2021 Toyota Corolla Apex Edition First Drive Review: The Sharpest Corolla Yet

First Drive / Comments

But is it what buyers want?

The 2021 Toyota Corolla arrives with minimal updates over the 2020 model, but a new Apex Edition model looks to give enthusiast buyers something to covet. Limited to just 6,000 units, the Apex Edition comes with a slew of suspension and tuning upgrades, making it the sportiest option in the Corolla family. The car gets its name from the apex of a corner, the mid-point that is often targeted as the quickest way to get around a bend.

We already thought that the current generation Corolla feels surprisingly fun to drive, so how could we object to a Corolla with a sportier suspension, retuned steering, and a cat-back exhaust? Toyota sent us the Apex Edition to test for a few days, sporting the rarified six-speed manual transmission option. We quickly realized that this car wasn't what we expected; it's missing something.

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Exterior Design: Sportier Than Ever

Toyota's been on a roll lately with its specialty models, creating limited editions that look the part. You can order the Corolla Apex in one of three colors, an Apex-exclusive shade called Cement, Super White (both of which come with a black roof), or Black Sand Pearl, like our tester. No matter which color you choose, the body kit, mirror caps, and 18-inch flow-formed cast wheels all come in black. Instead of red like the TRD models, the Apex Edition features bronze accents on its body kit, giving this car a unique look. For an added bit of aggression, a rear spoiler is available.

Especially in Black Sand Pearl, we will give Toyota the styling win here. The current Corolla sedan is already an attractive car, but the black and bronze accents of the Apex Edition help it stand out as a cooler option.

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Engine, Performance, & MPG: All In The Handling

As with the TRD Camry and Avalon models, the Corolla Apex receives a slew of handling upgrades. Unfortunately, all of these changes come without any power increase. The 2.0-liter four-cylinder still produces 169 horsepower and 151 lb-ft of torque, resulting in the same lackluster 0-60 mph time of around eight seconds. Nearly all Apex Editions will come equipped with a continuously variable transmission, which seems like an odd move for a performance-oriented special edition. Only 120 of the 6,000 will ship with a six-speed manual, possibly making them a future collector's item.

The Apex Edition is rated at 28/35/31 mpg city/highway/combined with the six-speed manual, which is one mpg worse than a regular Corolla. The CVT-equipped model fares similarly at 30/38/33 mpg.

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Driving Impressions: Right Direction, Wrong Audience

The track-tuned suspension sits 0.6 inches lower than a standard Corolla thanks to coil springs with an increased spring rate. Toyota also tuned the shocks to provide increased damping force and added solid stabilizer bars. It also installed jounce bumpers, like those used on the TRD Pro models, to supposedly ensure the Apex Edition doesn't ride too harshly. These changes result in a Corolla that is now 47% stiffer in the front and 33% stiffer in the rear.

Compared with previous-generation Corolla models, this current generation is a delight to drive. With the Apex Edition, it gets even better. Toyota gave the Apex Edition a unique steering tune, which feels sharper and more alert on center. Those suspension upgrades limit body roll, too, so you can take advantage of the quick steering by chucking the Apex Edition into corners.

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It's no sports car, but it certainly feels on the level of vehicles like the Honda Civic Si and Volkswagen Jetta GLI - at a cost. Remember the jounce bumpers that are supposed to make this car comfortable? Well, they clearly don't work because the Apex Edition bounces off bumps like a toddler on a caffeine binge.

It all sounds reasonably enjoyable, but then you look down at the speedometer and realize you aren't going very fast. We are all on board with the "slow car fast" philosophy, but this chassis cries out for more power. The engine doesn't start to feel alive until high in the rev range, but it builds revs at an alarmingly slow rate. Older performance Corolla models like the XRS used a high-revving four-cylinder that later powered the Lotus Elise, but with no such upgrade to be found here, the performance feels like a letdown. You do at least get a throaty engine note from the cat-back exhaust, which sounds pretty good from inside the cabin and outside.

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Interior & Trunk: Familiar Corolla

Inside, the Apex Edition doesn't stray too far from the traditional Corolla formula. The SE model (pictured here) comes with premium fabric upholstery while the higher XSE trim gets black SoftTex heated seats. Both models still get a black leather steering wheel as well as bronze stitching to match the accent color on the exterior. There's nothing wrong with the Corolla's interior, but some bolstered seats or a special plaque would have made the cabin feel more interesting for the Apex Edition.

The Apex Edition doesn't hurt the Corolla's practicality, so it still offers 13.1 cubic feet of storage in the trunk. If you need more space, the Corolla Hatchback offers up to 23 cubic feet, though it is not available with the Apex Edition. The Corolla sedan offers more rear seat legroom than its hatchback counterpart though, with 34.8 inches compared to only 29.8.

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Price & Trims: It Costs HOW MUCH?

Toyota did not provide us with official pricing for the 2021 Corolla Apex Edition, so we had to use a leaked dealership order guide. The leaked document claims the Apex Edition SE trim starts at $26,065, while the XSE will set you back $29,205. Those prices are $2,695 and $2,385 more than a standard Corolla SE or XSE sedan. If you want one of the 120 manual transmission cars, it's an additional $390. If this information is accurate, not only do we feel the Apex Edition struggles to present a value proposition over a standard Corolla, but it also feels utterly blind to its competition.

The Honda Civic Si, which offers significantly more power and more space inside, starts at only $25,200. Even the Volkswagen Jetta GLI, which would eat the Apex Edition alive with its 228-hp turbocharged engine, only costs $26,245. Then there's the Kia Forte GT to consider for $22,490, making it a bargain compared to the Corolla. For Toyota to price the Apex Edition over $26,000 and encroach on the $30,000 mark without a power increase feels like a major blunder.

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Verdict: Wait For The GR

Toyota started with an excellent platform to build a special edition but failed to nail the apex. The Corolla sedan looks better than ever before, it's pretty fun to drive, and the interior is an ideal place to spend time. The Apex Edition gets a few things right, like the throaty exhaust note, sporty styling, capable suspension upgrades, and the allure of a limited run. Still, it fails to cement these gains with any appreciable increase in speed. Enthusiasts looking for a sporty option in the compact sedan segment have other options that would all leave the Corolla Apex Edition in their dust.

We still look forward to the upcoming Corolla Gazoo Racing (GR) model, which could compete with hot hatchbacks like the Hyundai Veloster N and Volkswagen Golf GTI. Unlike the Apex Edition, the GR Corolla should receive a power boost in the form of a turbocharged three-cylinder engine producing at least 257 hp. Until then, get a regular Corolla with a six-speed manual; it's fun enough but won't break your back or the bank.

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