Toyota Corolla — A well-rounded compact sedan

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

(November 8, 2020) We've driven all three versions — sedan, hybrid sedan and hatchback — of the current-generation Toyota Corolla and it is the best Corolla we've ever driven from the standpoint of drivability, infotainment and safety technology, performance, and gas mileage. Whichever Corolla version suits your tastes we feel you will not be disappointed. And you will be driving what is regarded as the best-selling car of all time, and one of the most affordable and reliable compacts on the planet.

The Corolla has an exterior design that imparts stylish curves and creases including a front end that effectively uses the Toyota/Lexus big mouth grille. The slim LED headlamps wrap into the front fenders in an artful design, and in back a bar ties the taillights together, which also wrap into the fenders.

The standard engine found in most Corollas is a carryover from the last generation — a 1.8-liter 4-cylinder with 139 horsepower and 126 pound-feet of torque. We wish Toyota had upgraded that engine with more muscle, but for those people who desire a little more urgency and the ability to merge and pass without drama, an optional 2.0-liter 4-cylinder making 169 horsepower and 151 pound-feet of torque is available in the top trim levels. A hybrid version brings a combined 121 horsepower. All powertrains are mated to a continuously variable automatic transmission that drives the front wheels. A six-speed manual transmission can be obtained for $700 on the SE trim level.

There are five basic trim levels — L, LE, SE, XLE and XSE. If you are considering the non-hybrid sedan, we recommend either the SE or the XSE with the bigger engine. It feels sharper and definitely more energetic than the smaller 1.8-liter. For 2021, there's also a SE Nightshade edition and a limited run Apex Edition. The Nightshade brings blackout exterior trim and unique 18-inch wheels. The Apex gets more driving performance with upgraded suspension components, a lower ride height, optional summer performance tires and black and bronze exterior trim.

The 2021 hybrid Corolla is propelled by a 1.8-liter 4-cylinder gas engine and two electric motor-generators with a combined output of 121 horsepower and 105 pound-feet of torque, EPA-rated at 53 mpg city, 52 highway, and 52 combined. It should not disappoint even the most lead-footed driver. When we drove it last year we achieved 49 mpg, which we consider outstanding based on our aggressive driving habits.

On the downside the hybrid comes only in the mid-trim LE package with no options available other than paint color and such accessories as floor mats and mudguards. This could be a deal breaker for some people who, while desiring the outstanding gas mileage, want some of the good stuff available on the top trim levels such as a premium audio system, "dynamic" navigation, upgraded wheels, and blindspot monitoring.

Although we recommended the hybrid for many buyers who will benefit from the outstanding gas mileage and the moderate purchase price, we would choose — hands down — the top-of-the-line XSE, the model we drove for this review,  with the larger engine and with much of the technology and creature-comfort features available on the Corolla while still deriving excellent gas mileage and a purchase price for under $27,000 including destination charge.

We easily came to that conclusion after 350 miles behind the wheel of a XSE with the $1,715 premium audio and dynamic navigation package. The package adds a good-sounding eight-speaker JBL audio system, an eight-inch touchscreen with
navigation, and wireless charging.

Although the XSE is no rocket ship, we were pleased with its performance, which a major magazine has clocked at 7.3 seconds from 0-to-60. Accelera
tion proved adequate for all driving situations. We were okay with the handling and found the ride pleasing even over road imperfections. Gas mileage for the bigger engine is rated at 31 mpg city, 38 highway and 34 combined. We managed an overall 35 mpg.

The interior has an open feel with an instrument panel lowered to increase outward visibility. The streamlined dashboard contains a considerable amount of soft
-touch materials. The gauges and displays are dominated by either a 7-inch or 8-inch information touchscreen in the center that rises above the dashboard. Proper audio and tuning knobs are part of the new setup.

Every model has passive entry and push-button start, and certain Corollas such as our XSE test car are upgraded with ambient interior lighting, dual-zone climate control, heated front seats, simulated-leather upholstery, and 18-inch wheels. Every Corolla has a touchscreen infotainment system with a mobile hotspot, Apple CarPlay, and Amazon Alexa capability.  And for the first time Android Auto has been added to the Corolla lineup. 

The base L starts at $20,880 including a $955 destination charge. The top trim XSE carries a base price of $26,680 including destination.  The sweet spot in the lineup might be the SE — which brings the bigger engine and 18-inch wheels — for $23,330. Options can be added and we would select the $1,500 Premium Package which brings such things blindspot warning with cross traffic alert and a remote keyless system. Our XSE test car carried a bottom line of $28,845.

We think the new Corolla is now a serious competitor against such stalwarts as the Honda Civic and Mazda3.  The SE and XSE models with the bigger engine and new-found refinement stand out. 

2021 Toyota Corolla XSE


Base Price: $20,880; as driven, $28,845

Engine: 2.0-liter 4-cylinder

Horsepower: 169 @ 6,600 rpm

Torque: 151 foot-pounds @ 4,400 rpm

Transmission: continuously variable

Drive: front wheel

Seating: 2/3

Wheelbase: 106.3 inches

Length: 182.3 inches

Curb weight: 3,110 pounds

Turning circle: 35.6 feet

Luggage capacity: 13.1 cubic feet

Fuel capacity: 13.2 gallons (regular)

EPA rating: 31 city, 38 highway, 34 combined

0-60: 7.4 seconds (Car and Driver)

Also consider: Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Mazda3

The Good

• Top safety technology

• Quality interior materials

• Better than average acceleration
• Android Auto now available

The Bad

• XSE closing in on $30,000

The Ugly

• No horsepower increase in base engine