One area where the Corolla L has more equipment than the average new vehicle is in the number of pedals.
$40,000. Give or take a few dollars, that’s what the average new car in Canada costs. But with growing economic turmoil and an increased desire for private transportation, who has $40,000 to spend on a car anymore? And more importantly, is it even possible to buy a good car for less than half that? Toyota says yes with this 2021 Toyota Corolla L.
Unsurprisingly, we’re talking about the Corolla, a car that for years has been met with resistance. Ever since it went front-wheel-drive in the eighties, it’s mostly been a conformist bowl of oatmeal. Nutritious, timeless, yet incredibly bland. From the Escort GT to the Mark IV Volkswagen Jetta to the Mazda 3, better options for stoking the soul existed. And yet our parents, in their infinite wisdom, continued to champion sentiments of “just buy the damn Corolla.” For years it was a choice of either resigning to maturity, making sacrifices for something more interesting or going bankrupt trying to maintain however much heavily-depreciated interesting claptrap a fresh-out-of-college paycheque can buy. This latest Corolla though, is very different.
It starts with the styling. Sure, the old Corolla looked a bit edgy but it really wasn’t. This new one adopts a silhouette that doesn’t look like it was drawn up when Usher was still big on top 40 radio. Beady headlamps, an angry maw, taut character lines and a full-width tail lamp bezel treatment look interesting, especially when teamed with wraparound rear glass. Sure, the addition of jowls is a bit puzzling and it’s a bit bulbous from some angles, but it’s finally a Corolla that looks modern. Our Corolla L tester rolls on steel wheels and is only available in four rather unremarkable colours but still looks sharp.
Taking a look at the Corolla L’s interior, it’s a rather comfortable and well-designed place to be. The front seats are reasonably comfortable and because everything is fairly high on the dashboard, knee room is quite good. The standard touchscreen infotainment sits perched atop the dash with digitized manual climate controls beneath. It may sound a bit techy but because Toyota is an intelligent and mature company, everything works quite normally. Both volume and tuning knobs are present, the left climate control knob controls the fan speed and the right climate control knob controls the temperature. Easy as. Another nice touch is the massive cubby ahead of the shifter that can accommodate even the most obnoxiously oversized modern phones.
As for instrumentation, the Corolla L’s gauge cluster is wonderfully traditional with an analogue speedometer in the middle, an analogue tachometer on the left and a full-colour multifunction screen on the right for fuel economy, digital speed and other driving-related information. It’s fairly easy to ascertain information from at a glance, although the vertically-oriented half-circle sweep of the tachometer often makes finding redline a slightly imprecise task. Not an issue for most drivers, but those who merge assertively may want to take note.
Despite the Corolla L’s very reasonable purchase price and stingy single-letter trim denomination, it comes with a surprising amount of standard kit. Power windows, mirrors and door locks. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, automatic LED headlamps and air conditioning. Features that would’ve been absolutely fanciful in a base-trim subcompact car just five years ago. Granted, the seats aren’t heated, but it’s difficult to have it all for under $20,000. The stereo isn’t bad either for the money, a six-speaker unit that offers good amplification, a three-band equalizer and acceptable levels of distortion.
One area where the Corolla L has more equipment than the average new vehicle is in the number of pedals. A surprisingly slick manual gearbox packing six forward gears. While it lacks the anti-stall assist and automated rev-matching found on higher models, it’s still a solid gearbox with well-defined gates, reasonably crisp shifts and a rather light clutch. The six-speed is delightful to use and well-geared for the 1.8-litre engine’s 139 horsepower and 126 lb-ft of torque. While those power figures don’t sound like a lot, Toyota’s Valvematic system ensures a broad powerband, enough to loaf around at 2,000RPM and still have some shove up top at 6,000RPM. It won’t set the world alight but it never feels excessively underpowered in everyday driving.
Throw the Corolla L into a corner and three things become immediately noticeable. First, the steering is absolutely lifeless. There is zero steering feel whatsoever which is fine for parking lots but not exactly phenomenal for any driving that approaches the dictionary definitions of “speed” and “precision.” The second thing is that the multi-link rear suspension is nuanced and refined, providing admirable grip while preventing the Corolla from feeling like a space hopper. The third is that the damping is actually quite good, offering a blend of excellent comfort and rather good handling.
The chassis does all the good hot hatch things from lift-throttle rotation to positive turn-in, a remarkable feat considering that this is merely the base model, not some hotted-up skunkworks version. If the steering wasn’t quite so vague, the Corolla would be the current handling champion of the compact car segment. There’s so much goodness baked into the powertrain and the chassis that even keen drivers will be impressed.
Fuel economy is also about as good as one would expect for a car synonymous with efficiency. The government rates the six-speed Corolla L at 7.1L/100km combined and we averaged 8.0L/100km with a definite city bias. As expected, the Corolla takes regular fuel and has a respectable 50-litre tank for decent cruising range.
So what are the Corolla L’s natural competitors? Surprisingly, not the current Honda Civic. Although a perfectly fine car that’s very fun to drive, it’s quite old and just doesn’t have the chops to dice it up with the latest in the compact sedan class. The new Nissan Sentra S is a particularly strong effort that offers more kit including heated seats and push-button start for the same money. The current Kia Forte LX is exceptionally strong value, offering most of the Corolla’s kit and the addition of heated seats for about $2,000 less. Granted, it lacks a touch of the refinement found in the Corolla or Sentra but $2,000 is a lot of money in this arena.
In conclusion, it seems that Akio Toyoda’s 2017 decree of “no more boring cars” has struck a chord in engineering even Toyota’s most accessible products. The 2021 Toyota Corolla L is more than just the safe choice, the familiar choice and the reliable choice. It’s the stylish choice, the savvy choice and the fun choice too.