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2021 Toyota Corolla Review

All new in sedan form last year and as a practical and sporty hatchback the year before that, the latest Toyota Corolla is its best iteration yet. And yes, we did use the words “Corolla” and “sporty” together.

Toyota put clear effort into making its venerable compact car more than just reliable, economical, and efficient transportation. In its effort to entice buyers away from rivals like the Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, and Nissan Sentra, Toyota has taken the formerly vanilla Corolla and turned it into a tasty treat. It boasts a great chassis for compliant ride quality, independent suspension for more dynamic driving manners, and even the option of a manual transmission for driving enthusiasts who still relish three pedals. A new Corolla Apex sedan and special edition Corolla hatchback further appeal to buyers craving more flavor.

For those seeking Prius-like fuel efficiency in a sedan body, the Corolla Hybrid (reviewed separately) earns over 50 mpg.

But make no mistake: The Corolla retains the traits that have made it the world’s best-selling nameplate and improved those, too. Every 2021 Corolla comes with an excellent suite of active safety and driver-assistance features, technology now that now bundles Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and Amazon Alexa, and a long history of reliability and high resale value.

What’s New?

Android Auto integration becomes standard in all models, joining Apple CarPlay and Amazon Alexa. Rear cross-traffic alert is added to models with blind-spot monitoring. Engine start/stop becomes standard, and all models gain two additional rear air bags. Sirius XM is now available on all trims. The sporty Apex edition with its taut suspension and sporty exterior trim bits joins Corolla sedan lineup. The hatchback is available in a Special Edition with Supersonic Red paint and now includes a no-cost Enhanced Cargo Space option that adds 6 cu ft of space by swapping the spare tire for a tire repair kit.  See the 2021 Toyota Corolla models for sale near you

What We Like

  • Standard Toyota Safety Sense 2.0
  • Stylish design
  • Hatchback is versatile and fun
  • Rev-matching manual transmission

What We Don’t

  • Polarizing front-end styling

How Much?

$19,825 – $28,210 (plus destination charge)

Fuel Economy

The 2021 Corolla is offered with three different powertrains. The L, LE and XLE sedans use a 1.8-liter 4-cylinder making 139 horsepower and 126 lb-ft of torque. Paired with an automatic continuously variable transmission (CVT), this engine returns 30 miles per gallon in the city, 38 mpg on the highway and 33 mpg combined.

All Corolla Hatchback models and SE and XSE versions of the sedan, including the Apex trim level, get a larger and more powerful 2.0-liter 4-cylinder that makes 169 hp and 151 lb-ft of torque. Models with an automatic transmission have a specialized CVT called Dynamic Shift that uses a physical first gear. The result is a more satisfying driving nature that feels like a traditional automatic yet returns the high fuel efficiency of a CVT.

The Corolla Hatchback with a manual transmission is rated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) at 28 mpg city/37 mpg highway/31 mpg combined. With the automatic gearbox, it gets even better: 32 mpg city/41 mpg hwy/35 mpg combined.

The Corolla SE models of the sedan are also offered with a 6-speed manual transmission that has a rev-matching feature for smoother downshifts. Manual-equipped Corollas are EPA-rated at 29 mpg city/39 mpg highway with the 1.8 and 29 mpg city/36 mpg hwy with the 2.0.

The Corolla Apex equipped with the CVT is rated at 31 mpg city/38 mpg hwy, while the version with the 6-speed manual transmission comes in at 28 mpg city/38 mpg hwy.

New for 2021, Corolla models feature a fuel-saving engine start/stop feature that cuts power at idle. The system can be disabled with the press of a button.

Standard Features & Options

The 2021 Corolla sedan is available in six trims: L, LE, SE, XLE and XSE. Toyota is going for sportiness with the Corolla Hatchback and thus offers it only in SE and XSE trims. For 2021 there are also limited editions, such as the sporty Corolla Apex sedan and Special Edition hatchback.

The entry-level Corolla L ($20,025, plus destination charge) starts with 15-in steel wheels, LED headlights and taillights with LED daytime running lights, a black mesh grille, a 7-in center infotainment screen, an integrated backup camera, a 6-way adjustable driver’s seat and 4-way adjustable passenger seat, a 60/40 split folding rear seat, a tilt-and-telescopic steering wheel with audio and multi-information display controls, a padded center console, one 12-volt power outlet, one USB port and a total of four cupholders, with two up front and two in the back. New for 2021, Android Auto joins built-in Apple CarPlay and Amazon Alexa integration.

The Corolla LE ($20,475) adds 16-in steel wheels, heated sideview mirrors, variable intermittent windshield wipers, higher-end seat fabric, a rear center armrest, metallic interior trim with chrome door handles, two front USB ports and an 8-in center infotainment screen.

The SE ($22,475) and SE 6MT ($23,175) adds sportier styling with a rear spoiler, 18-in wheels, turn signal indicators for the mirrors, dual exhaust tips, premium sport seats, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and a few other things. A sunroof and blind-spot monitoring are optional with the automatic. The SE 6MT comes standard with a sunroof but isn’t available with blind-spot monitoring at all, oddly. CVT models also gain paddle shifters and a “Sport” driving mode.

The available SE Nightshade trim ($23,175), available only with the CVT, adds to the mix black-painted wheels, a black rear spoiler, blacked-out badging and other black trim pieces.

A Premium Package is offered for the Corolla LE and SE that adds blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, a sunroof and passive keyless entry with push-button start.

The SE Apex comes with either a CVT ($25,170) or 6-speed manual ($25,460). In addition to stickier summer tires and a stiffer suspension, the Apex package includes 18-inch wheels, a black mesh grille insert, black or bronze exterior accents including lower rocker sills, larger 3.5-inch exhaust tips, sport seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel with paddle shifts on CVT models, front spoiler, rear diffuser and a $375 rear decklid spoiler option.

Building off of the LE trim, the Corolla XLE ($24,425) gains higher-end LED headlights, standard blind spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, a standard sunroof, standard 16-in alloy wheels, “SofTex” faux leather seating, heated front seats and a 7-in gauge digital instrument cluster. Options available via package include a JBL audio system, an adaptive front lighting system, ambient interior lighting and a wireless charging pad.

The sportiest Corolla is the XSE model ($25,925). The XSE adds to the SE basically the same features the XLE adds to the LE. Differences from the XLE include 18-in wheels, sport seats and some more aggressive trim pieces.

The Apex XSE ($28,310) includes all the updates the trim level brings over SE and XSE models along with the exterior trim bits, larger rear exhaust tips, stiffer suspension, sport seats and the paddle shifters to go with the CVT only transmission. The rear decklid spoiler again adds $375 to the total.

The Toyota Corolla Hatchback starts off in basic SE form (est. $20,500), which is available with the same Nightshade appearance package offered on the sedan, although Toyota considers this its own trim level (est. $22,400). As with the sedan, the Corolla XSE Hatchback (est. $23,500) sits at the top of the hatchback hierarchy. While the sedan is only offered with a manual transmission in the special “SE 6MT” trim, both the Corolla Hatchback SE and XSE can be had with either the CVT or the manual.

Across the board, packaging for the Corolla Hatchback is mostly consistent with that of the sedan, although unique options available on the hatchback include a rear spoiler and a contrasting black roof.

Safety

All versions of the 2021 Corolla come with an excellent suite of active safety and driver-assistance features. Collectively known as Toyota Safety Sense 2.0, it bundles pre-collision warning with automatic emergency braking and pedestrian detection, full-speed dynamic radar cruise control, lane-departure warning with lane-keeping assist, lane-tracing, automatic high beams and traffic sign recognition. Blind spot monitoring is available, and this year its adds rear cross-traffic alert.

In crash testing conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, last year’s Corolla earned a Top Safety Pick+ designation, earning top marks in all crashworthiness categories (the 2021 model was yet to be tested as of this writing). It also earned the maximum 5 stars from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Behind the Wheel

The Corolla isn’t meant to be a performance car, but its new generation is much more engaging to drive than previous generations. The same goes for its exterior and interior design as well. As it has with much of its lineup in recent years, Toyota clearly made a point to inject some style and excitement into the new Corolla. We’ve had a chance to experience different aspects of the new Corolla spectrum — a manual transmission-equipped XSE Hatchback and the Apex XSE CVT.

While we wouldn’t put it in the hot hatchback category, we can’t help but call the new Corolla Hatchback fun to drive. Its manual transmission is incredibly easy to use — if you’ve never driven a manual before, there’s arguably no better vehicle to learn on thanks to its smooth shift lever and clever rev-matching feature that makes the vehicle much more difficult to stall. Steering is quicker than in years past, and while we’d love a little more power under the hood, the 169 hp from the 2.0-liter 4-cylinder, which comes standard in the hatch, is sufficient. Cargo space is good. It’s generous enough to fit a mountain bike without removing the wheel, provided you move the passenger seat forward. Altogether, the Corolla Hatchback is a compelling product and is easily the most exciting Corolla in years.

In the Apex package, Toyota has an answer for Honda’s Civic Si, at least in the handling department. We wish there were more power on tap from the 2.0-liter engine to at least match the 205 horsepower offered on the 2020 Si. Of course, the power issue is moot now that Honda has dropped the Si from its 2021 lineup, though the Corolla is still just over 10 horses short of the 180-hp Civic Sport model. The Apex combines both the visual appeal of a sport sedan with a chassis that invites spirited driving. The ride height is lowered by 0.6-in, the stiffer springs and bushings along with stickier summer tires add to the feel of being glued to the pavement. This setup is aimed directly at enthusiasts, there is a sacrifice in ride quality as a result of the handling upgrades.

The Apex does deliver its promise of being a corner carver and it has the amenities to back it up with supportive sport seats, paddle shifters for the CVT-equipped models, a louder exhaust note from the bigger exhaust tips and the availability of a 6-speed manual for diehard enthusiasts. One feature we do like on the automatic models is the cogged first gear that gives the powertrain a more natural feel off the line as opposed to the elastic effect inherent in CVT technology.

Across the model lineup, the Corolla offers a basic yet charming interior. Materials aren’t luxury-grade, but the quality is certainly there. An 8-in touchscreen infotainment system rises out of the center stack on all but the lowest trim, while a 7-in screen resides in the gauge cluster of upper trim models. Between its smart design, reasonably good infotainment system (especially if you’re an iPhone user) and generous offering of standard active safety features, the new Corolla is a great overall offering.

Other Cars to Consider

2021 Honda Civic — The Civic is another benchmark in this segment and a longtime rival to the Corolla. It offers a coupe variant in addition to sedan and hatchback, plus high-performance models like the Si and track-ready Type R.

2021 Mazda3 — The Mazda3 was all-new for the 2019 model year and offers all-wheel drive, athletic manners and a premium-feeling interior. Like the Corolla, sedan and hatchback body styles are offered.

2021 Hyundai Elantra — The Elantra got a mild refresh just two years ago. While similar to the Corolla and Civic, the Elantra offers Hyundai‘s exceptional warranty, making it a great value-play in this segment.

Used Toyota Camry — The midsize Camry is bigger than the Corolla and offers more available features. If you’re willing to go the used route, you’ll likely be able to find a pre-owned 2018 or 2019 Camry for a similar price as a brand-new Corolla.

Questions You May Ask

Is the 2021 Toyota Corolla a good car?

The Corolla is an excellent choice among compact cars. It is loaded with standard safety features, reliable, efficient, easy to drive, and a great value.

Where is the 2021 Toyota Corolla built?

The 2021 Corolla is currently made in America at Toyota’s Mississippi plant, in addition to a factory in Japan.

Autotrader’s Advice

The 2021 Corolla is far more engaging than the generations that preceded it. If you’re looking for an economical compact car but have written off the Corolla as being too boring, we’d encourage you to reconsider. Between the new hatchback design, the excellent 6-speed manual transmission, and an enthusiast-oriented Apex trim level, there’s now a Corolla out there for just about anyone.

The Corolla Hatchback is particularly compelling as well given that it offers cargo volume on par with a subcompact SUV. As far as basic gas-powered Corolla sedans go, we’d skip the base L model. For nominally more, the LE brings more features, while the SE models have a sportier flair. If you step up to an XLE or XSE, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the number of features that are included. Find a Toyota Corolla for sale

 

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