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GR excitement on tap for 2021 Toyota Corolla?

2020 Toyota Corolla XSE hatchback

by Ed Piotrowski and CarPreview staff

What changes will make the 2021 Toyota Corolla different?

A high-performance edition to rival the Honda Civic Si and Volkswagen Golf GTI would be the most tantalizing addition to America’s best-selling compact car. Making the 2021 Corolla Hybrid model available in more than one trim level is a possibility, too. 

Otherwise, this front-wheel-drive four-door will return with two body styles: a sedan that was fully redesigned for model-year 2020 and a hatchback introduced for model-year 2019. Both hew to the tradition of affordable transportation that’s defined the Corolla for more than five decades. But today’s 12th-generation Corolla – a name coined to evoke the radiance of the sun – is styled to spark some passion, too. That holds particularly for the hatchback, which is the likely candidate for a performance model.

Toyota’s larger Avalon and Camry sedans gained sporty variants for model-year 2020, with appearance and suspension upgrades but no engine tweaks. These came under the Toyota Racing Development (TRD) banner, which is more commonly associated with off-road-ready Toyota trucks and SUVs. Expect the hot Corolla to emerge from the automaker’s Gazoo Racing arm, which preps its road-racing and rally cars. The GR Corolla would be comprehensively fortified and include a turbocharged engine with as much as 268 horsepower, 100 more than the ’20 Corolla hatchback.

2020 Corolla Hybrid

It also would be a footnote to a model line in which the vast majority of buyers choose one of the budget-priced sedan models as proven paragons of reliable, basic transportation. Nonetheless, an injection of fun couldn’t hurt Corolla sales. Demand fell 12 percent in the first quarter of 2020, even before the full effect of the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Still, that was better than the compact-car segment’s 31-percent drop. And it kept Corolla No. 1 — ahead of the Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Nissan Sentra, Kia Forte, and Volkswagen Jetta —  in a class that shrunk to 11 entries, from 18, with discontinuation of such stalwarts as the Ford Focus and Chevrolet Cruze.

Note that driving impressions and other subjective conclusions in this review are based on road tests of 2020 Corollas furnished by Toyota. Where the ’21s might be different, we reserve judgment.

Should I wait for the 2021 Corolla or buy the 2020?

2020 Corolla SE sedan

If the notion of a performance Corolla gets you stoked, wait to see if the GR materializes for ‘21. Recognize, however, that some sources say a GR addition is more likely for model-year 2022. And of course, the pandemic is disrupting every automaker’s plans, so release dates for ’21 and ’22 models of all types may well be disrupted.

Corolla’s usual customer base should stick with a 2020 model. You’d get a car that won’t be altered for 2021. You’d sidestep any model-year price inflation for essentially an unchanged car. And you’d enjoy pandemic-related discounts and incentives that might not be in place when the 2021 models do roll out.

Expect the 2021 Corolla sedan lineup to reprise L, LE, SE, XLE, and XSE grades, each with a naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine. The gas/electric hybrid sedan came only in LE trim for 2020; don’t be surprised if Toyota expands hybrid availability to the XLE and XSE sedans. With or without the GR, the ’21 Corolla hatchback should return SE and XSE models.

Will 2021 Corolla styling be different?

2020 Corolla XSE hatchback

Only if the GR comes to pass. It’d likely look similar to the 2020 hatchback’s Nightshade appearance package with its more aggressive front and rear bumpers, side aero skirts, prominent rear spoiler, and black alloy wheels. It could borrow from the TRD kit red-painted brake calipers, red pinstriping, and red badges. A gloss-black grille with a mesh insert, lowered and stiffened suspension, and low-profile 19-inch tires could also be part of the GR plan.

The other 2021 Corolla hatchbacks and sedans will keep the look that came with their most recent redesigns. Both wear the narrow headlights and enormous grille that mark Toyota’s latest styling language. Aiming for a younger buyer, the ’21 Corolla hatchback will again look racier than the sedan and it’ll remain slightly smaller overall, notably with a 2.4-inch-shorter wheelbase (the distance between front and rear axles).

LED headlights will return as standard on all ’21 Corollas – a nice perk – with all but the L and LE sedans also getting LED accent lights. SE and XSE trims should return with a gray instead of a black grille insert. And wheels size and design will also continue as a differentiator. On sedans, the L should return with 15-inch steel wheels, the LE with 16s in steel or optional alloy, the XLE with 16-inch alloys, and the SE and XSE with 18-inch alloys. Alloys will again be standard on hatchbacks, 16s for the SE, 18s for the XSE. Nightshade-edition sedans and hatchbacks will again have black-themed 18-inch alloys.

2020 Corolla XSE hatchback

While front-passenger room in both body styles should remain class-competitive, rear-seat occupants will be cramped for legroom, especially in the hatchback. On paper, the hatchback has nearly a half-inch more rear headroom than the sedan; in practice, it feels as if there’s more clearance in the sedan.  

Interior materials quality is good for the segment, with padding covering more of the dashboard than usual and faux stitching tastefully applied. Look for L and LE models to return with fabric upholstery, the SE with “sport” fabric and better-bolstered front buckets, and the XLE and XSE to cover those seats with Toyota’s faux-leather SofTex with sport-fabric inserts. A GR model would likely to get its own sport-trimmed steering wheel, seats, and upholstery.  

2020 Corolla XSE

Gauges will remain clear, controls easy to identify and reach. The central dashboard’s tabletlike touchscreen should remain a 7-inch display for the L sedan, an 8-incher for all other Corollas. The Hybrid’s screen can display battery-level, powertrain flow, and other hybrid-specific data.

Apple CarPlay and Android Auto should be standard across the board, along with a built-in WiFi hotspot powered by Verizon Wireless’ cellular network. Expect imbedded navigation that doesn’t rely on a cellular data connection to again be optional for XLE and XSE trims and for a GR model. Primary infotainment operations should continue to rely on Toyota’s aging Entune software; in our tests, it sometimes was slow to respond to user inputs.

2020 Corolla XSE hatchback

Cargo volume won’t be a selling point for any 2021 Corolla. The sedan’s 13.1-cubic foot trunk is smaller than that of key rivals, including the Civic and Elantra. Same goes for the Corolla hatch, with 18 cubic feet behind the rear seatbacks.

Any 2021 Corolla mechanical changes?

2020 Corolla SE sedan

Not without the GR Corolla. Unlike other Corollas, which use naturally aspirated four-cylinder engines, the GR would likely get a high-output turbocharged 1.6-liter three-cylinder – and it could have all-wheel drive (AWD).

The turbo three would be borrowed from the GR version of the subcompact Yaris hatchback Toyota sells overseas. Output would likely mirror the standard GR Yaris’s 257 horsepower and 265 pound-feet of torque. Or Toyota could dial it up to the 268 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of the limited-edition GR Yaris. The hot-rod Yaris comes with AWD, which might also make its way to a GR Corolla. A six-speed manual transmission is probable, with some type of automatic possible, too.  

Otherwise, the ’21 Corolla L, LE, and XLE sedans will return with a 1.8-liter four-cylinder with a low-for-the-class 139 horsepower and 126 pound-feet of torque (think of torque as the force that gets a vehicle moving, horsepower as the energy that keeps it moving). The ’21 SE and XSE versions of both the sedan and hatchback will reprise a 2.0-liter four-cylinder with 168 horsepower and 151 pound-feet of torque.

2020 Corolla hatchbacks and SE sedan were available with manual transmission

The ’20 Corolla was among the dwindling number of cars available with manual transmission, and we’d urge Toyota to continue that old-school touch for ’21. If it does, a six-speed manual would again be standard on the SE sedan and on all Corolla hatchbacks. Optional on those models and standard otherwise would be a continuously variable automatic transmission, which performs the duties of a conventional automatic but without stepped gear ratios.

Toyota programs the CVT to simulate a conventional automatic transmission’s gear changes. It also gives the CVT used in all SE, Nightshade, and XSE models a physical first gear to promote livelier acceleration away from a stop. Those models also get steering-wheel paddle shifters that enable the driver to simulate manual-type gear control.

Neither carryover Corolla engine provides much excitement; the 1.8-liter in particular boarders on underpowered in anything but gentle everyday cruising. And the verve lost to the fuel economy oriented CVT hardly helps. Sport-minded drivers should consider manual transmission for the most satisfying results.

We’ve experienced mixed results with the CVT Corollas: smooth operation in test XSE hatchbacks but poor integration in an XSE sedan, where the transmission’s propensity to default to gas-saving ratios spotlighted the 2.0-liter’s lack of muscle at low rpm. The result was stunted acceleration off the line and lazy response around town. A factory software change might help. And steps to make this 2.0-liter sound less coarse and unrefined during acceleration would be appreciated, too.

2020 Corolla SE sedan

The 2021 Corolla Hybrid sedan will return with its own 1.8-liter four-cylinder gas engine teamed with a battery-powered electric motor for a net 121 horsepower (Toyota doesn’t specify a torque figure). Its sole transmission would be a CVT. No Corolla Hybrid was made available to test in time for this review, but we’d expect it to furnish smoother, stronger acceleration than models we’ve tested with the 1.8-liter engine.

Credit to Toyota for furnishing Corollas with a rigid substructure that helps both body styles feel solid and planted on the road, as also among the small cars most isolated from wind and road noise at cruising speeds.

With its specially tuned suspension and performance tires – and possibly AWD – a GR Corolla would likely deliver enthusiast-grade road manners. Handling on other ’21 Corollas would remain less exciting but conservative and predictable. They won’t excel for sharp steering feel. Expect grip and balance to again be best on the hatchbacks, thanks to their four-wheel independent suspension and more maneuverable wheelbase.

Sedans should continue with a less-sophisticated solid rear axle and feel less planted in quick changes of direction. Mainstream buyers seeking maximum driving enjoyment should look to a Civic or Mazda 3.

Will 2021 Corolla fuel economy improve?

Corolla Hybrid rates over 50 mpg

Not likely. Hybrids excepted, EPA ratings should again be no higher than average for the competitive set – although our real-world tests show the Corolla to be quite fuel efficient.

Expect 2021 Corolla’s EPA ratings to repeat those of the 2020 models. With the 1.8-liter engine and CVT, ratings should again be 30/38/33 mpg city/highway/combined for L and LE sedans and 29/27/32 for the XLE sedan.

With the 2.0-liter four, expect the ’21 Corolla SE sedan to return at 29/36/32 mpg with manual transmission and 31/40/34 with the CVT. The XSE CVT should again rate 31/38/34. Our 2020 XSE sedan averaged 33.3 mpg in a suburban test loop.

Will all carryover 2021 Corolla hatchbacks again using the 2.0-liter engine, ratings should repeat at 28/37/31 mpg with manual transmission. With CVT, expect the SE to again rate 32/24/36, the SE-based Nightshade 32/41/35, and the XSE 30/38/36.

We averaged an exceptional 43.5 mpg with a CVT SE review sample.

The 2021 Corolla Hybrid sedan should continue with outstanding ratings of 53/52/52 mpg city/highway/combined.

If there’s a ’21 Corolla GR, look for ratings of around 26/33/29 mpg. Toyota would likely recommend, and maybe require, premium-grade 91-octane for the GR and continue to specify regular-grade 87-octane for the other ’21 Corollas, including the hybrid.

Will the 2021 Corolla have new features?

2020 Corolla with 8-inch touchscreen and imbedded navigation

A GR model would of course introduce new powertrain, appearance, and trim features. But unless Toyota equips the entry-level L sedan with the 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system standard on the other models, don’t expect carryover Corollas to gain equipment. They’ll repeat a range of features mostly common for the class but also commendable for a focus on safety.   

Standard again on every ’21 Corolla will be the Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 (TSS 2.0) suite of driver assists. It contains autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian detection, adaptive cruise control to maintain a set distance from traffic ahead, lane-departure warning, and automatic high-beam headlights.

We would, however, urge Toyota to consider expanding availability of blind-spot detection. For model-year 2020, that useful assist was standard on XLE and XSE trims and included in options packages LE and SE sedans. It was optional for the hatchback SE with the CVT, but not with manual transmission or on the Nightshade. It was also unavailable on the Hybrid, a situation that could change if the ’21 Hybrid is offered in more than just LE trim.

2020 Corolla XLE and XSE were available with wireless charging

The most popular ’21 Corolla will again be the LE sedan and it’ll build on the L trim’s standard equipment with features already mentioned, plus single-zone automatic climate control and remote keyless entry. The ’21 Corolla Hybrid LE would have similar features while adding LED taillights and keyless access with pushbutton ignition.

SE sedans would have specific exterior trim, plus the 18-inch alloy wheels. XLE models would expand on that with a power sunroof, power driver’s seat, and heated front seats.  The XSE would include all that along with some exclusive exterior gingerbread and the fabric/SofTex upholstery. Expect SE and XSE hatchbacks to continue to mirror their sedan counterparts, although the XSE hatch should return as the only ’21 Corolla with dual-zone automatic climate control.

Will 2021 Corolla prices be different?

2020 Corolla XSE hatchback

They’ll almost certainly increase, although probably not by much; and Toyota could even surprise by holding the line on returning models to buoy sales lost to the pandemic. For reference, here are 2020 Corolla prices; base prices include the $995 destination fee.

Among sedans, the ’20 L started at $20.555, the LE at $21,005, the XLE at$25,005. The SE sedan was priced from $23,005 with the CVT and from $23,705 with the six-speed manual transmission. Base price was $23,705 for the SE-based Nightshade edition and $25,505 for the XSE.

The Hybrid LE was an outstanding value at about $24,055. If Toyota adds XLE and XSE versions, expect base prices of around $28,000 and $30,000, respectively.

The ’20 Corolla hatchback SE was priced from $21,245 with the CVT and from $22,345 with manual transmission. Base price was $23,245 for the SE-based CVT-equipped Nightshade. The XSE hatch started at $24,105 with manual transmission and at $35,295 with the CVT.

GR hatchback would likely get a spoiler similar to the one available on 2020 Corolla hatchbacks

Toyota probably would price a GR Corolla hatchback to compete directly with the Golf-based GTI hatchback and the Civic Si sedan. The GTI is being redesigned for model-year 2022 with 241 horsepower and an estimated $30,000 base price. An AWD GR Corolla might encroach on the redesigned ’22 Golf R, which looks to have some 300 horses and an estimated $43,000 base price. Honda’s redesigned 2021 Civic Si should return with about 225 horsepower and a $27,000 base price but only in four-door sedan and two-door coupe form.

Among the 2021 Corolla’s key options, expect the LE Premium Package ($2,000 for 2020) to again include keyless access, pushbutton engine start, aluminum wheels, power sunroof, and blind-spot alert. SE options should again be limited to CVT-equipped cars. Expect the $1,500 SE Premium Package to include the same features as the LE’s, save for aluminum wheels, which are otherwise standard. The contents of the Premium Package plus various audio and infotainment upgrades should return in bundles at around $2,315-$2,915.

The ’21 Corolla XLE and XSE grades should offer a pair of Connectivity Packages ($1,715-$2,165) that would include a JBL-brand audio system, imbedded navigation, wireless smartphone charging. The costlier package would add adaptive headlights. Those headlights, as a $415 extra exclusive to the XSE, were the sole factory option for the ’21 Corolla hatchback. Expect any ’21 Corolla GR to offer the same Connectivity Packages available on the XLE and XSE.

When does the 2021 Corolla come out?

Barring pandemic-related delays expect a 2021 Toyota Corolla release date in the fall of 2020.

Best 2021 Corolla competitors

Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, Mazda 3, Nissan Sentra, Subaru Impreza, Volkswagen Golf and Jetta

Read More about the Latest Models

About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to Carpreview.com two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for HowStuffWorks.com, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]