Last year Toyota sold more Toyota Corolla badged cars in the United States than their entire Lexus brand sold here in total. Worldwide, the Corolla sold more often than the mighty Ford F-150. Since the nameplate was introduced over 50 years ago, almost 50 million have been produced making it the most often sold vehicle in automotive history and represents close to one out of every five Toyotas ever made. Simply put, Corolla is the car that put Toyota on the map and the one that has a large duty to keep it there around the world.
The Corolla may not necessarily be the enthusiast’s first choice, however it can’t be argued that it is not a very high quality automobile that easily does the job expected of it. Millions rely on it every day to get them around, and to do so reliably, economically, and safely. In our market, there are a total of ten different Corolla models/trims available for 2021, with seven of them being sedans and three being the hatchback format.
Of the sedans, there is one hybrid, and the other six are equipped with either of two engines and range from a starting price of under $20,000 to right around $30,000 once every major option is chosen on the top trim level. It’s among the more affordable new vehicles out there and while there may be some that are less expensive, once reputation and durability are factored in, it’s a very safe bet that most would consider an excellent value.
Our tester this week was an XSE version, the top trim. Presented in a color named “Blueprint” with Graphite colored accent pieces (trunk lip and side skirts), to my eyes it cuts a very attractive figure indeed. I’ve been a fan of the current Corolla’s style since it debuted a couple of years ago and find it to be good-looking in every trim level. The XSE is one of the “sportier” trims and as such it has a few gewgaws that the more basic versions lack, however it doesn’t come across as completely over the top either.
The rear three-quarter angle is probably my own personal favorite and I consider that rear fender bulge in particular an excellent piece of design, not just among the economy car genre, but anywhere; what the sculpting most reminds me of actually is the 2007 Audi RS4 although I think Toyota did a better job of relating it into the rear bumper. Of course the little Toyota is no purpose-made Autobahn stormer, however it can certainly hold its own and is powerful enough to handle any road on this continent with aplomb.
Opening the door may make some of you do a double-take, some of what you see looks quite familiar, and that’s because just last week, our own Ed Snitkoff reviewed/compared the $38,000 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid here. Take a close look – immediately it becomes clear that our little sedan base priced at $25k is using the same seats, the same steering wheel, and the same 8″ touchscreen. That’s just the immediately visible pieces. Should we be honored that we are seeing these items from a much more expensive vehicle in this one or concerned that the cheaper car has donated its items to a high-falutin’ CUV with a much higher price tag?
Well, these items can certainly hold their own in either car and are of high enough quality to not appear out of place in either of them. It really is a testament to Toyota’s ingenuity that the same items can be used in so many vehicles that they can provide high-quality pieces and produce them in such quantities that it is likely the case that it is far more profitable overall when you include customer goodwill for Toyota to simply make and include more of the good stuff than to use cheaper versions in the less expensive vehicle.
Ed and I are quite different sized humans and he was comfortable in the RAV4; I have to say I was very comfortable in these seats here as well. Covered in Softex imitation leather with striped cloth material inserts, they seats are well-bolstered and held me securely without pinching or creating sore spots anywhere; the bolstering, while more aggressive than in some more basic cars was not overly confining, it simply felt correct.
Legroom in the front for me was very good, while headroom was just sufficient with the included sunroof, my hair was lightly brushing the headliner. I’m 6’1″ with a 32″ inseam and usually adjust the driver’s seat to its lowest setting with the seatback in a moderately upright position, enough to hold the wheel at 10 and 2 and still be able to grasp any other part of it with either hand at any time.
The gauges were crisp and clear with a digital representation of a speedometer dead center, rpm gauge on one side and the fuel and temp gauges on the other. The center portion of the screen was configurable using a steering wheel toggle to cycle through different menus/information, however the trip meters (2) were accessed by pushing a small knob at the base of the panel causing it to cycle between them and the normal odometer. (There is less glare in real life, the display looks much more “continuous” in person than in this photo).
The center console screen is controlled via touch including some menu buttons on the sides, as well as some steering wheel controls for the audio, or can also be controlled via voice commands. Some functions, mainly to do with settings, are locked out while in motion which makes sense, but everything is generally presented in a user friendly way with a minimal learning curve.
One particularly interesting feature is a whole menu section wherein you can enter dates and mileage for well over a dozen different service items ranging from oil to brakes to wiper blades and more to assist in reminding either when something might be due or just to keep track of when it was last done. Ed pointed out in his review that the screen resolution isn’t up to the latest available standard and while I agree, it’s also still better than a few others on the market, here perhaps it’s more justified based on the price. Overall it gets the job done, but remains low-hanging fruit for Toyota to improve and be recognized for it.
Volume and tuning are done via knobs on the screen or toggles on the steering wheel. Below the center screen are the single zone but automatic climate controls and below that an open area with at its base the rocker switches for the heated seats as well as a wireless charging pad that held my iPhone 11 in place perfectly.
I’ve noticed several makers have recently begun putting these just slightly out of normal driver reach and am starting to believe this is done on purpose. With Apple CarPlay and AndroidAuto as well as Bluetooth connectivity for calls (and the ability for texts to be read to you and respond via voice in some cases/vehicles) it makes perfect sense to keep this away from the constant impulse some people may have to pick it up and check it at every opportunity, whether an appropriate time or not.
A sport mode button, electronic parking brake (configured here to engage and disengage automatically in conjunction with the shift selector’s position) and two cupholders behind the conventional automatic shift lever pretty much round out the other points of interest on the center console. The dashboard and door panels are very soft for about the upper half that can be reached while seated and there is an attractive genuine blue thread stitched line going across the upper portion of the dashboard.
Curiously the part of the dash to the left of the steering wheel that corresponds to what is immediately ahead of the passenger is hard but it’s only about 6″ wide, the texture and sheen look the same and there is no reason to touch it bar being a dashboard fetishist of some sort.
Above all of this was the sunroof with a retracting cover, the controls for it, as well as the rearview mirror that I (clearly spoiled) was surprised I had to manually adjust at night to reduce glare. On the plus side it’s hardly difficult to do and I’ve never had one so equipped break.
The backseat was similar to the front, i.e. comfortable, legroom for me was not abundant but not cause for complaint, and headroom was again adequate with my noggin placed in the pocket between the sunroof and the rear screen. Keep it in perfect place with about six inches side to side and a couple fore and aft and all is well, much more than that and slight contact is made.
The center armrest folds down to reveal two cup holders but there are no vents for the rear passengers on the back of the center console. The HVAC fan in front seems powerful enough and the car small enough that air should be able to reach back there though. Door panels are hard where the fronts are soft except for the elbow rest area, however the material quality is still good and fit and finish are impeccable. The passenger seatback also includes a map pocket.
The trunk was very roomy indeed for such a small car, but it’s all one big flat surface, good for loading lots of stuff, not so good for keeping smaller items in place without rolling around. A box or small basket might be a good owner addition here. A temporary spare is below the floor with some extra space for a few oddments that may accrue. A bigger miss is that there is no handle to pull the trunk lid closed again, necessitating grasping the (often dirty) metal edge of the exterior to pull it down.
Opening it however is great, the various options for doing so include a button on the keyfob, a soft touch button/pad above the license plate and one of my favorite time-tested Japanese car devices, the floor-mounted trunk and fuel filler release levers. The rear seatbacks of course fold down in order to fit longer items, in this case with a 60/40 split.
Since the key never had to be removed from my pocket in order to touch the handle to unlock the door, it also stayed there when I pressed the button to start the engine which jumped to life quickly and quietly. The XSE (as well as the SE and SE Nightshade Edition) uses a 2.0liter engine (as opposed to the 1.8l in the L, LE, and XLE) and produces 169hp @ 6600rpm and 151lb-ft of torque @ 4,400rpm.
Both the horsepower and torque figures are about 20% greater output as compared to the smaller engine and surely noticeable in comparison. Toyota (and some others) seem to be doing away with the “vanity” covers on some of their engines as of late, they are quiet enough not to need the noise suppression and might as well put the saved money towards something more feature oriented, it’s unlikely an owner will really care anyway.
The transmission here is what Toyota calls their Dynamic-Shift CVT tuned to behave mostly like a conventional automatic, i.e. extremely minimal droning and engineered in “shift points” as well incorporating an actual first gear into the case which is engaged to start off from a stop before handing things over to the pulley system. This works well and the average driver would not really be aware it was not just a conventional automatic transmission. It operates basically the same as the one I was impressed with in the last generation of Corolla that I took on a very unplanned roadtrip and reported on here.
Sport mode, by the way, seems to just change the speedometer color to red instead of blue and keeps things in a higher “gear”, while there is also a manual gate for the shift lever with fore/aft selections possible as well as steering wheel paddles, it’s not really for the serious enthusiast to get excited about. However, there IS a manual transmission (a 6-speed) available on the SE version this year, so you can get the hotter engine with a stick for under $23,000. That 6-speed is an “intelligent” manual that will automatically rev-match on downshifts.
Visibility is good in all directions bar the passenger rear, where the pillar and the rear headrest combine to make things difficult. Lane changes are well assisted by the Blind Spot system and backing out of parking spots necessitates the wide-angle camera and screen in conjunction with head swiveling in that direction. Forward visibility is excellent, especially at night where the bright LED headlights combine with this car’s Adaptive Front Lighting system that swivels the headlights in turns.
Being familiar with this concept from other test cars as well as the VW Touareg that we used to own, something seemed different, after a few evenings I realized that as opposed to many/most others, in this case only the light on the inside of the turn moves with the turn, which ends up creating an even wider field of brightness than if they both always turned. However, if one comes to a full stop with the wheels turned the lights go back to straight ahead, presumably to irritate oncoming drivers less. Once back in motion, the light turns again, illuminating the intended path to the side. Clever.
The XSE is equipped with larger wheels than most of the rest of the range, machined alloy 18″ers shod with Yokohama Avid GT tires in a 225/40-18 size. Wow, 40 aspect ratio tires on a Corolla! In their defense they rode very well, were not consistently noisy (very dependent on road surface but quiet was possible on some), and stuck well. Steering feel was fine if feel is defined as feeling you’ll make it around the corner, otherwise there was not a lot of communication from the front end but really, who is taking a Corolla sedan at 10/10ths around Mulholland?
Uh, well I guess I might have been that guy if I had a Corolla when I was back in high school as opposed to just learning on an ’83 in driving school back then, but really even the sporty Corolla isn’t expected to carve corners all the time. The wheels and tires look great, the stance is good, and it works well enough to not be boring but even though there is a new multi-link rear suspension to go with the MacPherson struts in front you probably aren’t wavering between this and a GTI. While perfectly competent and able to far exceed the recommended speeds and not about to fall off the road in the twisties, the Corolla has plenty of other attributes in its favor.
One of those is Toyota’s Safety Sense 2.0. Here is a maker that even on its sub $20k Corolla base model is including as standard equipment a Pre-Collision System that will apply the brakes if it realizes a collision is imminent, Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, Lane Departure Alert with Steering Assist, Lane Tracing Assist, Automatic High Beams, and Road Sign Assist. Blind Spot Monitoring is included in some trims and optional on the others.
While I think that BSM should be standard across the range as well, the other items can be turned off but I know I’m happy to see a new Corolla near me when I’m driving something else as I know that car will try to avoid me no matter what the driver is (or is not) doing. There are plenty of manufacturers with vehicles costing far in excess of this one that do not include any of the above as standard equipment. I’ll happily adjust my rear view manually or use a manual lever to pop open the trunk or share interior items with a more expensive vehicle in order to get this stuff included.
Gas Mileage was excellent overall. I started my week by immediately driving to and around Denver and back which for the first 160 miles resulted in an average of 40.6mpg. This included driving mostly between 75 and 85mph on the freeway with about 20 miles of lower speed city streets. The balance of the week saw me adding an additional 165 miles with about 100 of that on normal country highways that include the occasional light or stop sign and then the balance was standard boring city driving around my house.
The overall average with everything came in at a reported 36.4mpg making it be somewhat better than the EPA’s estimates of 31city, 38highway and 34average mpg, all on regular unleaded. At the prices fuel is likely to remain at for the foreseeable future (and even if not), perhaps the hybrid model really doesn’t get you all that much of a greater return when total expenses are annualized. On a quality note, the fuel filler door was metal, more and more of these are nowadays just painted plastic.
Pricing, as I alluded to above, starts at $25,725 for this top of the line XSE model. This includes pretty much everything I discussed above except for a few options that contain some of the items – those options are one large package (XSE/XLE Connectivity) for $1,715 that includes Premium JBL Audio with Dynamic Navigation – so the 8″ touchscreen, nine JBL speakers, Subwoofer and Amplifier, USB ports, hands-free pretty much everything, Wireless Charging, SiriusXM, AppleCarPlay/AndroidAuto, WiFi, and various Connected Services for various amounts of time included, please see the online configurator for an exact itemized list of those services.
The Adaptive Lighting Package was $450 and while LED lighting all around is standard, the swiveling tech is included with this package as is special ambient lighting inside the cabin. Wheel locks for $67 and a Protection Package (Not TruCoat although “I hear they put that on at the factory…”), this seems to be Floor Mats, a trunk protector applique and a cargo net although my car was missing the cargo net for some reason, all together charged at a somewhat hefty $377.
Destination for $955 (this one was built in Japan so traveled a ways) and all that puts us at $29,289. That’s a hefty sum for a Corolla but someone will buy it, even if the majority will find a less comprehensively equipped one that will serve them just fine.
In fact, that’s how I’d buy a Corolla, start at the top and work my way down to see what I could live without, with as many versions as there are and even the top, most equipped one being far under the average vehicle transaction price these days, some little luxuries might well remain and be completely affordable. After all, even after the warranties expire, a Corolla is likely to need very little attention for a very long time.
The Corolla has been around for a long time, and while sedans are perhaps fading a bit, the Corolla eked out a slight sales gain in the US in 2019 vs 2018 (and introduced a non-sedan version to boot). With over 300,000 sold last year just in this market and about a million worldwide, albeit in some different locally adapted forms produced in over a dozen factories, there is likely still lots of profit in it.
As others (in this country at least) completely retreat from the small-car market in general and especially put smaller sedans behind them, I have confidence that the Corolla will be around for a long, long time yet to come and very possibly pick up business from others. Eventually those buyers may look for something else to replace their Corolla, at which time Toyota can likely convince them to look at their products first and perhaps stay inhouse, after all, some of the included bits may well already be very familiar. Corolla is the very definition of “long game”…a humble Juggernaut indeed that was there near the beginning and is only building on the past.
Thank you to Toyota for letting us borrow this car and supplying it with a full tank of fuel, we appreciate it.