As the single best-selling nameplate in the world, the 2021 Toyota Corolla SE Apex Edition should not normally need an introduction, but for this week’s car review at Daddy’s Digest, let’s refresh your memory. In the 1980s, Toyota had the GT-APEX: a rear-wheel drive, two-door, sporty version of the Corolla, which was the model known by car enthusiasts as the legendary AE86. Today, it’s not exactly that, but it’s still a sportier version of the existing Corolla.
This Apex Edition builds on the middle trim level of Toyota’s bread-and-butter sedan and adds a more aggressive body kit, a spoiler, lightweight flow-formed 18-inch alloy wheels, and a performance-tuned suspension. It’s front-wheel drive, and built upon Toyota’s New Global Architecture (TNGA) platform that underpins most of their current products, small and large. However, it doesn’t get any changes to the powertrain, meaning that a 2.0-litre inline-four making 169 horsepower and 151 lb-ft of torque is the same as the regular SE.
For pretty much the last thirty years, with some exceptions here and there, the Corolla has been a beige on beige compact car that’s been devoid of any kind of personality. The notion that it’s a boring, reliable, hassle-free appliance is seared into the back of the minds of many consumers and automotive journalists out there, and it will take some time for people to forget that – old habits die hard, as they say.
Within my own friends in the car enthusiast and auto-scribe communities, I’m known to be something of a die-hard fan of the current Corolla ever since it came out for the 2020 model year. With a new extra-rigid structure and a move to a more performance-oriented suspension design in the rear, it took me an experience on a racetrack with one to realize what it could do: the new Corolla was back in a good way. The Apex Edition turns it up an extra notch, which plenty of grip and amusement for those who like to have fun on anything but straight roads.
For spirited driving, the steering is extra precise, and there’s very little lean from side to side when pushing the Corolla to its limits. The weight of the steering isn’t quite as good as say, the Mazda3, but the Toyota’s confidence was hard to beat when hustling in and out of corners, and gets a bit more communicative through the wheel when equipped with the Apex Edition’s dedicated summer tires. One main downside is a pretty stiff ride, which may be too much for most motorists looking for a daily vehicle. Ideally, the Apex Edition is made for those who don’t mind upgraded performance suspensions; the good news is that the regular SE still packs in plenty of driving enjoyment, but is a lot more comfortable.
They often say that driving a slow car fast is more fun than driving a fast car slowly, and the Corolla SE definitely complies with this adage. There’s just enough power for daily driving, and the engine does enjoy revving out to a 6,800RPM redline – higher than one might expect for what has traditionally been a numb appliance. Both a six-speed manual or continuously variable automatic (CVT) transmission are available on both non-Apex and Apex trims, and the Toyota Canada test car was equipped with the do-it-yourself option. The six-speed features the “iMT” Intelligent Manual Transmission, which allows for automatic rev-matching in between gear shifts – it essentially makes even rookie manual drivers look like professionals in terms of smoothness.
As a smaller car, the Corolla sedan is still plenty practical for daily family use with one or two children, despite its compact size. Rear-facing car seats fit without incident with easily accessible ISOFIX/LATCH anchors, although it should be noted that the rear headrests are non-removable. There’s a lot more space than the hatchback version of the Corolla behind the front row, which is important when it comes to fitting car seats and strollers. Compared to many compact crossovers, the Corolla sedan’s trunk has similar, if not more length, combined with a decent width for cargo. While you lose height for carrying larger items, the length and width are essential when it comes to fitting folded strollers on a daily basis.
Design and function-wise, the interior of the Apex Edition doesn’t differ from that of the regular SE Corolla. The seats are a cheap-and-cheerful grey cloth, and while the cabin is very well put together, some of the plastic materials feel somewhat low grade. Other features include front heated seats, single-zone automatic climate control, Android Auto (new for 2021) and Apple CarPlay smartphone integration through an 8-inch touch screen interface, satellite radio, wireless phone charging, a power moonroof, and a windshield wiper de-icer. For the sake of safety, today’s current crop of autonomous features (automatic forward-collision braking, rear cross-traffic alerts, lane-keeping assist, blind-spot monitoring, and adaptive cruise control, among other things) is all standard.
At $27,440 Canadian before taxes and fees/surcharges, the 2021 Toyota Corolla SE Apex Edition may not measure up to many of the properly powerful sport compact cars out there, but competitors like the Honda Civic Si and Volkswagen GTI cost many thousands more. The Hyundai Elantra N Line is the closest to the Apex Edition, but doesn’t offer a manual transmission, in case buyers were looking for one. Those who pan the Corolla lineup’s handling performance likely haven’t pushed the car to get a real feel for it, and may need some more time to realize that it’s not the same as its predecessors in recent history. For buyers looking for a bit of zip while staying budget-conscious, the SE range of Corolla deserves a real good look.
Jerry Vo cut his teeth in writing as an automotive journalist and is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC). Having reviewed cars since 2015, he takes pride in providing relevant and technically savvy consumer advice, and is extending that over into reviews in various other categories at Daddy's Digest. He is a proud dad of one and is letting the wonderful journey of parenthood teach him new things every day.