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2021 Toyota Corolla

2021 Toyota Corolla

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$20,025 — $28,310 MSRP
120
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Sedan
5 Seats
32-34 MPG
(Combined)
Key specs of the base trim
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2021 Toyota Corolla exterior side view

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2021 Toyota Corolla Review

from the Cars.com expert editorial team

2021 Toyota Corolla Apex Review

By Aaron Bragman

When you think of fun-to-drive, affordable, compact sports sedans, a few names come readily to mind: Honda Civic Si, Volkswagen Jetta GLI, even newer Korean offerings like the Kia Forte GT. But there’s one name that you generally don’t think of in this context: the Toyota Corolla. The Corolla is generally considered more of an appliance, a car-shaped transportation tool that people buy because they need reliable transportation from A to B. It’s efficient. It’s comfortable. It’s dead-nuts reliable. But fun to drive?

Well, Toyota, wanting you to think again about that last one, has offered up this: the 2021 Corolla Apex Edition, available on the SE and XSE trims. It’s the company’s attempt at creating something entertaining and fun to drive out of its humble, dependable, high-volume compact sedan. But has Toyota been successful in this effort? Not entirely.

Related: 2020 Toyota Corolla Review: Hatchback-Nice With a Trunk and Real Backseat

Tuned Appearances

The Apex Edition Package starts with some visual flair, and here it’s pretty successful. You have a new front fascia in bronze and black trim sporting standard LED headlights, new lower side skirts, a new rear bumper and an optional rear wing that does nothing for aerodynamics but looks pretty cool. The wheels are unique 18-inch designs that are both lighter and engineered to improve brake cooling for the Apex; they’re offered only in black, like much of the rest of the car’s trim and the roof panel. The tires are more aggress...

When you think of fun-to-drive, affordable, compact sports sedans, a few names come readily to mind: Honda Civic Si, Volkswagen Jetta GLI, even newer Korean offerings like the Kia Forte GT. But there’s one name that you generally don’t think of in this context: the Toyota Corolla. The Corolla is generally considered more of an appliance, a car-shaped transportation tool that people buy because they need reliable transportation from A to B. It’s efficient. It’s comfortable. It’s dead-nuts reliable. But fun to drive?

Well, Toyota, wanting you to think again about that last one, has offered up this: the 2021 Corolla Apex Edition, available on the SE and XSE trims. It’s the company’s attempt at creating something entertaining and fun to drive out of its humble, dependable, high-volume compact sedan. But has Toyota been successful in this effort? Not entirely.

Related: 2020 Toyota Corolla Review: Hatchback-Nice With a Trunk and Real Backseat

Tuned Appearances

The Apex Edition Package starts with some visual flair, and here it’s pretty successful. You have a new front fascia in bronze and black trim sporting standard LED headlights, new lower side skirts, a new rear bumper and an optional rear wing that does nothing for aerodynamics but looks pretty cool. The wheels are unique 18-inch designs that are both lighter and engineered to improve brake cooling for the Apex; they’re offered only in black, like much of the rest of the car’s trim and the roof panel. The tires are more aggressive, with a choice of either all-seasons or no-cost optional summer tires. My SE test car was done up in bright white, but two other colors are available for the Apex Edition: black and gray.

It all looks pretty good, and I have to say that the latest Corolla certainly doesn’t look like a transportation appliance. It has an aggressive, tuned look that’s more subdued than what you’d see on a Civic but without a lot of the fake panels and vents that car has. For someone looking for a tuner version of their car, the Apex Edition is subtle yet effective.

Tuned Suspension Bits

The bigger changes for the Apex Edition are under the skin. You might notice that it looks lower than a standard Corolla; that’s because Toyota has massaged its suspension rather significantly. It’s 0.6 inch lower thanks to new shocks and springs, and thicker anti-roll bars contribute to its tighter body control. But all is not well here: Firming up the suspension has come at a considerable cost to ride quality, one you don’t experience in a Civic Si or Forte GT. Yes, the car handles rather flat and it’s very well controlled, but only on smooth pavement; once the pavement gets choppy or broken, the Apex Edition bounces its occupants all over the cabin, then bounces itself all over the lane. It honestly feels like Toyota took some aftermarket shocks and springs and replaced the smooth-riding Corolla’s stock suspension with something a teenager might install — yes, it looks more aggressive and corners flatter, but it hasn’t made the car more enjoyable on twisty roads.

A lack of change to the steering ratio also keeps it from being more fun. The steering feels rather slow; it doesn’t have the quickness to it that the latest performance-oriented Hondas and Kias have. Instead, it just feels heavy, requiring more effort when you push the Sport button on the console but not providing better feedback.

What about more power? Well, no. Just like the other slightly sportier sedan models Toyota has in showrooms, it’s opted to leave the powertrain alone. There’s a sport exhaust out back, but it affects only the noise the Apex Edition makes. The only engine is the naturally aspirated 2.0-liter four-cylinder that’s standard on the SE and XSE, making 169 horsepower and 151 pounds-feet of torque. If that doesn’t sound like a lot for a car with sporting intentions … that’s because it’s not. Similarly priced competitors from Honda, Hyundai, Kia and VW all make north of 200 hp and generate 40 pounds-feet of torque more than the Corolla.

The potential saving grace is that you can still get a manual transmission in the Apex Edition, and that’s going to be the one you want. Your alternative, and the transmission my test car was saddled with, is a continuously variable automatic, and it really does the car no favors for sportiness. It’s just plain slow when kept in it’s default Eco mode and then gets oddly hunty in Sport mode, trying to behave like a geared transmission by pretending to shift gears. It even has paddle shifters to engage these fake gears. But the only result is that it feels artificially jerky in Sport mode, introducing pauses in the acceleration to try and fake being a traditional gearbox. No, just go for the stick shift — I’ve driven it in other Corollas and it’s a fine shifter, much more sporty than the automatic option, that does a better job with this engine.

The only time the CVT actually feels good and the car feels adequately sporty is when it’s in Sport mode and you’re going between 45 and 60 mph — only then does the car feel properly responsive, with the transmission keeping the engine in its sweet spot for power. Acceleration overall is not in keeping with the car’s sporting pretenses, making this Apex Edition package feel more like an appearance package with a few suspension bits thrown in to give the Corolla some stance. It’s more sporty to drive than your average Corolla, but the changes haven’t made it more enjoyable to drive.

Slightly Nicer Interior

Inside, it’s the typical Toyota mixed bag of wonky ergonomics and decent materials. The sport seats are high-quality fabric, comfortable and mildly bolstered. There’s plenty of room in the Corolla front or back — comfort has never been one of the Corolla’s issues. Outward visibility is excellent thanks to a low beltline, and it’s quiet in there thanks to careful design choices like placing the side mirrors on the doors instead of the crook of the window. All the power windows are one-touch down and up, which is a nice feature, and the big 8-inch multimedia display is bright and mounted high on the dash. The soft-touch fabric of the SE looks and feels good, and there’s attractive bronze stitching throughout to match the exterior trim. (The XSE comes with SofTex vinyl-trimmed seats, heated front seats and an eight-way power-adjustable driver’s seat.)

But some design details endemic to almost all Toyotas look and feel cheap, like the difficult-to-spin volume and tuning knobs, the tiny climate control buttons and the equally tiny buttons on the multimedia bezel. Why are these buttons so small? They have plenty of plastic real estate they could use, but the buttons themselves are bare millimeters thick and not easy to differentiate.

Competitively Priced, Just Not a Competitive Performer

So, how much will all of this set you back? The base price for a ‘21 Corolla SE Apex Edition (including destination) is just north of $26,000 with the CVT. Add another $375 for the optional spoiler and you have an as-tested price for this car of $26,440. Now, you do get a good list of standard equipment for that, including adaptive cruise control, 10 airbags, forward collision alert with automatic emergency braking, lane keep assist and more. You don’t get built-in navigation; however, you do get standard Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, so why would you pay for navigation anyway?

The problem is that a much more fun-to-drive Honda Civic Si sedan tops out at $26,355 — but the Corolla does offer something the Civic Si doesn’t at any price: an automatic transmission. A Jetta GLI offers an automatic, and it’s a much more sorted, comfortable, entertaining sedan than the Apex Edition, but it rings in at about $28,000 with its automatic transmission. The fun-to-drive bargain here is the new Kia Forte GT, which can be had with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic for just $23,455, or load it up with a manual transmission and options not even available on the Corolla like a moonroof, ventilated seats and a premium 10-speaker audio system, and pay just over 24 grand. 

So with the Apex Edition Package, has Toyota turned its Corolla into a fun-to-drive enthusiast sedan? No, I’m afraid not. If all you’re after is a reliable Corolla that looks cooler and can handle smooth and twisty roads a bit better, then it might be worth looking into. It’s definitely sportier than the regular Corolla, but the changes don’t go far enough to justify picking it over more entertaining and equally priced competitors.

Cars.com’s Editorial department is your source for automotive news and reviews. In line with Cars.com’s long-standing ethics policy, editors and reviewers don’t accept gifts or free trips from automakers. The Editorial department is independent of Cars.com’s advertising, sales and sponsored content departments.

Consumer Reviews

What drivers are saying

4.9
64 reviews — Read All reviews
Exterior Styling
(4.9)
Performance
(4.9)
Interior Design
(4.7)
Comfort
(4.8)
Reliability
(4.9)
Value For The Money
(4.9)

Read reviews that mention:

(5.0)

Silver Styling Sleek

by Magical Maggie from Naples, Fl on May 6, 2021

I absolutely love my car!!! It has easy to use technology. Equipped with all the bells and whistles...and rides like I'm on cloud nine. It's my new love. Read full review

(5.0)

Customer Service

by NicoleTheran from Naples, FL on May 4, 2021

I LOVE the car!!! My Uncle Bill has had his Toyota Corolla since 2000 and my friends also have Toyota Corollas. I didn't realize I was going to be a Toyota fan until I test drove one myself.......and ... Read full review

Safety

Recalls and crash tests

Recalls

The 2021 Toyota Corolla currently has 0 recalls


Crash and Rollover Test Ratings

Based on 2021 Toyota Corolla L

NHTSA rates vehicles using a star rating system from 1-5 stars, with 5 being the highest.

Overall Front
5 Star
Overall Rollover Rating
4 Star
Driver's
5 Star
Passenger's
5 Star
Side Pole
5 Star
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation. NHTSA provides vehicle safety information such as front- and side-crash ratings and rollover ratings. Vehicles are rated using a star rating system from 1-5 stars, with 5 being the highest.

Warranty

New car and certified pre-owned programs by Toyota

New Car Program Benefits

  • Bumper-to-Bumper

    36 months / 36,000 miles

  • Powertrain

    60 months / 60,000 miles

  • Roadside Assistance

    24 months / unlimited distance

Certified Pre-Owned Program Benefits

Latest 2021 Corolla Stories

See all 2021 Toyota Corolla articles

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Cars.com Car Seat Check

Certified child passenger safety technicians conduct hands-on tests of a car’s Latch system and check the vehicle’s ability to accommodate different types of car seats. The Corolla received the following grades on a scale of A-F.*
* This score may not apply to all trims, especially for vehicles with multiple body styles that affect the space and design of the seating.

Warranty FAQs

What is a Bumper-to-Bumper warranty?

Often called a basic warranty or new-vehicle warranty, a bumper-to-bumper policy covers components like air conditioning, audio systems, vehicle sensors, fuel systems and major electrical components. Most policies exclude regular maintenance like fluid top offs and oil changes, but a few brands have separate free-maintenance provisions, and those that do offer them is slowly rising. Bumper-to-bumper warranties typically expire faster than powertrain warranties.

What is a Powertrain warranty?

Don't be misled a 10-year or 100,000-mile powertrain warranty doesn't promise a decade of free repairs for your car. It typically covers just the engine and transmission, along with any other moving parts that lead to the wheels, like the driveshaft and constant velocity joints. Some automakers also bundle seat belts and airbags into their powertrain warranties. With a few exceptions, powertrain warranties don't cover regular maintenance like engine tuneups and tire rotations.

What is included in Roadside Assistance?

Some automakers include roadside assistance with their bumper-to-bumper or powertrain warranties, while others have separate policies. These programs cover anything from flat-tire changes and locksmith services to jump-starts and towing. Few reimburse incidental costs like motel rooms (if you have to wait for repairs).

What other services could be included in a warranty?

Some automakers include free scheduled maintenance for items such as oil changes, air filters and tire rotations. Some include consumables including brake pads and windshield wipers; others do not. They are typically for the first couple of years of ownership of a new car.

What does CPO mean?

A certified pre-owned or CPO car has been inspected to meet minimum quality standards and typically includes some type of warranty. While dealers and third parties certify cars, the gold standard is an automaker-certified vehicle that provides a factory-backed warranty, often extending the original coverage. Vehicles must be in excellent condition and have low miles and wear to be certified, which is why off-lease vehicles feed many CPO programs.

See also the latest CPO incentives by automaker

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