2021 Toyota Corolla Review

They don’t make the great cars anymore—cars like the original (rear-engined/air-cooled) VW Beetle. Many consider the original Bug to be the greatest car ever made—if the standard for greatness is a car almost anyone could afford to buy and, for that reason, put almost everyone on the road who wanted to be on the road.

Hence the people’s car.

The Ford Model T was another, earlier example of the same kind of greatness, differently expressed.

These cars weren’t fast or sexy, but they were easy to buy and cheap to keep. They didn’t ask for much beyond fuel, oil, brakes, and tires once in a while. They ran and ran and ran and then ran some more. It was common to see them on the road as daily drivers 20 or 30 years after they were made.

Of course, you can’t get a new old Beetle or a Model T anymore.

But you can get what is arguably a car greater than either of them combined.

What It Is

The Corolla is several things that nothing else is.

First, it is the world’s best-selling car—large, small, whatever. Ever. More than 45 million of them have been stamped out since 1966, its first year on the market. That’s more of them than all the Model Ts and old Beetles produced and added together.

It has also been on the market longer than any other modern economy car, encompassing the production run of the once-ubiquitous rivals like the Dodge Neon and Chevy Cavalier that came and went and not being very great.

One often sees 20-plus-year-old Corollas still in use as daily drivers. The sight of a Neon or Cavalier that still runs is rare.

Like the old Beetle and the Model T, the Corolla isn’t sexy or speedy. But it has an unsurpassed reputation for being a sensible, easy to live with, and exceptionally long-lived car that more than gives you your money’s worth, which is why 45 million-plus have bought one.

Greatness sells itself.

It is also one of a dwindling number of new cars, including economy cars, which still offer a manual transmission. Rivals like the Honda Civic sedan, the Nissan Sentra, and the Mazda3 are automatic-only.

One of the few others in the Corolla’s class that offers a manual for about the same money is the N-Line version of the Hyundai Elantra, which also comes with a more powerful turbocharged engine.

Neither of the Corolla’s available engines is turbocharged, but this is among the reasons why the Corolla is a great car. A Corolla bought this year will probably be on the road 20-plus years from now because its engines aren’t turbocharged. Turbos are fun. More power is always fun. But they also add pressure, and that can lead to cost after 20 years on the road.

Or even sooner.

There are other Corolla virtues, including an AC/heater system (and stereo) you can adjust without tap/swipe/pinching a touchscreen and interior spaciousness very close to that of many mid-sized cars for the price of a compact-sized car.

The base trim Corolla L with a 1.8-liter engine and CVT automatic stickers for $20,025. An SE trim with a more powerful 2.0-liter engine and six-speed manual transmission stickers for $23,175.

There is also a hatchback (and a hybrid) version (which will be reviewed separately).

What’s New

Probably in response to the new Elantra N-Line, Toyota has added an Apex package to the mix. It includes a firmer-riding suspension, lower ride height, and the option to buy a set of high-performance short sidewall “summer” tires.

What’s Good

  • The car you’ll hand off to your kid 10 years from now, who will then hand it off to his.
  • Available manual transmission; standard not-turbocharged engine.
  • Knobs that turn rather than icons you tap.

What’s Not So Good

  • Manual availability is limited to SE trim.
  • Otherwise standard automatic is a CVT.
  • CVT-equipped models come standard with ASS (automated stop/start).

Under The Hood

All Corollas except the SE come standard with a 1.8-liter, 139 horsepower four-cylinder engine without a turbocharger or direct injection.

This engine is one of the few engines under the hood of any new car that still has port fuel injection only. It doesn’t have multiple fuel pumps or operate at several thousand pounds of pressure and won’t carbon-crud the backsides of the intake valves—a problem with direct-injected engines (crutched by adding a separate port-fuel injection circuit to keep the backsides of the intake valves clean).

It is not as powerful an engine as some of the engines that come standard in rivals like the Honda Civic (2.0-liters, 158 hp) and Mazda3 (2.0-liters, 155 hp). Still, if you are interested in an engine that’s simpler than almost any engine you can get in a new car, and for that reason more likely to be problem-free down the road, then you will probably be interested in this engine.

The bad news is that Toyota pairs it exclusively with a continuously variable (CVT) automatic. CVT is a type of automatic that has become almost unavoidable in new cars because it offers a slight fuel efficiency benefit—about 2-3 MPG is typical vs. a car with a conventional automatic. While that is probably not a big deal to potential car buyers, it matters a great deal to car manufacturers as they try to “comply” with miles-per-gallon minimums that keep going up and up.

To illustrate my point: The Corolla with the 1.8-liter engine and CVT automatic rates 30 city, 38 highway. The Mazda3 with the 2.0-liter engine and a six-speed conventional automatic rates 28 city, 36 highway.

But why is it bad news assuming you don’t mind an automatic?

Two reasons—one subjective the other objective.

Subjectively, the CVT’s operating characteristics don’t appeal to some buyers. They do not shift through gears but rather transition through ranges, continuously varying, which is how they eke out the slight MPG advantage. But this lack of shifting can feel like the transmission isn’t working correctly or making the engine work hard.

With a conventional automatic, the transmission shifts up from first to second to third (and so on) as you accelerate. Engine speed (RPM) and noise reduce as you increase speed. With a CVT, the engine speeds up as you increase the car’s speed, the transmission holding the engine at higher speed (RPM) until you back off the accelerator. This can feel “busy” and is sometimes noisy.

The other issue, the objective issue, is that CVTs, in general, haven’t proved to be as long-term durable as conventional automatics. Instead of a planetary gear set and hydraulic circuit as in a conventional automatic, the CVT uses a metal band that expands and contracts to vary the range as you drive, based on road conditions and speed, etc. The problem is that the expansion and contraction of anything that’s metal will likely fatigue metal over time, and when the band fails, the CVT transmission is kaput.

The good news is you can skip the CVT by choosing the Corolla SE.

A six-speed manual transmission and a larger 2.0-liter engine make 169 horsepower without a turbo. It is almost as powerful as the Honda Civic’s optional 1.5-liter engine with a turbo and paired only with a CVT automatic.

The SE Corolla’s mileage dips a bit, but not a lot: 29 city, 36 highway. This, as it turns out, is slightly higher than the turbocharged/CVT’d Civic’s 29 city, 35 highway.

Plus, you get to shift for yourself.

The only other price-equivalent car in the class that lets you do the same is the N-Line version of the Hyundai Elantra, which has a turbocharged and direct-injected engine.

Will it be around 20 years from now? We’ll have to wait and see!

On The Road

Economy cars didn’t use to be boring cars to drive because most of them came standard with a manual transmission, which gave you something to do while driving. It also allowed you to make the most of the engine you had, which usually didn’t make a lot of power for the sake of being economical.

But with a stick, you can still have some fun in an economical car.

You can keep the revs up by holding a gear or going down a gear. It’s enjoyable, if you aren’t asleep behind the wheel, to work the car and develop your skills. When honed, this kind of driving can result in the best possible actual gas mileage.

Automatics (and CVT automatics) post higher mileage numbers, but that is because they are programmed to deliver them on the tests used to establish city/highway numbers. In the real world, a person can out-shift the automatic, and even if not, there is a value in having more control over the car and having more fun driving the car.

The manual-equipped Corolla is a fun car to drive that is also a car you will probably still be driving 15 years from now. Or someone else will be driving it.

Speaking of driving it . . .

The Corolla has buttons and knobs to adjust the radio volume and tune stations; buttons and knobs to turn up (or down) the AC and heat. This means you don’t have to take your eyes off the road while you’re driving to adjust these things as in almost every other new car, most of which have smartphone-emulating touchscreen interfaces that you have to look at to adjust because you can’t feel an icon.

There is an LCD display inside the Corolla, but it is unlike the others in that it is meant to be a display rather than an interface. There are even tactile buttons on the sides of the thing that gets you to the correct menu, without having to “scroll” through “menus” or “swipe” or “tap” a screen with no feel that forces you to look.

This by itself makes the Corolla a great car.

You will also like the ride and the seats, which are magnificently not-too-firm and not-too-soft. Drive a Corolla for six hours straight, and you’ll understand why this is great, too.

At The Curb

Part of the reason for the Corolla’s enduring popularity is its appeal to everyone. It’s not a guy’s car or a chick’s car or an old person’s car or a poor person’s car. The old Beetle had the same quality, without the amenities, which explains why it’s gone and the Corolla’s not.

Although the Corolla is considered a compact-sized sedan, if you consider the critical interior specifications, you will see it is an almost-mid-sized-car where it matters.

There’s 42 inches of legroom in the front seat and 34.8 inches in the back; the mid-sized Camry sedan has 42.1 inches of legroom up front and 38 inches in the back — a difference of .1 inches up front and 3.2 inches in the back. The Corolla’s 13.3 cubic foot trunk is also slightly smaller than the much larger (outside) Camry’s 15.1 cubic foot trunk.

The Corolla is big enough to be a family car, for much less than the cost of a not-much-larger car like the Camry, which stickers for $24,970 to start. The Camry is a very nice car, too. But it’s nice not to have to spend the almost $5k more to get one vs. the Corolla.

In addition to the practical controls for the stereo, AC, and heater, the Corolla also comes standard with practical wheels—made of steel rather than aluminum and fitted with low-cost 15-inch tires. In the long run, this will cost you less than the 16 and 17-inch wheels that have become common even in the economy car class, despite being less economical both to buy and because they wear out faster and are more easily affected by curb strikes and potholes.

The standard L and LE trims also come with a keyed ignition rather than a key fob and a push-button ignition. The keyed ignition is likewise practical in that you can get a new key cut instead of buying a new fob that must be programmed.

You can load up a Corolla with push-button ignition, heated seats, LED headlights and dress it up with the blackout trim that comes with the Nightshade package. You can even amp it up with the new Apex package that firms up the suspension, lowers the ride, and increases the car’s lateral grip with a set of extra-grippy “summer” high-performance tires.

But at the end of the day, what makes this car great is that it doesn’t need any of that stuff to make it great.

The Rest

Some of the few minor things that are not-so-great about the Corolla include the too-small cupholders in the center console, which could easily have been made larger. The center console itself is wide enough to accommodate larger cup holders.

The other thing is that ASS is now standard in CVT-equipped Corollas. It’s another thing brought to you by the government, which Toyota has added as a way to “comply” with the government’s gas mileage and “greenhouse gas” strong-arming.

This can be avoided by buying the manual-equipped Corolla SE. It is free of ASS, at least until they figure out how to integrate stop-start “technology” with a manual transmission.

Or just get rid of the manual transmission.

The Bottom Line

There are other cars that are better at this or that. Stronger, faster, sexier, or more “high tech.” But there has never been a car that’s better than the Corolla at being a great car.

45 million and counting.

It speaks for itself.

Eric Peters lives in Virginia and enjoys driving cars and motorcycles. In the past, Eric worked as a car journalist for many prominent mainstream media outlets. Currently, he focuses his time writing auto history books, reviewing cars, and blogging about cars+ for his website EricPetersAutos.com.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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