2021 Toyota Corolla L Review: Honest Work

It’s rare for a base model to show up on a manufacturer’s press fleet.

The reasons are two-fold. For starters, base models are rarely the volume leaders these days. Secondly, if a brand is going to put a rarer trim on the fleet, it’s going to go with the top ones. That’s where the sought-after, extra profit options are, after all.

Imagine my surprise, then, when Toyota dropped a completely base Corolla L onto its fleet. No options here—not even the continuously-variable transmission (CVT). The six-speed stick L is a Canadian-market special; thank Quebec, which skews more manual-friendly than the rest of us uncultured Canucks.

For barely over $20 grand, you get a brand new, fully warrantied car with room for five and today’s expected safety and convenience standards. The Corolla L is a straight-forward, honest sort of car … and, occasionally, just a bit of work.

(Not so) bare necessities

Today’s base model Corolla is a far cry from the stripped-out models of yore. Standard equipment on this Celestite-colored tester includes 10 airbags, LED headlights, power-adjustable heated exterior mirrors, four-wheel disc brakes, and a 7.0-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility. The six-speaker sound system is honestly pretty solid, too.

SEE ALSO: 2020 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid Review: The Dependable One

More importantly, the L includes Toyota Safety Sense 2.0. The suite of driver assists includes automated emergency braking with pedestrian and cyclist detection, auto high beams, lane departure alert, and dynamic cruise control. There are cars costing three times the Corolla’s sticker that keep these things on the options list.

The Corolla includes the government-mandated backup camera as well. You won’t find any fancy dynamic guidelines here, but the large windows do make it easy to see out of. That also means the absence of blind-spot monitoring doesn’t sting too much, though I wouldn’t fault Toyota for offering it as an option on the L.

Toyota won’t sell you a Corolla L in practical hatchback form, but the sedan’s trunk will still easily swallow two weeks’ worth of groceries. That’s 13.1 cubic feet, or 371 liters up in Canada. You won’t want to fill it to the brim though; the swan-neck hinges will crush anything they come into contact with.

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All-business interior

Drop into the cloth driver’s seat and you’ll find a decently comfortable perch, with full manual adjustment. The view ahead is uncluttered: clear, legible white-on-black gauges behind a simple, urethane steering wheel. Tilt and telescoping adjustments for the latter means the Corolla works for a wide range of drivers.

SEE ALSO: 2020 Honda Civic vs 2020 Toyota Corolla Comparison

All of the main controls are easily within reach, housed near the 7.0-inch central touchscreen. We’ve dinged other Toyotas for the workmanlike nature of Entune, but here, it feels oddly appropriate. It lacks the pizazz of the new Hyundai Elantra’s system though, as well as that car’s wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. You’ll need the cord here, and it connects to the one USB port, hidden on the underside of the dash. That does highlight the lack of useful storage space in the center of the interior, too.

The dash design is either basic or minimalist, depending on how generous you’re feeling. It does lend the interior a sense of airiness, though. Are the plastics all pleasantly soft to the touch in here? Some are. But the rest don’t feel like ruthless penny pinching, even given the modest price tag. You’ll find similar quality in the base-model Elantra and Nissan Sentra. The Hyundai has a more cockpit-like design, while the Nissan’s is sportier thanks to its round aircon vents.

You can fit two average-sized adults in the back of the Corolla L without issue. Three is a taller order, needing a shorter friend due to the raised middle section of the bench.

The magic of sidewalls

With Toyota’s TNGA platform underpinning it, even the lowly L has a multi-link rear suspension setup. The upgrade from the last model’s torsion beam rear-end pays off with a smoother, more mature ride in the city and on the highway. The L also has a secret weapon: those tiny 195/65 donuts residing at all for corners. What these tires give up in aesthetics, they make up for with glorious, squidgy sidewalls.

The sidewalls protect occupants from the worst the road can throw at the Corolla, giving every drive a soft edge. That subtlety carries over to the handling, too. The Corolla leans through corners, and at higher speeds the thick rubber gives the light steering a hint of fuzziness. That’s fine: the L is a commuter special, and the smoother ride makes it better for the job.

SEE ALSO: 2021 Hyundai Elantra Review: First Drive

Under the hood of the L is a 1.8-liter four-cylinder. This smaller unit is an older design than the 2.0-liter found in the rest of the lineup. It produces 139 hp and 126 lb-ft of torque—slightly less than the rest of the class, so the six-speed manual is going to see more stirring than a Lil B concert.

On the plus side, the stick affords the driver more control over exactly how many ponies are pulling. That’s great in short bursts, or during long stints on the highway. Get caught in trundling traffic though, or find a whiff of a gradient, and the Corolla will need to shed a gear or three. Fifth and sixth are essentially the same on the highway, and even fourth is too tall for overtakes. The clutch pedal’s bite point is a little vague and late in its travel, making it more work than anything else.

It’s important to note the CVT lacks the handy physical first gear found on 2.0/CVT Corollas. It’s not any more economical either: it averages the same 33 mpg (7.1 L/100 km) as the six-speed, being slightly better in the city, and worse on the highway. Our week together in mid-February netted an average of 31.8 mpg (7.4 L/100 km).

Verdict: 2021 Toyota Corolla L Review

The 2021 Corolla L rides well, it’s easy on the wallet and the pumps, and it comes from a long line of insanely reliable cars. About the only thing I’d argue it lacks is heated seats, and that’s only because I drove it in the dead of winter. Both the base Elantra and Sentra have them in Canada. The other cars include blind spot warning and rear cross-traffic alert too, but only the Sentra does so on both transmissions.

The Corolla L will run you $21,020 on either side of the border, including destination. In America, that nets the CVT; Canadians get the six-speed tested here (the CVT is an $1,800 option). That’s a reasonable amount for a reminder that modern cars needn’t be over-complicated. 

Just be prepared to work that six-speed quite a bit.

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