2021 Toyota Corolla XSE Review by Ben Lewis

When you think about it, the Toyota Corolla is like a McDonald’s Hamburger. In car-land the Corolla is the best-selling nameplate ever, with over 46 million sold. (For those playing at home, Mickey D’s has sold over 300 Billion burgers.) And with that popularity comes a familiarity, a confidence – Toyota and McDonald’s know what they’re doing.

And in both, you can tell that while they may constantly tweak and improve, they stick with a recipe they know that works. So, while other competitors come and go, sometimes being spicier and flashier, there’s a comfort in familiar brands. You know what you’re getting.

So, we’re always happy to taste test the latest Toyota Corolla, to see what’s new, and what continues to make Toyota’s small sedan a success.

Fancy Wrapper

If you haven’t noticed the latest Corolla introduced in 2020 is a surprisingly bold package. The front end is especially aggressive, with slim LED headlights above a massive grey sport mesh grille with black surrounds. Is this the toughest front end ever on a Corolla? We think so!

The profile makes for a sporty coupe-like sedan (a Corolla hatchback is available as well) and this model looks notably larger than the previous one, thanks in part to muscular wheel wells. Blacked-out window trim and side panels gave our tester and extra sporty look, and the 18-inch machined alloys with dark gray accents wrapped in meaty 225/40 tires give an extremely roadworthy look.

The rear looks sporty as well with LED taillights with smoked sport trim, a tasty trunk lid spoiler, pooched-out lower fascia with black accents and twin exhaust pipes poking out underneath. The finishing touch was our testers rich Barcelona Red Metallic paint, that really was an eye catcher. More than once we heard “wow, that’s a Corolla?” This little sedan turns heads.

Remodeled Interior

Like McDonald’s the Corolla interior has seen a big update. The last model was super roomy, and this one feels spacious as well. It’s also a much nicer space to spend time. 

Open the door, and the sweeping dash catches you eye. While Toyota hasn’t gone full-digital in the displays yet, there are a nice analog 8,000 rpm tachometer and fuel and temp gauges flanking a TFT display with digital speedo and other key driving information. It looks fresh, and we especially like the road sign reading technology that flashes up such useful info as speed limits and stop signs. A fat leather-wrapped wheel with paddle shifters adds a sporty touch.

We also liked our testers electric parking brake that automatically came on when we put the transmission in Park and released it when you shift out of park. It’s a little luxury, but you come to like it.

Info-tainment is handled by a massive-looking 8-inch touchscreen in the center of the dash. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard, while our tester featured optional premium audio with 9-speaker JBL sound system, Wi-Fi, Dynamic navigation and a host of concierge connected services.

Our tester also had the optional Wireless charging that is well located ahead of the shifter and out of the way.

The front sport buckets are deeply bolstered in Toyota’s SofTex (nice vinyl) and we found them supportive and really appreciated the 8-way power driver’s seat with power lumbar support – it’s easy to get comfortable. Rear seat legroom is excellent too – adults won’t mind riding in back. Trunk space is impressive with the rear seats up, and the split-folding design means bringing longer items is a snap.

It’s the quality of materials that really brings home the Corolla’s step up. Lots of nice stitching, soft-touch materials, beautifully put together, with very little hard, scratchy plastics that used to be the norm for the Corolla.

Tasty, but not Spicy

With such an exciting exterior, will you get an equally thrilling drive? Uh, no. But the Corolla is certainly not dull either. Under the hood of our XSE is a 169 horsepower, 2.0-liter four cylinder (lesser models make do with a 139-hp, 1.8-liter) which moves the little Toyota around smoothly and efficiently.

Putting the Corolla in Sport mode helps perk things up, and the CVT transmission imitates an automatic with relatively crisp shifts. It’s actually a clever design with a traditional first gear for more punch off the line, and you feel it. For performance driving, we’d go for an automatic-equipped Mazda 3, but for regular driving the CVT works well.

The suspension is a balanced performer, too, with a nice supple ride, with precise steering and good grip. It doesn’t good you into tackling twisty roads like the Honda Civic, but it is a competent and confident handler that you don’t have to apologize for.

So, it’s not a sports car, but it is an especially comfortable and easy car to drive. Great for the commute (up to 38 mpg) and roomy and relaxed enough for long drives, too.

Toyota has really been putting an emphasis on standard safety lately, and the Corolla comes with Safety Sense 2.0, which includes Pre-Collision with Pedestrian Detection, Lane Departure Alert with Steering Assist, Full-Speed Range Dynamic Cruise Control, as well as Lane Tracing Assist, Road Sign Assist, even automatic high beams. Our XSE also enjoyed standard Blind Spot Warning and Rear Cross Traffic Alert – you feel very well looked after.

Enough left over for Fries and a Drink?

Corollas have always meant value, and they are not changing that. A nicely equipped L starts at just $20,025, and we’d at least pop for the LE, which includes Automatic Climate Control, 8-inch touchscreen audio, remote keyless entry and more.

Our XSE is near the top of the Corolla menu, but even with all the goodies, and handsome exterior, starts at $25,925. Our tester had the optional premium audio and navigation ($ 1,715,) Adaptive Front Lighting ($450), add in $995 for destination, and we rang the bell at $28,845. Like the Camry and RAV4 we’ve recently tested, Toyota is putting a bit of premium on their pricing. But worth noting, the automaker is one of the few not effected by the microchip shortage, so you may find a much larger inventory at reasonable prices.

Competitors would include the Civic EX at $25,595 – a nice package, but that is for the 2021 model, and a new one is on the way. If your heart is set on a Civic, we’d wait. A Mazda 3 comparably equipped is $26,090 and a lovely blend of style and performance.

There’s a reason the Corolla is the best-selling nameplate ever – great looks, spacious, fun to drive and exceptionally well-built, it’s a trustworthy friend you can keep in the family forever!

 Now, who’s hungry?


Ben Lewis grew up in Chicago, and after spending his formative years driving sideways in the winter – often intentionally – moved to sunny Southern California. He now enjoys sunny weather year-round — whether it is autocross driving, aerobatics, and learning to surf.

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