Test Drive: 2018 Toyota Corolla XSE

Launched in 2000, the Lotus Exige took the already hardcore Elise and put a further razor edge on it. Weight was shaved, the chassis was stiffened, and a new high-performance four-cylinder engine was placed amidships, as God and Colin Chapman intended. It was an enthusiast’s dream, an explosion of sensation, a driving purist’s highest aspiration.

A Corolla that looks a bit sporty, but is still as comfortable and efficient as the normal ones.

In the United States, they sold eight of them.

Why bring up an elemental sportscar when discussing a Toyota? Well, for two reasons, really. These days the Lotus to have is the Evora 410, which builds thrilling performance around a Toyota-sourced V6. It’s quite the recipe: driving fans can now enjoy that quintessential British lightness of feel, without the accompanying quintessential British car experience of having to walk everywhere because your car’s gone unexpectedly “sproing”.

However, the Evora 410 is quite expensive, so for the rest of us a sporty Toyota might look something like this. This is the 2018 Toyota Corolla XSE, and it’s theoretically the zippiest Toyota product on the market, not including the 86 (which is actually a Subaru), or the impending return of the Supra (which is actually a BMW). If you crave both reliability and a bit of driving pizzazz, then have I got a Toyota for you! Sorry, that’s meant to be a question: Have I got a Toyota for you? The answer is no. No, I don’t.

Now, some people will laugh at the idea that any Corolla can be fun to drive. They are, perhaps, forgetting the rear-drive Corolla GT-S from the mid-1980s, and the oft-overlooked Corolla XRS from ten years ago. This latter was pretty spicy stuff: a Yamaha-tuned 170 hp four-cylinder engine, a lowered suspension, and a close-ratio six-speed manual.

Building a hot Corolla, so it would seem, is no big deal for Toyota. However, here’s the problem – remember that bit where Lotus only sold eight Exiges in the US (none in Canada)? Ask any manufacturer: the production of sports cars is a losing proposition, unless you’re using them to prop up your image so you can gouge people by selling ludicrously overpriced crossovers. Chances are the wording might be a little different for that last part, but you might get some mumbling about brand value and a knowing wink.

Toyota, on the other hand, is a brand established on a reputation for reliability and resale value. I’m not saying that every Toyota produced is utterly steadfast, I’m saying that’s their reputation among the general buying public. So, when the general buying public wanders into a Toyota showroom and asks for a sporty Corolla, they don’t actually want one. They want a Corolla that looks a bit sporty, but is still as comfortable and efficient as the normal ones.

The good news is that we do have a Corolla for that sort of buyer here. The XSE comes with 17-inch multi-spoke alloy wheels, faux brake-cooling ducts, vertical LED daytime running lights, and a huge lower valence. The latter actually projects forward from the rest of the car, looking a bit like a locomotive’s cow-catcher, if the purpose of cow-catchers was to instantly turn any errant bovine into extra-lean ground beef.

Do you know what cosplay is? It’s where you dress up like Iron Man but your body armour is actually made of cardboard. There’s little doubt the Corolla is trying pretty hard here – if it was a Star Wars character, its first name would be Darth – but underneath the aggression is a body designed for sedentary activity.

There are many reasons to like the Corolla. In its segment, it has easily the largest rear seat, with a flat floor and huge legroom, and it comes with a spacious trunk. The ride is also excellent, or at least it is on models with slightly smaller wheels – the XSE isn’t quite as smooth, and speed bumps make the rear beam axle bounce with surprising harshness.

Along with plenty of interior space, the Corolla’s insides look like they should hold up well under constant abuse. The XSE trim adds some blue stitching here and there, but doesn’t dial up the side-bolstering. Put it this way: instead of getting a sport steering wheel, you get a heated one.

The rest of the XSE’s insides continue a theme that will please everyone who liked the standard Corolla. The USB ports are mounted sensibly up front (the phone pocket is a little small for modern phones), the air-conditioning controls are clear and easy to read and manipulate, and the Entune system is easy to navigate through. Nothing here is flashy, but it all works.

And there are a few pleasant little touches that you soon get used to. That heated steering wheel, for instance, stays on, just as heated seats ordinarily do. You don’t need to fumble for the button in the winter, it’ll just always fire up when you start your car. I also appreciated the efforts to keep most of the harder plastics low down – the bits you touch most often felt nice.

However, overall the Corolla felt a little boomier and less tautly assembled than the equivalent Honda Civic. The doors didn’t close with the same satisfying thump.

Then there’s the performance, which is pretty leisurely. Equipped with a CVT and a 132 hp engine, this Corolla puts out acceleration times that are approaching Prius territory. There’s a sport mode, but the overboosted steering and drone from the engine doesn’t encourage you to push it.

Road-holding is perfectly acceptable, and the XSE does have a bit more tire width to call on when compared to a standard Corolla. However, there’s little to encourage the driver to find some fast back-and-forth transitions.

Instead, the XSE encourages a more relaxed driving attitude. Modern traffic reinforces the point; this isn’t the type of car to make you get up early or stay out late, looking for those epic backroads. Instead, it’s just a sharper-looking Corolla, a commuter that embraces comfort and space.

And efficiency. In overseas markets, Toyota offers a small-displacement turbocharged engine that would give a boost to torque and perhaps make the Corolla feel a sight more lively. However, after a week driving around in the XSE, I’ve decided it doesn’t need it.

Instead, the Corolla’s fairly ordinary four-cylinder engine churns along, faithfully hitting its mixed mileage rating of 6.7 L/100 km. It’s comfortable enough, the Bluetooth audio never kicked up a fuss, and getting out the door in the morning was simply a case of pushing the starter button and hitting the road. In the Exige, by comparison, you have to fold yourself into the cockpit like human origami and then warm the engine up for five full minutes.

If you are looking for a sporty commuter sedan, the market is full of them. The Civic Si, for instance, is a solid choice (even if someone’s fitted it with the exhaust pipe off an Aventador). The Elantra Sport is surprisingly good. Move up the price scale and there’s the WRX and the GTI, both of which are perennially solid choices for driving enthusiasts.

If you absolutely must have a Toyota badge up front and a little driving fun, try the Corolla iM hatchback. It’s not overburdened with power either, and rides a little on the firm side, but it’s a bit more fun to drive.

As for the XSE, it’s a car designed by and for people who understand that sports cars are a niche product. If you want a bit of driving pizzazz in your Corolla, you’ll have to try to dig up one of the classics. If, however, you want a comfortable commuter that only looks like it could go toe-to-toe with any sport compact out there, then here you go.

2018 Toyota Corolla XSE
Engine Displacement: 1.8L
Engine Cylinders: I4
Peak Horsepower: 132 hp @ 6,000 rpm
Peak Torque: 128 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm
Fuel Economy: 8.3/6.7/7.5 L/100km city/hwy/cmb
Cargo Space: 369 L
2018 Toyota Corolla XSE
Base Price $21,790
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,615
Price as Tested $27,585
Optional Equipment $4,080 – XSE Package (17" wheels, rear disc brakes, 7" display, 8-way power driver’s seat, keyless entry and start, navigation, heated steering wheel) $4,080
Optional Equipment
10 0
Scoring breakdowns 7.4
7 Styling
7 Powertrain
6 Quality
8 Comfort
8 Practicality
7 Drivability
8 Usability/Ergonomics
8 Fuel Economy
7 Features
8 Value