TRD excitement on tap for 2021 Toyota Corolla?

2021 Toyota Corolla

What changes will make the 2021 Toyota Corolla different?

Toyota could expand Corolla’s first-ever gas/electric hybrid model to encompass more trim levels. Less likely but very tantalizing is the possibility of high-performance Corolla TRD models that would compete with the likes of the Honda Civic Si, Hyundai Elantra Sport and Veloster N, Nissan Sentra NISMO, and Volkswagen Golf GTI and Jetta GLI.

Most probable is that Toyota won’t make any significant changes to its compact sedan and four-door hatchback for model-year 2021. Both will still be relative newbies, the sedan having been fully redesigned for model-year 2020 and the hatchback introduced for model-year 2019.

Corolla has been a Toyota staple for more than five decades. With rare exception, the car’s stayed on the mundane side of the automotive spectrum, where it’s thrived, serving as reliable basic transportation for millions around the world.

Today’s 12th generation hews to that tradition but could broaden its appeal should a TRD model get the green light. It would boast an upgraded suspension and hotter styling touches inside and out, courtesy of the Toyota Racing Development factory tuners. It could also get a more powerful engine than the other Corolla models. Toyota’s larger Avalon and Camry sedans got TRD versions for model-year 2020, and company execs say they’d like all Toyota vehicles to get the sporty treatment.

An injection of fun might help bolster Corolla sales, which, like those of virtually every small car, are in decline. It’s still the second best-selling nameplate in the segment, behind the Civic and ahead of the Sentra, Elantra, and Jetta. But demand was off 5 percent through the first half of 2019 in a class that suffered a 12 percent drop in sales.

Together, Civic and Corolla account for more than 40 percent of compact-car sales in the U.S.

Note that driving impressions and other subjective conclusions in this review are based on road tests of the 2020 Toyota Corolla. In areas where the ’21 might be different, we reserve judgment.

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

If the idea of a performance-minded Corolla strikes your fancy, wait to see if Toyota offers a TRD version for 2021. With something like 200 horsepower, a stiffer and lower suspension, wider tires, and more aggressive looks, it would be a nice alternative to sporty versions of rivals and be underpinned by Toyota’s sterling reputation for reliability and resale value.

Corolla’s more traditional customer base should stick with the 2020 model. The ’21 will be a virtual rerun, but almost certainly cost more. Expect the 2021 Corolla sedan lineup to reprise L, LE, SE, XLE, and XSE grades, each with a conventional four-cylinder engine. A gas/electric hybrid sedan joined the roster for 2020 in LE guise; don’t be surprised if Toyota expands hybrid availability to the XLE and XSE. The ’21 Corolla hatchback should return in SE and XSE form. TRD versions of either body style would serve as Corolla flagships.

Will the styling be different?

Only if the TRD editions come to pass. Taking their cue from the Camry and Avalon versions, they’d likely get what Toyota calls an aerodynamic body kit consisting of a front splitter, side aero skirts, a trunk-lid spoiler, and a rear diffuser. Red-painted brake calipers, red pinstriping, and red TRD badging are also involved. So are matte-black wheels and a gloss black grille with a mesh insert. A lowered suspension could also be part of the plan.

The 2021 Corolla sedan and hatchback will keep the styling that came with their most recent redesigns. Both were brought in line with current Toyota design language, marked by aggressive front fasciae with narrow, angular headlights and a large air intake under the front bumper. For a bit more attitude, expect the return of the Nightshade Edition Package, with blackout wheels, door handles, exterior mirror caps, and front and rear diffusers.

Aiming for a slightly younger buyer, the ’21 Corolla hatchback will again look notably racier than the sedan, and it’ll again be slightly smaller overall, notably with a 2.4-inch-shorter wheelbase (the distance between front and rear axles). While front-passenger room in both body styles should remain class-competitive, rear-seat occupants will be cramped for legroom regardless of body style. On paper, the hatchback has nearly a half-inch more rear headroom than the sedan, but in practice, the sedan feels as if it has more clearance.

The shared dashboard’s layout and the operation of the climate and infotainment systems are intuitive, if not always the quickest to respond to user inputs. Primary infotainment operations should continue to rely on Toyota’s increasingly outdated Entune software. Expect the ’21 Corolla L model to continue with a 7-inch central dashboard screen, while all other Corolla models get a larger 8-inch unit.

Apple CarPlay should return as standard equipment across the board. Toyota has promised to add support for Google Android Auto, but as of August 2019, there had been no word on a deployment timeline. If this feature is important to you, hold off purchasing any Corolla until Toyota officially confirms availability. Imbedded GPS navigation that doesn’t rely on a cellular data connection should return as an option on the ’21 XLE and XSE; it also would likely be available on the TRD. Sport bucket seats, a racy steering wheel, and visible contrast stitching and piping would also be likely TRD spiffs.

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 Hyundai Elantra. Same goes for the Corolla hatch, with its 18 cubic feet behind the rear seatbacks.

Any mechanical changes?

Perhaps, if the TRD becomes reality. Otherwise, expect no changes.

All Corollas will again be based on the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA), the modular chassis that underpins many vehicles from Toyota and its premium Lexus division. The platform’s rigidity will again help both Corolla body styles feel solid and planted on the road. They’ll also remain among the small cars most isolated from wind and road noise at cruising speeds.

Returning as standard on the ’21 Corolla L, LE, and XLE sedans will be a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine held over from the 2014-2019 Corolla sedan. It’ll produce a low-for-the-class 139 horsepower and 126 pound-feet of torque and pair exclusively with a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT).

The ’21 SE and XSE hatchback and sedan will reprise a 2.0-liter four-cylinder with a mediocre 168 horsepower and 151 pound-feet of torque. We’d be pleased if Toyota would continue to furnish a six-speed manual transmission as standard on the SE sedan and on all ’21 Corolla hatchbacks. A CVT has been optional on these grades and standard on the XSE sedan.

The CVT’s programming seeks to simulate a conventional automatic-transmission’s gear changes. We’ve experienced mixed results: smooth operation in our test XSE hatchback, poor integration with the engine in an XSE sedan, where it’s propensity to default to fuel-saving ratios put it at odds with the 2.0-liter’s lack of muscle at low rpm.

The result was stunted forward progress. We’d urge Toyota to consider a software update that would allow the transmission to better utilize the engine’s potential. Some effort to make this 2.0-liter sound less coarse and unrefined during acceleration would be appreciated, too.

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. We have not had an opportunity to evaluate a Corolla Hybrid, but expect it to furnish smoother, stronger acceleration than models we’ve tested with the 2.0-liter engine.

TRD versions of the Camry and Avalon get no special engine treatment, but Toyota could well boost a 2021 Corolla TRD by borrowing the 1.8-liter supercharged four-cylinder that powers the European-exclusive Toyota Yaris GRMN. Its 209 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque would be competitive with other performance-tuned compacts. Figure a six-speed manual transmission would be standard. An automatic might be optional and we’d lobby for the conventional eight-speed auto available in the Camry as opposed to the CVT found in other Corolla models.

With a performance-tuned suspension and steering and 19-inch wheels and tires (18s are otherwise the largest available), TRD Corollas could be expected to deliver enthusiast-grade road manners.

Handling on other ’21 Corollas would remain conservative and predictable, if less than exciting. They won’t excel for sharp steering feel. Grip and balance would be best on hatchbacks, thanks to their four-wheel independent suspension. Sedans would continue with a less-sophisticated solid rear axle and thus not feel as planted in quick changes of direction. Mainstream buyers seeking maximum driving enjoyment should look to a Civic or Mazda 3.

Will fuel economy improve?

No. Hybrids excepted, Corolla’s 2021 EPA ratings would likely continue no better than average among the competitive set. Expect a repeat of 2020 ratings.

With the 1.8-liter engine and CVT, the L and LE sedans would again rate 30/38/33 mpg city/highway/combined, the XLE 29/27/32. With the 2.0-liter four, and SE sedan would rate 29/36/32 mpg with manual transmission and 31/40/34 with the CVT. The XSE CVT would rat 31/38/34. Our 2020 XSE sedan averaged 33.3 mpg in our suburban test loop.

Look for 2021 Corolla hatchback ratings to repeat a 28/37/31 mpg with manual transmission. With CVT, expect the SE to again rate 32/24/36 and the SXE 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 TRD and it gets the 1.8-liter supercharged four, expect it to rate around 26/33/29 mpg. Toyota would likely recommend, though not require, premium-grade 91-octane for the TRD and continue to specify regular-grade 87-octane for the other ’21 Corollas, including the hybrid.

Will there be new features?

Unless Toyota sees fit to equip the base L sedan with the same 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system as other Corolla models, we don’t think so. Kudos are due to the automaker for including key driver-assistance features as standard equipment across the board, even on models equipped with a manual transmission. Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 (TSS 2.0) comprises automatic high-beam headlights, adaptive radar cruise control, autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian detection, and lane-departure warning.

Likely returning as standard on all models will be full LED headlights, CarPlay, integration with Amazon Alexa, and built-in WiFi hotspot powered by Verizon Wireless’ cellular network.

Among sedans, the LE would likely return as the most popular Corolla model. It would include 16-inch wheels (up from the L’s 15s), single-zone automatic climate control, 8-inch touchscreen, and remote entry. The Hybrid LE would have similar features while adding LED taillights and keyless access with pushbutton ignition.

SE grades would have specific exterior trim with 18-inch wheels. XLE models would include blind-spot alert, a power sunroof and driver’s seat, and heated front seats trimmed in Toyota’s SofTex leatherette. The XSE would largely mirror the XLE in terms of standard convenience features but swap full SofTex upholstery for a cloth/SofTex blend.

SE and XSE hatchbacks would continue to mirror their sedan counterparts, with the latter gaining dual-zone automatic climate control.

The TRD’s closest match for included amenities would likely be the XSE hatchback.

Will 2021 prices be different?

Count on them increasing, though not by a lot since most models will likely be reruns of their 2020 counterparts. Estimated base prices here include the manufacturer destination fee, which, for reference, was $930 on the 2020 Corolla.

Among sedans, figure the 2021 Corolla L to start around $20,750 and the LE around $21,250. Estimated base price for the ’21 SE is $23,250 with the CVT and $24,000 with manual transmission. Expect the XLE to be priced front about $25,500 and the XSE from about $27,000.

Options should again return in package form. The LE Premium Package ($2,000 on the 2020 model) would include keyless access, pushbutton engine start, aluminum wheels, power sunroof, and blind-spot alert.

Only SE grades equipped with the CVT would be eligible for its packages. The $1,500 Premium Package includes the same features as the LE’s, save for aluminum wheels, which are otherwise standard. The SE Premium Package with options ($2,315-$2,915) would include the contents of the Premium Package plus various audio and infotainment system upgrades.

XLE and XSE grades would offer a pair of Connectivity Packages ($1,715-$2,165) that would include a JBL-brand audio system, imbedded GPS navigation, wireless smartphone charging. The costlier package would add adaptive headlights.

The Hybrid LE would represent an outstanding value at about $24,250. If Toyota adds XLE and XSE versions, we estimate their base prices will be around $28,000 and $30,000, respectively.

Hatchbacks with manual transmission would start at about $22,500 for the SE and $24,500 for the XSE. The CVT would return as a $1,100 option on these models. The sole factory option will likely remain adaptive headlights, which would be a $415 extra exclusive to the XSE.

If Toyota releases the TRD, we hope its pricing will be in line with the Civic Si and Golf GTI, with base prices in the $26,000-$27,000 range for either the sedan or hatchback. These grades would likely offer the same Connectivity Packages available on the XLE and XSE.

When does it come out?

Expect the release date for the 2021 Toyota Corolla to be in the fall of 2020.

Best competitors

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

About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to 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, 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]