Although it can’t keep pace with the best compact sedans, the new Toyota Corolla is a big improvement over its predecessor. Along with stronger handling, it benefits from a more potent engine option and a streamlined interior. The Corolla Hybrid we recently tested is a true standout delivering stellar fuel economy. Now, here to shake things up again is the 2021 Toyota Corolla Apex Edition, promising an affordable sport sedan experience. But, does it deliver? Well, not quite in the way we were hoping.
The Apex Edition is more than just a style package. The sedan receives a unique track-tuned suspension. In addition to new springs that lower the car by 0.6 inch, the car features new shocks, bump stops, and more rigid anti-roll bars that are meant to improve its agility. Thanks to all the updates, the suspension is 47 percent stiffer in the front and 33 percent stiffer in the rear.
Unfortunately, these enhancements don’t come with any increase in power. The 2021 Toyota Corolla Apex makes the same 169 hp and 151 lb-ft of torque from its 2.0-liter four-cylinder as other Corollas. Fuel economy suffers slightly compared to regular Corollas with this engine, dropping 1 mpg in combined driving no matter whether you opt for the six-speed manual or CVT automatic.
One attractive thing about the car is that it escapes the ubiquity of its Corolla peers. Toyota is offering 6,000 copies of the Apex Edition for 2021, and buyers can choose between SE and XSE trim levels. Our test car had the CVT and the top-of-the-line XSE trim. We should note that it was technically a pre-production model, although Toyota assured us there are no major differences between it and the full-production model.
Despite its sporty intentions, the Apex Edition is actually slower than some other Corollas we’ve tested. It took 8.8 seconds to hit 60 mph from a standstill, while a regular Corolla XSE sedan hit the mark in just 8.2 seconds. The Mazda3 and the turbocharged Honda Civic were quicker than both Corollas, zipping to 60 mph in 7.0 seconds and 6.8 seconds, respectively. Our real-world driving experience confirms the Corolla Apex’s mediocre acceleration. Although it drives away smoothly from a stop, we didn’t outgun too many cars merging onto the freeway.
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The sedan performed better in our braking test. From 60-0 mph, the Corolla Apex stopped in a respectable 115 feet. Compare that to 112 feet for the Mazda3 and 113 feet for the Civic. Road test editor Chris Walton noted little dive and a somewhat firm pedal feel from the Corolla. Honda and Mazda beat the Corolla in the figure-eight test, too. The Apex rounded the bends in 27.5 seconds at an average 0.60 g, while the Civic made it in 26.6 seconds at 0.66 g. The Mazda3 was a negligible 0.1 second slower than the Civic.
“Well, I don’t get this car,” testing director Kim Reynolds said. “I can hardly tell what’s more ‘sporting’ about this.” In the figure-eight, he notes, stability control was turned off but still interceded during cornering. And this happened at inopportune moments—at the end of the corner when you’re about to accelerate.
“It feels soft. Brakes are no better than ordinary. The manual shifting seems to have nothing to do with its actual shifting—it does whatever it wants,” Reynolds concluded.
Drivers will likely be disappointed off the track, too. Although the steering wheel feels heavier than on the Corolla Hybrid we recently tested, the Apex still suffers from vague steering. But that’s far from its biggest flaw. Its brutal ride makes us question whether this is a suitable daily driver. On the highway, I was often bouncing up and down in my seat. Startled at times by the ride, I would lose my breath for a moment every so often passing over a road imperfection that other cars could handle with aplomb. Even on smooth suburban roads, the sedan finds a way to jitter. Marring the experience further is the substantial road and wind noise while driving at speed. One point of praise: The low-set windshield and unobtrusive pillars make for excellent forward visibility.
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When the vehicle is not in motion, the interior is a nice place to spend time. You could argue that the cheap plastics don’t quite match up to car’s nearly $30,000 price tag. On the other hand, the little Toyota offers lots of features for the money. The Apex XSE trim includes comfortable faux leather seats heated for the driver and front passenger and an 8-inch touchscreen that is nothing fancy but has logical menus and supports both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. Other goodies include front and rear USB ports, 60/40 split folding rear seats, and Toyota’s full suite of active and passive safety features. Including its optional $375 black rear spoiler, our Apex rang out to $29,580.
2021 Toyota Corolla Apex Trim Level Prices
SE (CVT): $26,065
SE (six-speed manual): $26,455
XSE (CVT): $29,205
Black rear aero spoiler: $375
Summer performance tires: No cost option
We’d love to test out the manual transmission, but even if it proves more engaging than the CVT, we’re not convinced this is the affordable sport sedan of our dreams. Its performance credentials are unimpressive, and they certainly don’t warrant such a punishing ride. And, other than the slick wheels, there’s not much to entice us in the way of styling. We’d rather hit the pavement in any number of rivals, especially when a Honda Civic Si can be had for $3,000 less.
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