Apex sedan, Hatchback Special Edition enliven 2021 Toyota Corolla

2021 Toyota Corolla Hatchback Special Edition

By CarPreview staff

What changes 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. But a hot-rod Corolla will evidently have to wait until at least model-year 2022. For now, enthusiasts must settle instead for two new sport appearance packages: the Apex package for the ’21 Corolla sedan, and the Special Edition for the ’21 hatchback.

Both look racy but the only performance upgrade is the Apex’s grippy summer-tread tires. The Special Edition enhances a hatchback body style that’s more stylish than the Corolla sedan but sells in far fewer numbers. Still, Toyota continues to separate the hatchback from the sedan, making the ’21 the first Corolla available with rear cross-traffic detection. It’s also the first with torso-protecting rear side airbags to supplement to head-protecting curtain side airbags.

2020 Corolla SE sedan

The 2021 Corolla sedan lineup reprises L, LE, SE, XLE, and XSE grades, each with a naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine. The Apex package is available on the SE sedan and the XSE. A gas/electric hybrid sedan returns in LE trim. With or without the GR, the ’21 Corolla hatchback will return SE and XSE models, with the Special Edition based on the SE trim.

The sedan was fully redesigned for model-year 2020. The hatchback bowed for 2019. Both hew to a tradition of affordable transportation that’s defined Corolla — a name coined to evoke the radiance of the sun — for more than five decades. But today’s 12th-generation is styled to spark some passion, too. That holds particularly for the hatchback, which explains the ’21 Special Edition and the coming performance model, probably to be called the GR Corolla.

Limited to just 1,500 examples, the Hatchback Special Edition is available only in Supersonic Red paint with black wheels and dark-tinted grillework, lower-body aero addenda, and roof spoiler. It’s very likely an appetizer for the eventual GR Corolla, which could pack up to 268 horsepower, 100 more than any other Corolla hatchback.

2021 Corolla Hatchback Special Edition

Even with the Special Edition and potential GR, the hatchback will remain far less popular than the Corolla sedan, a paragon of reliable, basic transportation. The Apex package is intended as a jolt of fun. It mirrors the Hatchback Special Edition’s black-out trim and wheels and it gets a small black trunklid spoiler. It’s available in white, white with a black roof, and Cement grey with a black roof. Summer tires designed for maximum grip on dry roads in warm weather, are a handling-oriented tweak usually limited to true high-performance cars and crossovers.  

Any injection of excitement can’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.

Is 2021 Corolla styling different?

2020 Corolla Hybrid

Only by virtue of the Apex and Special Edition. Both are variations on the look of the returning Nightshade appearance package available on the SE sedan and hatchback. It includes more aggressive front and rear bumpers, side aero skirts, a prominent rear spoiler, and black alloy wheels.

The GR Corolla, whenever it arrives, is likely to go a bit further. Toyota’s larger Avalon and Camry sedans have sporty variants with appearance and suspension upgrades but no engine tweaks. These come under the Toyota Racing Development (TRD) banner, which is more commonly associated with off-road-ready Toyota trucks and SUVs. Expect the comprehensively fortified GR Corolla to emerge from the automaker’s Gazoo Racing arm, which preps its road-racing and rally cars. 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.

2020 Corolla XSE Hatchback

The other 2021 Corolla hatchbacks and sedans retain 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 looks racier than the sedan and it’s slightly smaller overall, notably with a 2.4-inch-shorter wheelbase (the distance between front and rear axles).

LED headlights 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 have a gray instead of a black grille insert. And wheels size and design are also differentiators. On sedans, the L has 15-inch steel wheels, the LE 16s in steel or optional alloy, the XLE 16-inch alloys, and the SE and XSE 18-inch alloys. Alloys are standard on hatchbacks, 16s for the SE, 18s for the XSE. The Apex, the Hatchback Special Edition, and Nightshade sedans and hatchbacks have black-themed 18-inch alloys.

2020 Corolla XSE Hatchback

While front-passenger room in both body styles is class-competitive, rear-seat occupants are 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. L and LE models return with fabric upholstery. The SE and its appearance-package derivatives have “sport” fabric and better-bolstered front buckets. XLE and XSE models cover those seats with Toyota’s faux-leather SofTex with sport-fabric inserts. A GR model would likely get its own sport-trimmed steering wheel, seats, and upholstery.  

2020 Corolla XSE Hatchback rear seat

In all, gauges are clear, controls easy to identify and reach. The central dashboard’s tabletlike touchscreen remains a 7-inch display for the L sedan, an 8-incher for all other ’21 Corollas. The Hybrid’s screen can display battery-level, powertrain flow, and other hybrid-specific data.

Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard across the board, along with a built-in WiFi hotspot powered by Verizon Wireless’ cellular network. Imbedded navigation that doesn’t rely on a cellular data connection is optional for XLE and XSE trims (and probably for a GR model). Primary infotainment operations 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 hasn’t been a current-generation-Corolla selling point. The sedan’s 13.1-cubic foot trunk is smaller than that of key rivals, including the Civic and Elantra. For 2021, however, Toyota introduces a no-cost option that increases the hatchback’s luggage space 35 percent. Available on any model except the SE Nightshade, the Enhanced Cargo Space option replaces the spare tire with a tire repair kit. It lowers the cargo floor to add 6 cubic feet, bringing volume behind the seatbacks from class-subpar to a more competitive 23 cubic feet. (Toyota doesn’t specify volume with the rear seatbacks folded.)

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-cylinder 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 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 reprise a 2.0-liter four-cylinder with 168 horsepower and 151 pound-feet of torque.

2020 Corolla six-speed manual transmission

The ’21 Corolla is among the dwindling number of cars available with manual transmission. A six-speed manual is standard on the SE sedan (including the Apex) and on all Corolla hatchbacks — except the Special Edition. Optional on the SE sedan and the other hatchbacks, and standard otherwise, is a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT).

A CVT performs the duties of a conventional automatic but without stepped gear ratios. Toyota programs this one to simulate a conventional automatic’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.

2020 Corolla XSE Hatchback

We’ve experienced mixed results with the CVT Corollas: smooth operation in test XSE hatchbacks, 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.

The 2021 Corolla Hybrid sedan returns 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 is 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. These are 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 reassuringly predictable. Expect grip and balance to again be best on the hatchbacks, thanks to their four-wheel independent suspension and more maneuverable wheelbase.

An SE or XSE sedan with the Apex package’s summer tires should provide sharper steering feel, quicker turn-in, and better grip in corners. But all Corolla sedans are let down by their solid rear axle design, a less-sophisticated alternative to independent rear suspension. Compared with the hatchback, they feel less planted in quick changes of direction and don’t hold their line as well through bumpy turns. In any case, mainstream buyers seeking maximum driving enjoyment should look to a Civic or Mazda 3.

Does 2021 Corolla fuel economy improve?

2020 Corolla Hybrid rated 52 mpg city-highway combined

Corolla’s 2021 EPA ratings repeat those of the 2020 models. The Hybrid excepted, they’re no better than average for the competitive set – although our real-world tests show the Corolla to be quite fuel efficient.

With the 1.8-liter engine and CVT, ratings are 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, the ’21 Corolla SE sedan rates 29/36/32 mpg with manual transmission and 31/40/34 with the CVT. The XSE CVT rates 31/38/34. Our 2020 XSE sedan averaged 33.3 mpg in a suburban test loop.

With all carryover 2021 Corolla hatchbacks again using the 2.0-liter engine, ratings repeat at 28/37/31 mpg with manual transmission. With CVT, the SE rates 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 continues with outstanding ratings of 53/52/52 mpg city/highway/combined.

If there’s a 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.

Does the 2021 Corolla have new features?

2020 Corolla XSE with 8-inch touchscreen and imbedded navigation

Final equipment allocations were not available in time for this review. But we’d urge Toyota to extend the ’21 hatchback’s enhanced safety tech to the 2021 Corolla sedan. Rear cross-traffic detection is now standard on the XSE hatch and optional for the SE as part of the SE Preferred Package. Capable of warning of vehicles approaching unseen when you’re backing from a driveway or parking-lot spot, this useful feature is teamed with blind-spot detection, which warns of vehicles in adjacent lanes.

For model-year 2020, blind-spot detection was standard on XLE and XSE trims of both body styles and was included in options packages for 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. Buyers would be well served if Toyota expanded availability of blind-spot and rear cross-traffic detection to more ’21 Corollas.

We’ve already noted the ’21 Corolla Hatchback Special Edition’s features. A GR model would of course introduce new powertrain, appearance, and trim items. 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.   

2020 Corolla with available wireless phone charging

Standard again on every ’21 Corolla is 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.

The most popular ’21 Corolla will again be the LE sedan and it builds 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 has similar features while adding LED taillights and keyless access with pushbutton ignition.

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

Are 2021 Corolla prices different?

2020 Corolla SE sedan

The only 2021 Corolla prices announced in time for this review were for the sedan. Base prices increased some $175-$300, depending on model, although Toyota maintained its mandatory destination fee at $955. Here are 2021 Corolla sedan prices, including that destination fee.

Among sedans, the ’21 L starts at $20,780, the LE at $21,230, the XLE at $25,180. The SE sedan is priced from $23,230 with the CVT and from $23,930 with the six-speed manual transmission. Base price is $23,930 for the SE-based Nightshade edition and $26,680 for the XSE. Pricing for the Apex package was not released in time for this review. The Hybrid LE is an outstanding value at $24,355.

Expect similar increases for the 2021 Corolla hatchback. For reference, 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 SXE hatch started at $24,105 with manual transmission and at $35,295 with the CVT.

2020 Corolla XSE Hatchback

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, the $2,000 LE Premium Package includes keyless access, pushbutton engine start, aluminum wheels, power sunroof, and blind-spot alert. SE options are limited to CVT-equipped cars. The $1,500 SE Premium Package includes the same features as the LE’s, save for aluminum wheels, which are otherwise standard. Imbedded navigation adds $765, or $1,365 with a JBL-branded audio upgrade that includes wireless phone charging.

The ’21 Corolla XLE and XSE sedans offer the navigation/JBL upgrade at $1,715. The XSE is also available with steering linked headlamps at $450.

Expect ’21 Corolla hatchback option prices to mirror those of the sedan’s.

When does the 2021 Corolla come out?

2020 Corolla XSE Hatchback

The Covid-19 pandemic disrupted every automaker’s plans, so release dates for ’21 and ’22 models of all types may well be in flux. Barring delays expect a 2021 Toyota Corolla release date in the third quarter of 2020.

Best 2021 Corolla competitors

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

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]