2020 Corolla XSE BlackSandPearl 004 3E6D2E8B99DCB7C30DC549A3770B187C24C7C724

2021 Toyota Corolla XSE Review: A Sporty & Affordable Daily Driver

2021 Toyota Corolla
2021 Toyota Corolla XSE
In Our Opinion:
We have driven and evaluated the Toyota Corolla a number of times over the years, but this most recent redesign is our favorite. Styling-wise, the XSE is hard to beat, but there are six other trim levels (plus a hybrid model) to pick from. Across the lineup, ride quality improves with new suspension and chassis modifications, and there are plenty of connectivity and safety features. When it comes to an efficient daily commuter, the 2021 Toyota Corolla is a solid choice.
Exterior Styling
Interior Layout
Driving Dynamics
Safety & Tech Features
Everyday Functionality
Ride Quality
Stylish & Sporty
Modern Interior
CVT Feel
Trunk Space
Some Road Noise

The 2021 Toyota Corolla benefits from a much-needed redesign, making it more competitive in the already strong compact sedan class. The Corolla has plenty of rivals, like the Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, and the Mazda 3 just to name a few. Each one is affordable for shoppers who want to stick to their budget. So how does the new Corolla measure up?

This week, we drove the 2021 Toyota Corolla XSE to find out.

Toyota Corolla: What’s New For 2021?

Now in its 12th generation, the Corolla gained new styling upgrades last year and a new Apex Edition this year. The Apex Edition is offered with an upgraded suspension, lower ride height, and summer performance tires for driving enthusiasts. The 2021 Toyota Corolla is also offered as a hatchback and as a hybrid.

The Toyota Corolla gets standard Android Auto compatibility, new rear-seat side airbags for the sedan, and an automatic engine stop-start feature.

2021 Toyota Corolla.
The 2021 Toyota Corolla has slimmer A-pillars to help with visibility.

2021 Toyota Corolla XSE: Features & Options

The 2021 Toyota Corolla XSE comes standard with LED headlights, automatic high beams, a rearview camera, and 60/40 split-folding rear seats. The XSE includes a Wi-Fi hotspot, seven-inch touchscreen (our tester had an upgraded eight-inch screen with navigation), a USB port, and a six-speaker sound system. Joining the standard Android Auto is Apple CarPlay and Bluetooth connectivity. The newly-redesigned Corolla also has Toyota’s Safety Connect emergency communications suite. 

The top-trim XSE also comes with upgraded headlights, sporty exterior treatments, power-adjustable and heated front seats, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. Our tester also had satellite radio and the optional blind-spot monitor. Other advanced safety features included forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, lane-keeping assist, adaptive cruise control, and a traffic sign reader.

What Does The 2021 Toyota Corolla Cost?

Total MSRP, including destination, for our test Corolla XSE: $29,269. By comparison, the 2021 Toyota Corolla sedan starts at $19,825. The Hybrid sedan begins at $23,400. As for the Corolla Hatchback, that starts at $20,465 (it is not available as a hybrid).

If you are considering a new Toyota Corolla, this free and easy search tool* will help you find the best price. Depending on local incentives and inventory in your area, you may be able to purchase well below MSRP. 

The 2020 Toyota Corolla XSE comes standard with Entune 3.0 Audio Plus.
The 2021 Toyota Corolla XSE comes standard with Entune 3.0 Audio Plus.

Interior Highlights: Sleek & Sounds Good

The first we noticed was the eight-inch infotainment touchscreen that sits prominently on the dash for easy access. The top-trim XSE gets a more luxurious interior with Sport Softex seats that feature contrast stitching. Material quality inside the Corolla was upgraded with the 2020 model year redesign. There are more soft-touch surfaces and fewer hard plastics throughout the cabin. The cabin looks modern, especially in the XSE, with a clean layered dash in dark and light contrasting colors.

You’ll be able to stay connected with Apple CarPlay and new standard Android Auto compatibility that’s just been added for 2021. The upgraded JBL premium system gets nine speakers, including a subwoofer and an amplifier. It sounded superb and was one of the upgraded features we enjoyed most about the Corolla XSE this week.

Interior Highlights: Cargo Space

The XSE’s front seats are comfortable and will keep you secure for more spirited driving. You’ll like the smart key system with push-button start and the power/tilt moonroof. The back seat is big enough to carry your friends, and if you need to carry extra cargo, the back seats fold down. The 2021 Toyota Corolla sedan comes with 13 cubic feet of trunk space, which is a bit below average in this segment.

2021 Toyota Corolla XSE interior layout.
2021 Toyota Corolla XSE interior layout.

Engine & Fuel Mileage Specs

The 2021 Toyota Corolla XSE is powered by a 2.0-liter engine producing 169 horsepower and 151 lb-ft. of torque. Toyota says the engine is smaller and lighter, helping to lower the Corolla’s center of gravity while improving fuel economy. It comes mated to a specialized CVT automatic (Dynamic-Shift CVT) with steering wheel paddle shifters and a Sport mode. Toyota describes the CVT as having “10-speed Sequential Shiftmatic steps.”

Some models are eligible for a six-speed manual transmission with downshift rev-matching control but you will sacrifice about two mpg in fuel mileage. EPA fuel mileage estimates come in at 31/38 city/highway and 34 combined mpg with the automatic transmission.

On The Road With The 2021 Toyota Corolla XSE

In December of 2018, Toyota announced a revised suspension setup for the new Corolla. On our drive this week, we could tell the difference between this new Corolla and prior generations. The new MacPherson strut front suspension and multi-link rear suspension improve the Corolla’s ride quality, despite some road noise. Even though it’s not a sports car, the new Corolla is fun to drive, and it’s a competent urban commuter.

We also like the CVT over the six-speed manual. Although we are driving enthusiasts and would opt for a manual in any other case, a CVT is better for a car like the Corolla. If you live in a congested urban area, it’s no fun to drive a manual in stop-and-go traffic. The Corolla uses a physical first gear to get moving, then shifts to the CVT to maintain the car’s momentum.

We did use the paddle shifters that allow the selection of the aforementioned 10 simulated speeds. Overall, the transmission reacts quickly, but there’s a distinct pause with each flip of the paddle shifters. We would prefer to simply leave it alone and let the CVT “shift” itself.

2021 Toyota Corolla XSE.
2021 Toyota Corolla XSE.

Conclusion: A Good Choice All-Around

At the top-of-the-lineup, the 2021 Toyota Corolla XSE offers plenty of extras for the money. If you don’t need the extras, a well-equipped but still sporty SE can be had for a few thousand less ($22,275 starting MSRP). The Corolla still comes with Toyota’s reputation for reliability, and for the average consumer, that’s a hard trait to beat. It comes with a long list of safety and tech features, improved styling, and even offers a comfortable ride.

Denis Flierl has invested over 25 years in the automotive industry in a variety of roles. All of his firsthand reviews are archived on our test drives page. Follow Denis on Twitter: @CarReviewGuy

2021 Toyota Corolla XSE Gallery

Photos: Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc.

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