2021 Toyota Corolla Apex Edition Review: Halfway There

We’ve always wanted a “hot” Corolla. Have our prayers finally been answered?

The term hot hatch was coined in the eighties for small regular cars that could go on regular grocery runs and yet set your pulse racing on a mountain road. But the 2021 Toyota Corolla Apex Edition is neither a hatch nor is it hot. It is a step below the aforementioned moniker and falls in the “warm” category. That is mainly because it makes no extra power compared to the regular Corolla. But horsepower isn’t everything and we’ve wanted a hotter Corolla since, forever.

Even the regular version of the world’s best-selling car is rather good to drive. With a decent chassis paired with an adequately powered engine, a manual gearbox, and a stiffer suspension setup, the Apex Edition seems like a promising package, at least on paper. While it might not be a Golf GTi rival, this warm little Corolla special edition attempts to add a bit of much-needed mischief to an otherwise serious car. 

What’s New?

Toyota introduced the Apex Edition for the 2021 model year as a special model. The Japanese automaker announced that it will only produce 6,000 units, of which only 120 would be manuals, like the one we have here. As the name Apex suggests, this Corolla is geared towards attacking corners and setting track times alight, at least in theory. It sits 0.6 inches (15 mm) lower to the ground than a regular Corolla and comes with stiffer shocks, a more rigid stabilizer bar, and increased spring rates. Also, the six-speed manual gearbox features rev-matching and you get a sportier exhaust as well for better sonics. 

Compared to the regular Corolla, the Apex Edition looks quite distinct. It sports a new body kit with a blacked-out front grille and faux air intakes. Bronze accents at the front and rear complement the blacked-out treatment rather well. The rear spoiler could have been done without but it adds a layer to the overall sporty aesthetic of the Apex Edition. The manual version is priced at $26,555 ($29,130 CAD) including destination and is only available with the SE trim while the XSE trim is only available with the CVT gearbox and starts at $29,305 including destination. A CVT version of the SE trim is also available and starts from $26,165 including destination.

Has it Transformed?

Oh yes, and quite dramatically so. It might only make 169 hp from its 2.0-liter four-pot naturally aspirated engine but it feels engaging to drive thanks to its six-speed manual and auto rev-matching. But its party piece as we mentioned earlier is the re-tuned suspension. The stiffer setup coupled with aggressive low-profile tires give the Corolla tremendous levels of corner stability and grip. It feels unfazed no matter how hard you push it into a corner. 

You can take on-ramps at 50 mph (80 kph) and the Apex would simply smile and comply. Tight hairpins and switchbacks also pose a little challenge for the grey Toyota. There is little feedback from the steering and it feels too light for a sporty drive but it in no way dampens the fun you have in the corners. The Corolla Apex Edition also feels planted on the highway regardless of the speeds you might be doing. Little to nothing upsets the rigid stance of the Corolla. It, however, comes at a rather steep price. 

In the city, the Apex feels wooden and uncompromising. The suspension setup is too stiff for a city car like the Corolla. Even the small bumps transfer directly to your spine while the bigger undulations are especially jarring. I remember transporting a rally car some years ago, driving the Apex is the closest I’ve come to reliving that experience. Then there is the disparity between the suspension and the way the powertrain is set up. 

What do You Mean?

As I mentioned before, the Corolla Apex Edition makes only 169 hp from its 2.0-liter four-cylinder. And despite making just 151 lb-ft of peak torque, its mid-range is quite strong. But the throttle mapping and pedal placement are the same as the regular Corolla. So, while, you get a strong mid-range, the throttle response feels a bit delayed, and quick prods of the right foot mostly yield nothing. Responsiveness only improves if you’re constantly pushing the engine and maintaining revs over 3,500 rpm. The engine also suffers from rev hang. 

SEE ALSO: Toyota Corolla vs Hyundai Elantra Comparison

Then there are the pedals. The brake and throttle pedals are too far apart to heel and toe effectively. But even if they were closer together, the almost-lazy throttle map would render it ineffective anyway. So auto rev-matching is the best–even if only a relatively effective– solution. The only saving graces are the light clutch pedal with its consistent bite point and a sonorous and sporty soundtrack. The gearbox too could benefit from shorter throws. Bottom line, while the suspension is quite aggressive, the rest of the setup is just not. 

The Dwellings 

In typical Corolla fashion, the layout of the cabin is simple and unassuming but just distinct enough to set the Apex apart from the regular Corollas. You get soft-touch material on the dash, though it doesn’t appear to be so at first glance. Despite the tri-tone treatment, the dash doesn’t look overdone. There is also a generous helping of piano black trim on the center console and on the dash around the climate control panel. And while it looks premium it is a dust magnet and required constant cleaning. 

The seats, especially the front perches are very comfortable and supportive. You get adequate under-thigh support–something not all cars in the segment provide–and side bolstering as well. While it’s adequately spacious, one of its chief rivals, the Hyundai Elantra feels roomier. At the rear, the bench too is adequately comfortable though taller passengers might feel the need for more legroom. Also, you can only seat two adults at the back as the rear of the car is quite narrow compared to the competition and seating three will certainly be a squeeze. 

Infotainment duties fall on the shoulders of the Entune system that graces the dashboard of every Toyota in production. And the story is no different here. You are better off using phone projection for navigation and listening to music. The instrument cluster too is mostly analog but being a manual, the analog tacho is actually welcome. 

There is no USB-C slot here, something that has become more of a necessity these days. Plus, the USB slot to hook up your phone is on the underside of the glovebox and hence tricky to locate especially at night. 

Verdict: 2021 Toyota Corolla Apex Edition Review 

The Toyota Corolla Apex has the suspension setup nailed down for a corner carver but unfortunately, it’s let down by the rest of the setup. It feels more like a work in progress than a finished product. Yes, the suspension is too stiff to be a comfortable daily driver, but a more aggressive throttle map, a short-throw shifter, and a better pedal placement would have made the package more hardcore but also more complete and one definitely worth considering.

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