sleeper of its generation of vehicles for having mechanical specifications beyond what most other sporty vehicles had at the time. Again, all from the factory to say the least. But what I felt was missing, and what I have had the privilege to refine over the years with this vehicle, was the exterior looks that set the XRS apart from its own family and the class of new cars that it shared the road with. Factory body kits and alloy rims that were direct ports of the Corolla S and Matrix XR models, respectively, were not enough to differentiate the car. What Toyota should have done, and what I eventually set out to do, was introduce gas discharge (HID) headlamps and rear LED taillights to both the safety and performance look of the XRS. From a period-correct standpoint, both lighting upgrades made sense and added to the overall functionality of the car without sacrificing too much of the OEM look and feel of the car.
As far as HID projection went, Toyota designed HID-specific reflector headlamps in the Lexus IS300 and Prius models. It wasn’t until a few years after those models that projection headlamp systems were introduced. Luckily, Toyota adopted the IS300/Prius-style reflector headlamps for Southeast Asian countries, which you can see being fully operational in these photos. After some non-destructive (to my US-spec wire harness) wire splicing, relay connecting, and proper Denso ballast upgrades, I was able to see a vast difference in light output and nighttime visibility without blinding oncoming drivers with unnecessary glare commonly seen in aftermarket HID kits.
Looking at the photo above, you can see that the Osram D2R 5000K HID bulbs hit the ground just before the light podiums of the driveway and have a relatively clean cutoff just below the top of the bushes roughly 2.5-3 car lengths ahead and what equates to roughly 3-4 lanes of highway width to the left and right of the car. What about comparing stock halogens (in my case, Silvania Silverstar Ultra 9006 bulbs) to the new light setup? Well, now those bulbs are in my fog lights, which light up the ground just in front of the car with far less light output and a warmer color. Enough of a difference? I certainly think so.
These Toyota-approved OEM headlights are absolutely meant for HID lighting, and you can tell by the cutoff shown here in the low-beam bowl. The Osram bulbs emit a nice and even 5000K color temperature with a clean cutoff due to a combination of the D2R bulb reflective painting and a larger reflector bowl bulb shield. Reflector housings meant only for halogen bulbs but equipped with aftermarket HID kits will emit light all around the low-beam reflector bowl, which not only would have rendered a shot like this impossible to shoot, but would also show how much glare gets in the way of drivers ahead of you on the road.
As far as rear lighting is concerned, it wasn’t until 2007 that I decided to go from incandescent to LED, but there were too many aftermarket variants that either looked to ‘Altezza’-ish or just did not provide proper light output. Or it made the car look like a toy. Enter the Southeast Asian Corolla Altis models and their slick LED tail lights, as pictured above (in a slight blur to highlight the HID light output more than the brake light). At the time, this was as close to stock you could get but with a slight aftermarket twist that still said ‘hey, I’m still a Toyota’. Just enough to distinguish it from other Corollas on the road but with enough of a difference that still said ‘hey, watch out because I’m braking’. At the time, you only saw these types of LED tail lights on Honda Accords and higher-end luxury and sport vehicles.
Sporty suspension, high-revving engine that almost makes me think I’m driving a motorcycle but in a Corolla body, as-sleek-as-it-can-get-for-stock body kit and rounded contours, super-responsive handling, and a killer new headlight/taillight combination to round out the performance look and feel of the XRS. Seven years and 110,000 miles later and the car still looks like it stepped right out of a pre-production brochure advertisement. I could just sell this car for a decent value and upgrade to the new Scion FR-S. I could definitely trade this car in for a more functional and powerful sports sedan if I wanted to. I could most definitely just downgrade to something like a MINI. But for all of the little perks I had the honor of experiencing and fine tuning out of this still-going-strong sleeper of a car, I just don’t think I’d have the willpower to part with it so easily. It’s still great on the mileage, fun to take people around in, and still very useful for transporting goods. Besides, who doesn’t like to brag about the fact that a rare model like this still looks and feels like Toyota just released it?
Antonio Alvendia – Cipher Media Group – For the continued inspiration, advice, and kudos for keeping up such an awesome project, and to opening my eyes to a world of photography, Japanese and car culture I’ve come to grow so fond of.
Wynston Fernando – For the lasting friendship, long days and nights spent laboring over photos and shooting ideas back and forth at each other, the coffee shop meetups, food adventures, and ongoing support for making photos and adventures like the ones pictured above happen.
ZestJDM – For helping me obtain the HID and LED lighting conversions for my headlights and tail lights, respectively, and for being honest and professional in helping me advance my car projects.
Toyota of Temecula / Toyota Place – For the research and miscellaneous small parts (wires, connectors, covers, etc.) I needed to help keep the aftermarket upgrades up to OEM-specification, as well as allowing me to pick at service technicians’ and parts department specialists’ brains a little.
9GC / Corolla9 / Toyota Nation Forums – For awesome DIY write-ups, interesting threads, diagrams, and consultation on the recent HID light projects, as well as reference material for other past mods, i.e. cold-air intake and LED tail light choice, etc.
Friends and family – Too many to list! But most recently, Boon, Sam, J.D., Justin, Karen, Kelvin, Chamuel, Tran, Gian, Theo, P.J. – all of you have made more than one contribution to me, whether through photographic inspiration, late night drives and heated but friendly debates about cars and life, helping me detail my car, or just plain time spent and enjoyed just by being around everyone. Thank you!
Technical Photo Brief
All photos were shot with a combination of any of the following at a given time: Canon EOS 40D digital SLR body, Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM lens, off-camera Canon 430EX II, Yongnuo RF-603 radio flash triggers, and a trusty old Sony Betamax tripod.
Photos of the shoots on my flickr page here.