2021 Toyota Corolla Review: Once Definitive, Now Playing Defense
The 2021 Corolla is perhaps the best yet in terms of reliability, but shifts in consumer preferences and numerous appealing alternatives could threaten success.
In 1968, the year Toyota introduced the first Corolla to the U.S. market, Volkswagen Beetle sales peaked. That year, Americans seeking economical transportation bought 399,674 examples of the classic Beetle. You can debate whether it is a coincidence that the Beetle’s decline began just as the Toyota Corolla arrived, but the Corolla ultimately surpassed the Beetle as the best-selling car in automotive history.
Today, the 2021 Toyota Corolla remains among the top-selling vehicles in the U.S., despite a sizable shift in consumer preference to SUVs.
THE SECRET TO COROLLA’S LONGEVITY
If you want an efficient and useful new car with a competitive MSRP that will last for a long time, the Corolla perfectly fits that description.
Toyota offers the 2021 Corolla as a four-door sedan or a five-door hatchback. This review is specific to the sedan, which is available in three distinct forms. The L, LE, and XLE trim levels have a dependable 1.8L four-cylinder engine paired with a continuously variable transmission (CVT). Separately, a Corolla Hybrid LE employs the same powertrain as the Toyota Prius in order to deliver fuel economy numbers just above 50 mpg.
If you’re seeking a little excitement, the Corolla SE and XSE are more powerful and equipped with a sportier look. They have a 2.0L four-cylinder engine, a 6-speed manual gearbox or a special CVT, a Sport driving mode, and bigger wheels and tires. To this, new-for-2021 Apex Editions add genuine performance-tuned (read: stiffer and sportier) ride and handling qualities. Another new version of the car is the SE Nightshade Edition, wearing the popular blacked-out look.
Prices range from just under $20,000 to just over $28,000, not including a destination charge of $995. For this review, Toyota loaned us a 2021 Corolla XSE equipped with the optional Connectivity Package and a set of carpeted floor mats. The sticker price came to $28,704, including the destination charge.
TOYOTA BUILDS A COROLLA WITH EMOTIONAL APPEAL
With Corolla’s 2021 redesign, Toyota dramatically improved interior quality. Soft-touch surfaces line the places you use often. The XSE trim has stylish features with a futuristic vibe and whimsical striped fabric seat inserts. You can expect simple controls and easy-to-use technology, but Toyota sacrifices some interior storage capacity—like in the center console—for better appeal.
Driver’s seat comfort is ideal, aside from a lack of dense center armrest padding under its surface material. Rear seat comfort is adequate for the majority of adults, while taller people may find the head and leg room less spacious. Getting in and out of the car can require some extra effort because it sits lower to the ground than previous Corollas.
Pop open the trunk, and you’ll find 13.1 cu. ft. of useful storage space. This is a typical amount for the compact sedan segment.
TOYOTA COROLLA SIMPLIFIES COMPLEX TECHNOLOGIES
Though not as high-tech as competitors like the redesigned 2021 Hyundai Elantra, the Corolla XSE’s infotainment is impressive and better than ever this year thanks to the addition of Android Auto smartphone mirroring capability.
Android Auto joins the already standard Apple CarPlay technology as well as Amazon Alexa compatibility. Every 2021 Corolla also has satellite radio, Safety Connect service including automatic collision notification and emergency assistance, and Wi-Fi Connect for in-car internet connectivity. The XSE trim has an 8-inch touchscreen display and Remote Connect services highlighted by remote engine starting, a vehicle finder, and programmable vehicle owner alerts related to speed, curfew, and exits of geographic boundaries.
Our test Corolla XSE also included the optional Connectivity Package, so the infotainment system featured dynamic navigation, dynamic voice recognition, Destination Assist service, and a 9-speaker premium sound system.
From every angle, this infotainment system’s user experience is excellent. In particular, the dynamic voice recognition system’s ability to interpret and quickly respond to natural commands is impressive. The premium sound system is similarly decent for this segment, but doesn’t have the best grade of sonic clarity.
On the safety front, the Corolla’s standard Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 collection of advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS) is equally worth noting. It is uncannily smooth and sophisticated to help you feel more secure. Furthermore, Toyota’s inclusion of standard adaptive cruise control and lane-centering assistance is rare for this vehicle class.
Toyota makes a couple of safety-related improvements to the 2021 Corolla. The rear cross-traffic warning is new, an enhancement to the already available blind-spot warning system. Toyota also adds standard rear side-impact airbags to the car, which means full crash-test results are unavailable at the time this review is written.
JUST ENOUGH POWER AND PERFORMANCE TO ENTERTAIN A DRIVER
Generating 169 hp and 151 lb.-ft of torque, the Corolla XSE’s 2.0L four-cylinder engine struggles to match the car’s sporty styling.
The SE trim offers a 6-speed manual gearbox with this engine. The Corolla XSE has a special continuously variable transmission (CVT) equipped with a physical first gear designed to launch the car quickly and smoothly before handing off power management duties to the CVT. From there, the CVT does a solid, albeit inconsistent job of mimicking the sound and feel of a traditional automatic.
A Sport driving mode quickens throttle response, and our test XSE car was unexpectedly enjoyable to explore its performance on a favorite road. The Corolla is based on the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA), which is engineered for a lower center of gravity, and dynamic ride and handling qualities. As such, the Corolla features a four-wheel independent suspension. The XSE bolts on 18-inch wheels with 225/40 all-season tires. The result is a predictable and lightweight car that’s eager to turn into corners, and that has just enough power to add a satisfying amount of thrill.
If your car habits revolve around daily commuting and trips through the urban jungle, you may find the 2021 Corolla XSE equally rewarding. With a compliant yet communicative ride, nimble handling, and plenty of power to get up to speed for easy freeway merges, this car is more than capable in some situations.
COROLLA IS A RELIABLE CAR IN A CROWDED SEGMENT
The competition in this segment is fierce. Numerous worthy alternatives are available, some of which are more technologically advanced, enjoyable to drive, or potentially better values – or all three at the same time.
On its merits, the 2021 Toyota Corolla is an appealing compact car, but the SE and XSE trim versions carry the most personality. In those trims, the Corolla offers a compelling combination of style, technology, and driving dynamics that can appeal to people seeking something more than the typical small car. At the same time, it delivers the reliability, efficiency, and value for which the Corolla is well known.
Whether the 2021 Toyota Corolla or otherwise, the choice is uniquely yours.