Being a pragmatic lot, us Canadians buy our fair share of compact sedans.
The Toyota Corolla is a major player, and while it consistently runs second to the Honda Civic in the sales race, this iconic compact is still an incredibly popular car. And if you’re looking for the least expensive version, this is it: the $19,150 2021 Toyota Corolla L.
The Toyota Corolla saw a transformative reinvention for 2020, part of which is this new skin that leaps from the old drab to somewhat dramatic. In keeping with Toyota’s latest styling ethos, the new Corolla gets an aggressive snout with a big grille and squinty LED headlights, but overall the little sedan doesn’t bare its teeth to the point of gaudiness. It’s a cohesive, nicely resolved design that exudes athleticism and a bit of class – especially in this soft grey/blue hue. No, this base L trim isn’t winning any styling points for its puny 15-inch steel wheels with plastic hubcaps; you’ll need to move up the Corolla ladder for 16- or 18-inch alloys.
This base Corolla comes with an impressive array of safety kit, most of which is found the radar and camera-based Toyota Safety Sense 2.0. This sophisticated suite is all about avoiding collisions, and it includes lane-departure alert with steering assist and road-edge detection, pre-collision system with pedestrian and bicycle detection, and high-speed range adaptive cruise control. It wasn’t that many years ago when safety features like these would be expensive options on high-end vehicles.
The system folds in smart stop technology, stability and traction control, electronic brake force distribution, and brake assist. The Corolla is armed with 10 airbags, the two rear side ones being new for 2021. Another welcome – and very important – safety feature with this base Corolla are the bright (auto-dimming) LED headlights that proved very effective during nighttime rural driving. What you don’t get is blind-spot detection – that requires a different camera/sensor setup.
With last year’s redesign, the Corolla’s rear seat room actually shrunk a bit, and this puts it at a slight disadvantage to some of its more commodious rivals. However, it’s still decently accommodating back there, and this driver, at just under six feet tall, had no problem “sitting behind himself.”
Trunk space, at 371 L, is on the small side for this segment when looking at the Honda Civic (427 L), Hyundai Elantra (407 L), Nissan Sentra (404 L), and Volkswagen Jetta (399 L). The Corolla does come out ahead of the Mazda3 (358 L), and with a large opening this trunk is fine for typical use. The 60/40-split rear seat folds forward to create a decent opening, but it doesn’t create a flat floor which could make loading some longer items difficult.
Cabin storage for personal items falls short of many competitors, too. There’s a small lidded compartment between the seats and a bit of an indent in front of the shifter that will take a smartphone.
User Friendliness: 8/10
The 2021 Corolla gets good marks for logical ergonomics and easy familiarity. The dashtop touchscreen is flanked by an array of hard buttons, giving quick access to all functions. Also present are the all-important volume and tuning knobs. The audio screen features large preset tabs, and pairing a phone is a breeze.
Below the screen we find the HVAC controls that consist of a pair of large knobs for fan speed and temp, along with buttons to control the other functions.
By definition, manual transmissions aren’t as user friendly as automatics – or continuously variable transmissions (CVTs), in the case of the 2021 Toyota Corolla – but this six-speed unit is easy to manage, showing a smooth and precise shift action along with a light clutch. The only issue is the clutch take-up that happens very high in the pedal travel. This, in conjunction with the engine’s lack of torque, requires a bit of practice to get a smooth start, but once committed to muscle memory all is fine.
Despite its “stripper” status, this manual-equipped base car comes with some surprising standard features. As noted, the comprehensive standard safety stuff is impressive for this class of car; as are the standard full LED headlights. Also included are power heated exterior mirrors, automatic high-beam headlight, and variable intermittent wipers.
What you won’t find in this base model are power or heat for the front seats.
Cabin quality here rises above the norm with plenty of soft-touch surfaces, piano black trim, and classy brightwork. The large panel jutting up from the centre console houses a seven-inch touchscreen and in the gauge cluster sits another display screen.
A pleasant surprise is the six-speaker audio (Apple CarPlay, Android Auto ready) that sounds pretty darn good; rich, full, and accurate. I’ve heard way worse systems in way more expensive cars.
Doing duty here in this base Corolla is Toyota’s 1.8L naturally aspirated four-cylinder that puts out 136 hp and 126 lb-ft of torque. This engine has been around forever, and compared to others in this category, especially its turbocharged competitors, this four feels undernourished. It’s fine for around-town driving, but asking for any meaningful acceleration for highway merging or passing results in, well, not much. One has to see at least 3,500 rpm on the tach before anything happens, and even then you’re left a bit of a sitting duck. Passing manoeuvres take some planning and a heavy foot. I suspect the CVT-equipped Corolla would fare better, as this transmission keeps the engine spinning more in its power zone. On the plus side, this 1.8L is quiet and smooth when not straining.
This is a category where the newest Corolla wins buyers. Its solid structure lends a sense of refinement, built upon by a well-insulated cabin and a ride quality that borders on luxurious – likely helped in no small part by those high-profile P195/65R15 tires. With its sophisticated multi-link rear suspension, the Corolla glides imperviously and quietly over most surfaces, with only the biggest bumps sending some clumping into the cabin.
Once up to speed on the highway, the Corolla L is a serene cruiser, exhibiting minimal engine, wind, and road noise.
The front fabric seats also score well for comfort, providing fine contouring and long-distance comfort. The only complaints might come from the back seat, where headroom falls short of some rivals.
Driving Feel: 7.5/10
With this latest Corolla’s platform comes greatly improved driving dynamics. Lacklustre was a word commonly used to describe previous Corolla’s dynamics, and while this trait never seemed to hurt sales, it’s refreshing to drive this 12th-generation(!) model that benefits from a much more solid structure and engaging, predictable handling. Yes, the Corolla’s steering is quite numb, but it is accurate, guiding the well-balanced chassis with precision. However, the puny 15-inch tires give up the game early in this base L variant, and have the sedan moving around a bit too much on the highway in crosswinds.
Does the six-speed manual transmission turn this compact sedan into a legitimate fun machine? Not really. The weak engine, rev-hang between shifts, and late clutch engagement signal this row-your-own Corolla sedan to be exactly what its bottom line suggests – the cheapest one in the lineup.
Fuel Economy: 8.5/10
A week of fairly relaxed driving, both city and highway, netted 6.8 L/100 km. Toyota rates it at 8.0 L/100 km city, 6.0 highway, and 7.1 combined, putting it right in the thick of its rivals. A CVT-equipped Corolla L is essentially no worse or better, with a Toyota rating of 7.9 L/100 city, 6.1 highway, and 7.1 combined
The 2021 Toyota Corolla L’s all-in price of $19,150 is enticing considering Toyota bestows upon this entry-level offering a whack of advanced safety features. Another $1,800 buys the CVT along with an eight-inch touchscreen. In comparison, the Honda Civic starts at $23,400.
A problem for this little Toyota could be the 2021 Hyundai Elantra Essential with its six-speed manual that, at $17,899, trades Toyota’s standard safety features and LED headlights for a stronger 2.0L engine, 15-inch alloy wheels, and heated seats.
What this all boils down to, as we examine this most affordable of Corolla sedans, is whether or not the buyer is interested in rowing their own gears. And by the numbers, very few are. For 2020 thus far, the six-speed manual L accounts for only two per cent of Corolla sedan sales in Canada. So if you’re looking for exclusivity, and can’t afford a McLaren, this six-speed Corolla L might be the ticket. It certainly is a pleasant thing to drive, and the quality interior, decent audio, comfort, and advanced safety system are no giveaways to its bargain-basement bottom line.
|Peak Horsepower||139 hp @ 6,100 rpm|
|Peak Torque||126 lb-ft|
|Fuel Economy||8.0 / 6.0 / 7.1 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb|
|Cargo Space||371 L|
|Model Tested||2021 Toyota Corolla L 6MT|
|Price as Tested||$20,920|