Lively: 2021 Toyota Corolla

The Toyota Corolla is known for reliability and affordability. Bearing the exception of some rarely-seen past special-edition models, few Corollas could be accused of being sporty or having standout looks. The 2021 Toyota Corolla XSE bucks that trend in a number of ways while not compromising the everyday usability and dependability one has come to expect from a Corolla.

Our Corolla XSE was sprayed in the aptly-named “Blizzard Pearl,” a glittery shade of white that helped the special accents of the trim level pop. Toyota equips the XSE with 18″ machined alloy wheels with dark gray accents that really fill the wheel-wells out, shod in relatively low-profile all-season tires, and contribute heavily to a much sportier look than other trim levels. There isn’t really any brightwork as it has all been jettisoned for black and/or dark gray trim to add stealth appeal to the XSE. The mesh front grille and fascia are unique to the XSE trim, as are the sporty side sills and the thin yet present rear trunk spoiler. All XSEs have full front and rear LED lighting, with the distinctive front running lights being a particular highlight. The Corolla XSE certainly presents a sporty yet not overly aggressive image on the road, but one thing’s for sure: Corolla XSE isn’t another econobox wallflower; it has style that has been sorely lacking from most economy cars for decades. It also doesn’t have a “Fast and Furious” boyracer look, thankfully, so you can enjoy having a sporty look without the embarrassment of a huge rear wing or tacky add-ons.

Corolla XSE’s get unique seating surfaces, with Toyota’s “SofTex” (imitation leather) covering most of the seat while the inner parts of the seat feature a more grippy feeling fabric with horizontal blue bars for some style. These seats have *some* bolstering and do a decent job of holding you in around corners, but are particularly notable for their comfort. Driving over an hour in the Corolla XSE was easy thanks to the seats that seemed to become more comfortable the longer you sat in them. The interior of the Corolla XSE is replete with hard plastics and some soft surfaces, and is acceptable in this segment although not class-leading. Corolla XSE comes standard with a comprehensive suite of safety features, like a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection that brakes for you if it perceives an imminent collision, radar guided cruise-control that will speed up and slow down based on what the car ahead is doing, and lane departure alert with steering assist which steers you back into your lane if you start to drift astray. Safety was clearly at the forefront of Toyota’s engineering goals for the Corolla as 10 airbags are also standard. Our XSE had the optional 9 speaker JBL sound system with separate subwoofer. It provided relatively clear and punchy audio response and should be selected by anyone interested in an XSE. Our XSE also was equipped with a $450 package that included adaptive front lighting and interior ambient lighting, which helped to funkify the interior a bit without being obnoxious or overdone.

Past Corollas were designed to be unfailingly reliable and economical, often at the expense of driving excitement. Thankfully, the XSE ditches the standard 1.8L four-cylinder engine for a 2.0L with 168hp. While not overflowing with horsepower, the larger engine is still very economical, averaging over 32 mpg with our team of leadfoot drivers (you will most likely do even better). Where the Corolla XSE really shines, however, is around the twisty bits. Cornering in the Corolla XSE can even be fun and exciting, as the sport-tuned suspension keeps the car planted at speeds that would have most other Corollas understeering into a ditch. The CVT certainly helps the economy of the car but saps a lot of the fun from the response of the engine; we recommend the manual offered on XSE hatches as the better alternative for driving enthusiasts. The 18″ wheels with low-profile tires and sporty suspension could’ve been a recipe for a choppy ride, but the XSE thankfully avoids this and instead manages to soak up all but the largest road imperfections with aplomb. Having driven many past generations of the Corolla, my expectations for the handling ability of the XSE were admittedly not very high, but I was left pleasantly surprised by the very-good ride and handling balance Toyota has tuned with this package. Your morning commute no longer needs to feel like a snore with Corolla XSE; hit the backroads, throw it into some corners and I’ve no doubt that you’ll be grinning at what the XSE can do.

Though Corollas of yore haven’t been the sportiest of the class, do not let that cloud your judgment of the new Corolla XSE. Anyone seeking reliable and dependable transportation that doesn’t leave them needing a few extra Prozac should definitely check out the Corolla XSE. With its abundance of safety features and tech equipment, its excellent MPG and standout styling and surprisingly capable handling, the Corolla XSE impresses and entertains.

-Ken Wilson

2021 Toyota Corolla XSE$25,975
XLE/XSE Connectivity Package with options$2,165
Destination Charges$1,025
As-Tested MSRP$29,165

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