Toyota Corollas, like toasters, live in appliance anonymity – mostly invisible until needed.
Put the humble Corolla in a line of vehicles in traffic and it has no more distinction than a comma.
Until now. Some wild-eyed designer, probably from California, apparently took the 2021 Corolla SE out carousing and twerking – whatever in blazes that is.
Low and lean now, with taut sides and a sleek top, the hatchback SE actually looks pretty appealing in an international way. It kind of makes me wonder what my toaster might be cooking up.
As you may recall, Toyota Corollas have long been solid entry-level or basic-transportation compacts, offering good value, great reliability and commendable fuel economy, but they tended to be about as exciting as licking stamps.
With compact-car sales fading fast as buyers move to crossovers, Toyota had to give the Corolla more than just its good name.
The silver Corolla SE Nightshade Edition I had recently would have been a fairly handsome hatchback if not for its hideous Toyota grille, a gaping blacked-out maw apparently inspired by a vicious prehistoric fish.
Ignore the deep-sea grille and focus on the headlights -- two slender lamps that slid rakishly back into the fenders and were joined by a thin black band above the grille.
Really short overhangs front and rear also fueled the Corolla’s sporty presence, as did strong sides carved only by a sloping line above the door-handle and a shorter line up high that formed a shoulder above the rear fender.
Sadly, those fine lines settled on prosaic black 18-inch wheels wrapped with 225/40 tires. If you like that sort of thing, the Nightshade Edition offers the boring black wheels as well as black trim on the body.
Still, with the exception of an overly busy rear hatch – topped by a laughable spoiler on the hatch -- the new Corolla displays admirable restraint once you get past the front grille.
Even the compact hatchback’s 2-liter four-cylinder engine does more than crank out excellent fuel economy – sort of. (The new Corolla, incidentally, averages 35 miles per gallon.)
The optional 169-horsepower engine, bolted to a continuously variable transmission, steps away from stops vigorously, allowing the Corolla to cruise with ease at 40 or 50 mph.
Meanwhile, the belt-and-pulley CVT even managed to fake a shift or two in moderate driving.
However, the 3,000-pound sedan still can’t match the speedier compacts in the segment in acceleration, requiring 8 seconds to reach 60 miles per hour, according to Car and Driver.
Although that is adequate for merging with city traffic, the engine and CVT feel a bit labored in the higher ranges, which can get tiresome.
More impressive was the Corolla’s New Global Architecture, as Toyota calls it, the stiff new platform to which the body is welded.
It permits more precise suspension settings, improving the front-wheel-drive sedan’s ride and handling.
Consequently, the Corolla felt agile and eager turning into corners at moderate speeds, and absorbed bumps and rough roads fluidly – especially for a $23,000 car.
Likewise, though hardly sporting, the Corolla’s steering was light and quick, contributing to the little hatchback’s flingable feel.
Moreover, complementing the contemporary exterior was an interior that didn’t offer much high-end material, but was well executed.
The black interior in my mid-level SE model, for example, featured a flat upper dashboard that eased down onto a swoopy mid-dash dominated by an 8-inch tablet-shaped touchscreen.
In a move that almost made me excuse the boy-racer spoiler clinging to the top of the hatchback, Toyota wisely offered knobs and buttons for audio and climate controls.
Though the Corolla’s hard-black plastic door-panels reminded me that I was driving an inexpensive compact, Toyota did give the car a nice black headliner and piano-black plastic trim on the console and armrests.
Likewise, while the Corolla’s black cloth seats with patterned centers felt comfortable, they didn’t offer a lot of lateral support, and the back seat provided limited leg- and head-room.
The interior never felt like some sort of penalty box – the kind of interior one common to compact sedans.
My Corolla Nightshade Edition did not arrive with any options, adding to the car’s high-value feel. Toyota obviously knows how to offer value in its sedans and is slowly – sometimes painfully – learning styling.
That sort of specialty status may be the only way automakers can attract crossover-crazed buyers to the compact-sedan segment.
2021 Toyota Corolla SE Nightshade Edition
- What I liked most: The Corolla’s moves to be more than some blandly reliable bargain-basement compact.
- What I would change: Now that the Corolla has a good foundation and decent suspension, Toyota needs to give it a competitive optional engine and transmission.
- MSRP: Base price, $22,465; as equipped, $23,420
- Fuel economy: 32 miles per gallon in town, 41 on the highway and 35 mpg combined with filler on the left
- Odometer reading when tested: 3,624 miles
- Official Color: Classic Silver Metallic
- Spare tire: Temporary compact
- Weight: Approximately 3,000 pounds
- Length-width-height: 182.3 inches long/70.1 inches wide/56.5 inches tall
- Fuel-tank capacity: 13.2 gallons
- Towing capacity: 1,500 pounds
- 2021 Toyota Corolla in a few words: A significant step forward for the Corolla, but it needs more to be competitive at the top of the compact segment.
- Warranty: Three-year, 36,000-mile overall coverage and five-year, 60,000-mile powertrain protection.
- Final assembly location: Aichi, Japan
- Manufacturer’s website: www.toyota.com
- E-mail me at email@example.com
- Up next: 2021 AMG GLE 53 Coupe