2021 Toyota Corolla

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2020
The Car Connection
2020
The Car Connection

The Car Connection Expert Review

Martin Padgett Martin Padgett Editorial Director
August 24, 2020

Buying tip

The Corolla XLE delivers unfettered competence, but we’d egg you on to a Corolla LE Hybrid if you hate gas stations and wouldn’t mind one of the unqualified best-car bargains in recent memory.

features & specs

APEX SE CVT
APEX SE Manual
APEX XSE CVT
MPG
31 city / 40 hwy
MPG
29 city / 36 hwy
MPG
31 city / 38 hwy
MSRP
$25,070
MSRP
$25,460
MSRP
$28,210

With the 2021 Corolla, Toyota has almost excised all the bland from its diet.

The 2021 Toyota Corolla buffs the automaker’s small-car credentials in some obvious ways, and some subtler ones, too. An absurdly good value especially in hybrid trim, the 2021 Corolla’s a resale monolith—and hasn’t lost those attributes even as it’s grown more stylish and more nimble.

For 2021, all versions gain Android Auto compatibility, two more airbags, and available satellite radio. Blind-spot monitors are more widely available, too.

Sold as a sedan or as a hatchback in a host of trims, the 2021 Corolla earns a TCC Rating of 6.7 out of 10, based on the smaller-engined sedan. (Read more about how we rate cars.)

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With the latest Corolla, Toyota applies some of its current styling cues, but not the more extravagant ones. The Corolla hatchback’s the more striking of the duo; sedans have more interesting fillips but a traditional outline. Neither’s as exhausting to the eyeballs as the Mirai or as of-the-moment as the RAV4. The interior strikes a better compromise of function and form, with smartly arrayed controls and a dash-mounted infotainment touchscreen.

Hybrids and base Corollas putter, while “S” models keep a more brisk pace. The Corolla Hybrid’s 121-horsepower output may shy from acceleration, but delivers 52-mpg combined EPA fuel economy—which shames the otherwise excellent gas mileage that comes from the Corolla’s 1.8-liter inline-4 and continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). Either of those satisfy the Corolla’s mission as innocuous but capable transformation; SE and XSE cars with the 169-hp 2.0-liter inline-4 thrash their way to quicker acceleration and come with manual shifters if you like, but could use a round of refinement. All Corollas handle with aplomb; the steering’s never too heavy, the ride quality never too bobbly. 

In either Corolla, the front passengers have the room they need to prosper, but sedans have superior rear seats, from the cushions themselves to the head and leg room that surrounds them. Hybrids have some of the best chairs of all, though all Corollas get taxed by a five-passenger road trip. Cargo space is shy on sedans, but hatchbacks have plenty of storage behind the back seats and behind the fronts when the backs fold down.

Every Corolla gets automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control,  active lane control, and blind-spot monitors are standard or available on almost every model. Corollas also get touchscreen infotainment with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, power features, and cloth or synthetic leather upholstery. At about $25,000 either the very well-equipped Corolla XLE or the super-frugal Corolla Hybrid LE make perfect sense to us.

6

2021 Toyota Corolla

Styling

The latest Corolla sips some styling caffeine, but not more than it can handle.

Toyota has shifted into a higher styling gear with other vehicles, but the Corolla’s progressing more slowly. It’s sharp in hatchback form, sedate as a sedan. It’s a 6 for styling, thanks to a cleanly executed interior.

Corolla hatchbacks push their name further on the cutting edge. Their emphatic grilles and sharp hatchback cutlines don’t go deeply weird like Toyota’s Mirai and Prius. It’s the sedan that steps ahead with less confidence. It lacks the suggestive sweep of a Civic, or the smoky eye of a Sentra—but it’s shaping up nicely as it adopts some of Toyota’s lately racy design cues. Its LED headlights fishhook into the front fenders, and its lower glass and rear-end scoops give it some of the drama it’s lacked since the 1980s.

Inside, the Corolla leaves the big swoop of console trim to other Toyotas. Instead it adopts a simpler, open, and airy feel that omits cutlines and seams where it can. It leaves clutter behind in favor of a low console and a few well-defined surfaces. Some Corolla dash panels get stitched swatches of leather-like upholstery, and all get a touchscreen that stands atop the dash billboard-style, where it’s easy to see and use.

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5

2021 Toyota Corolla

Performance

The 2020 Corolla ratchets up its enthusiasm for driving, but keeps it low-key.

Toyota has injected more flair into the latest Corolla’s power and its ride and handling. It’s not woke—but it’s at least awake. It’s a 5 for performance.

Hatchbacks have the most interest in driving, thanks to a 2.0-liter inline-4 with 169 hp coupled to either a 6-speed manual or a CVT. The inline-4 feels willing enough, though the revs bring plenty of noise. It’s a slick performer with the 6-speed manual, which rev-matches for smoother shifts, but the CVT beats it on that count—though none other. Expect a 0-60 mph time of about 7.5 seconds.

The Corolla’s vastly improved architecture allows it to make the most of its multilink suspension. It has both a controlled ride and precise steering, even on base versions with 16-inch wheels. Bigger 18s are available, but not really necessary without more exotic output.

Corolla SE and XSE sedans also get the same engine with the same results, though they have a more attentive ride that’s not stiff-kneed. This is a pervasively competent car, but all the sloppiness of past Corollas has been erased.

That said, we’d still recommend the lesser Corollas fitted with the 139-hp 1.8-liter inline-4. It’s slower, but it’s also quieter and calmer in the more sedate driving it’ll likely be bought to perform. It also handles the road with a more relaxed attitude. Its steering tracks true, but with even lighter effort, and its tires don’t slap like those on the SE and XSE. 

Take all that into consideration, add otherworldly fuel-economy numbers, and you have the Corolla LE Hybrid. It’s essentially a penalty-free Prius who don’t care for that car’s strange styling and very specific cultural messaging. The Corolla shares the Prius’ hybrid 1.8-liter inline-4 and checks in at 121 hp, which means it strains to hit 60 mph in less than 10 seconds. In other important ways, it’s less compromised. Its 15-inch wheels and tires generate a softly damped ride; at 52 mpg combined, it’s a stellar fuel-economy performer. EV-only driving range is minimal and its steering is even less communicative, but who cares? It’s the ne plus ultra commuter car, and costs less than $25,000.

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6

2021 Toyota Corolla

Comfort & Quality

The 2020 Corolla suits up with swell front-seat space; the back seat and trunk pull up shy of rivals.

Whether hatchback or sedan, the Corolla offers shapely front seats and good passenger space, while sedans have a smallish trunk. We give it a 6 for comfort and utility.

Hatchbacks ride on a 103.9-inch wheelbase, a bit shorter than a Civic and the Corolla sedan, too. Its front seats are durable and decently shaped, but the Corolla hatchback loses some front-seat room with its protruding dash. The back seat loses the leg-room battle; the front seats slide on long tracks and cut into rear seat space, which isn’t generous. Neither is head room. Two adults will be OK for shorter trips in back, but cargo fares better: the hatchback has 18 cubic feet of space behind the rear seats, which fold down for even more space.

More buyers will opt into the sedan, with its longer 106.3-inch wheelbase and its much better front seats—especially in the Corolla Hybrid, which wears a fine-knit synthetic material. Sedan seats have a wider range of adjustment and can be covered in leather, with heating for the front row too—but more important, have access to more head and leg room. We do wish the Corolla’s steering wheel had a longer telescoping action, for a better driving position.

In back, the Corolla skimps a bit on head room. Six-footers won’t quite have enough room to sit upright, but knee and shoulder space are good for two large adults. The seatbacks fold down to expand the small 13.1-cubic-foot trunk.

All Corollas we’ve driven have shown good fit and finish, but the larger engine grows noisy at highway speeds; hybrids and the 1.8-liter Corolla seem quieter.

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9

2021 Toyota Corolla

Safety

The Corolla’s crash-test scores are nearly ideal.

The Corolla earns some of the best crash-test ratings among all economy cars, so we give it a 9 for safety.

Both the IIHS and the NHTSA grant it top honors; the NHTSA’s five-star nod is paired with the IIHS’ Top Safety Pick award, which would gain a “+” if the Corolla had better headlights.

Outward vision is good in either body style, and the Corolla comes with automatic emergency braking, automatic high beams, adaptive cruise control, and active lane control. This year it gains two more airbags.

Blind-spot monitors are widely available, but surround-view cameras and head-up displays are reserved for more expensive Toyotas and Lexuses. 

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8

2021 Toyota Corolla

Features

Value is the Corolla’s trump card.

We give the 2021 Corolla an 8 for features, thanks to its excellent value, its standard equipment, and its infotainment system.

The 2021 Corolla adds standard Android Auto compatibility, blind-spot monitors on XLE and XSE versions, two more airbags, and makes satellite radio available on all models.

The Corolla SE hatchback has standard power features, 16-inch wheels, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, and an 8.0-inch touchscreen. XSE hatches gains 18-inch wheels, power heated front seats, satellite radio, and dual-zone automatic climate control. Options include navigation and wireless smartphone charging. Of the two, we’d keep it cheap with the base $21,245 SE.

The $20,780 Corolla L sedan gets power features, LED headlights, a 7.0-inch touchscreen and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto compatibility. An LE gains bigger wheels and tires and an 8.0-inch touchscreen. Our choice would be the $25,180 Corolla XLE, which adds a sunroof, a power driver seat, and synthetic leather upholstery, with options for navigation and wireless smartphone charging—but we’d seriously consider the $24,355 Corolla LE Hybrid, which gets all the LE gear except for its smaller 15-inch wheels.

At the top of the range, the $26,680 Corolla XSE has navigation and synthetic leather upholstery, with options for ambient lighting and premium audio. It’s still a bargain.

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6

2021 Toyota Corolla

Fuel Economy

Corolla hybrids sip fuel like a Prius, but others aren’t far behind.

Corolla fuel economy spans a wide array of models but a fairly narrow band of EPA ratings. Based on the standard sedan, it gets a score of 6 for gas mileage.

Hybrids soar above the rest of the lineup, at 53 mpg city, 52 highway, 52 combined. Other sedans vary based on engine and transmission. With the 1.8-liter engine, the manual-shift Corolla L checks in at 29/39/33 mpg; it’s 30/38/33 mpg with the automatic. Corolla XLE 1.8-liter sedans are rated at 29/37/32 mpg.

Six-speed Corolla sedans with the 2.0-liter engine earn EPA ratings of 29/36/32 mpg; automatic-equipped cars get 31/40/34 mpg, while the 2.0-liter Corolla XSE is EPA-rated at 31/38/34 mpg.

Corolla hatchbacks begin at 28/37/31 mpg for the 6-speed manual; CVTs are pegged at 32/41/35 mpg except in XSE trim, where they rate 30/38/33 mpg.

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$19,925
MSRP based on L CVT
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6.7
Overall
Expert Rating
Rating breakdown on a scale of 1 to 10?
Styling 6
Performance 5
Comfort & Quality 6
Safety 9
Features 8
Fuel Economy 6
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