The 2021 Toyota Corolla is a compact economy sedan, and compact economy hatchback, with seating for up to five passengers. The first Toyota Corolla debuted in 1966 and global sales have exceeded 30 million vehicles in over 140 countries — it has become the world’s all-time best-selling passenger car. Today’s Corolla entered its twelfth generation in 2020 and it hasn’t departed from its original mission of delivering fuel efficiency, comfort, safety, and style in an affordable compact package. Pricing for the 2021 Toyota Corolla starts around $20,000.
Corolla rides on the Toyota New Generation Architecture (TNGA) platform, the same mechanical and engineering basis supporting Camry, RAV4, and several other Toyota vehicles. This has allowed designers to evolve the exterior design to look lower, wider, and more sculpted than before, in both four-door sedan and five-door hatchback forms. Corolla no longer has to use tiny wheels; the Hybrid LE is the only model with 15-inch steel wheels, while all others get alloys in sizes from 16 inches up to 18 inches.
All models come with LED headlights and taillights, and on upper trim levels you can even upgrade to the Adaptive Front-Lighting System. Along with the traditional black, white, and silver exterior paint options, there are also flashy colors like Blue Crush Metallic, Blue Print, Blizzard Pearl, Barcelona Red Metallic, and Celestite. On some models, you can order a two-tone paint job with a Black Sand Pearl roof – a feature rarely offered on an economy car.
One thing Japanese car design studios have in common is the use of theme to guide designs. Corolla’s team used the phrase “sensuous minimalism” to describe their approach, “equal parts sporty and elegant… comfortable and durable.” The descriptors are apt, as the Corolla cockpit is a very pleasant, airy space. Reversing a trend toward higher shoulder lines and hoods “cocooning” occupants, Corolla’s designers lowered outward obstructions to improve visibility and feel in the cabin. As such, it feels bigger inside. There’s a minimum of clutter in the control layout, and a great sense of continuity in shape, texture, color, and gloss.
Seating in the front row gets better as the trim levels climb, but starts well to begin with. By the time you get to XSE trim level, power-adjustable heated driver’s seats sport SofTex trim – kind of surprising in an economy car.
The second row of seating in Corolla depends on your size and the size of your passengers. A tall driver or front-seat passenger will eat up most of the available second-row legroom. Think about how often you carry more than one passenger, and you’ll know if Corolla’s big enough for you.
The trunk in the sedan models is 13.1 cubic feet, and in some models, the back seat folds flat in a 60/40 split to let cargo intrude into the cabin. The hatchback has room for 17.8 cubic feet of luggage behind the second row, and 23.3 cubic feet with the second row folded flat.
Audio and navigation options are a little mundane unless you’re in the top trim models, but Toyota has wisely made Android Auto and Apple CarPlay standard on all Corolla models, so you can just hook up your smartphone via USB and use your favorite apps via the interface on the 7-inch (L) or 8-inch (all others) touchscreen at the top of the center stack.
All Corolla models are front-wheel drive and use 4-cylinder gas engines. L, LE, and XLE models get a naturally aspirated (non-turbo) 1.8-liter (139 hp/126 lb-ft of torque) hooked up to a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). SE and XSE models get a naturally aspirated 2.0-liter (169 hp/151 lb-ft of torque), and a choice of 6-speed manual transmission or CVT. The Hybrid uses a 1.8-liter gas engine and a 53-kW electric motor with a Lithium-ion battery pack (121 net system hp).
Fuel economy estimates for Corolla with the 1.8-liter engine are 29-30 mpg city/37-38 mpg highway/32-33 mpg combined. With the 2.0-liter engine, the figures are even better: 28 -31 mpg city/35 – 40 mpg highway/31 – 34 mpg combined, depending on transmission and configuration. The Hybrid bests them all: 53 mpg city/52 mpg highway/52 mpg combined.
Moving to the TNGA platform has made the Corolla a much-better handling car. In particular, the wider track (distance between the wheels from side-to-side) makes the car feel more stable, less darty, and more controllable. It feels like the car is carrying its weight between the wheels, rather than over or outside them, and that builds confidence through the corners.
The difference between the 1.8-liter-equipped cars and the 2.0-liter-equipped cars is noticeable and dramatic. The 1.8 is competent but rather dull, with just enough power to motivate the 2,910 – 3,045-lb car. The CVT doesn’t help, defaulting to efficiency. Switch to one of the 2.0-equipped cars, though, and things get livelier, thanks to a CVT with a physical first launch gear, so you can get off the line without the annoying sense of drag that the ordinary CVT induces. There’s even a throwback 6-speed manual transmission available – yes, kids, this one has three foot pedals! The manual is a good one if you have hot hatch ambitions for your Corolla in the future.
The Hybrid LE is a horse of a different color. It has even less system horsepower than the gasoline-only 1.8 cars, and is tuned for maximum efficiency. Hybrid operation is completely transparent, and the mileage is spectacular. It’s a chance to out-Prius the Prius, with superior fuel economy, a lower starting price, and a more attractive exterior design.
Corolla is available in two body styles: hatchback and sedan, with unique pricing for CVT and manual transmission (MT).
Hatchback trim levels (all hatchbacks come with the 2.0-liter engine):
- SE (starting around $20,500 MT/$21,500 CVT) – A hatchback with 16-inch alloys and a 6-speed manual transmission? Sign us up!
- SE Nightshade Edition (starting around $22,500) – Black out the trim and wheels for a nasty Corolla.
- XSE (starting around $23,500 MT/$24,500 CVT) – Heated SofTex sport seats in an economy hatchback. Nice.
Sedan trim levels (L, LE, and XLE use the 1.8-liter engine; SE and XSE use the 2.0-liter):
- L (starting around $20,000 CVT) – This is the least-expensive point of entry into the new Toyota universe.
- LE (starting around $20,500 CVT) – Upgrades materials and trim inside.
- SE (starting around $22,500 CVT/$23,000 MT) – Upgrades to the 2.0-liter engine.
- SE Nightshade Edition (starting around $23,000 CVT) – Blacked-out Corolla sedan.
- Hybrid LE (starting around $23,500) – The only Corolla trim level with a hybrid gasoline/electric powertrain.
- XLE (starting around $24,500) – Uses the 1.8-liter engine, but upgrades interior with power-adjustable heated SofTex sport seats, SmartKey, available premium audio and navigation.
- SE Apex Edition (starting around $25,000 CVT/$25,500 MT) – The sportiest (looking) Corolla, with a two-tone exterior roof, blacked-out badging, and black 18-inch alloys.
- XSE (starting around $26,000) – Checks all the boxes, and opens up the options to upgrade to premium audio, navigation, two-tone paint, and more.
- XSE Apex Edition (starting around $28,000) – Take that top-of-the-line XSE and black out the trim, add some sporty bits. Click a few more boxes, and you can boast about your $30,000 Corolla.
If you are looking for a more accurate idea of pricing, you can build and price a Corolla on Toyota’s official web site.
Corolla has always been a very good economy car. Now, it has evolved into a sophisticated, attractive car with character. Its best feature is its interior design, which really does embody the designers’ mantra of “sensuous minimalism.” To that, we’d add “flexible utility.” Corolla can adapt to the technology needs of its driver, and can be configured to suit a wide range of tastes and lifestyles.
We’re always tempted by the manual hatchback, but the real winner in the 2021 Toyota Corolla lineup has to be the Hybrid LE. The ability to average over 50 mpg combined at a starting price around $23,500 is amazing. It’s tempting to have a Corolla Hybrid on hand for every local errand and commute, and save the hot rod in the garage for special trips.
It’s almost rote to talk about Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 (TSS 2.0), which is standard on every Corolla model. But the suite of active safety features is so impressive, including Pre-Collision System with Pedestrian Detection, Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, Lane Departure Alert with Steering Assist, Automatic High Beams, Lane Tracing Assist, and Road Sign Assist, that we’d like to see similar suites as standard equipment on every new car, not just top trim levels of luxury vehicles.
Corolla makes a great commuter car, urban runabout, first or second car. It is small, easy to park, easy to drive, inexpensive to operate, and reliable. If you’re sensible about how you configure your new Corolla, you can get a very affordable model that will become your faithful companion for many years.
We can’t help but admire and respect this compact sedan. The 2021 Toyota Corolla represents the accumulated knowledge, experience, and skill of generations of car designers and engineers, concentrated in one economical, compact package. If we transported the 2021 Corolla back to 1966 to meet its ancestor, they’d recognize each other, nod, and go about their work — both would share the same ideals. Despite decades of improvements, Corolla remains honest and efficient transportation with a welcomed amount of style.
Add the 2021 Toyota Corolla to our recommended list.
- Chevrolet Sonic
- Honda Civic
- Hyundai Elantra
- Kia Forte
- Nissan Sentra
- Volkswagen Jetta