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The 2021 Toyota Corolla Apex Turns Heads, But for the Right Reason?

Autoweek logo Autoweek 9/30/2020 Robin Warner
a car parked in front of a house: Read on to learn what a Toyota Corolla Apex is and what it is like to drive. It’s not just styling changes, the suspension is stiffer, but styling stands out. © Robin Warner Read on to learn what a Toyota Corolla Apex is and what it is like to drive. It’s not just styling changes, the suspension is stiffer, but styling stands out.

You are looking at a limited edition Corolla. That’s right, the best-selling car in the history of cars has a model with a limited run. It’s called the Toyota Corolla Apex Edition. Toyota is only building 6,000 of them for the 2021 model year. And while that’s still a lot of Corollas, Toyota is making a six-speed manual equipped version and is only building 120 for 2021.

That means there will be fewer manual transmission Toyota Corolla Apex Editions than manual transmission 2020 Ford Mustang Shelby GT350s. I know, right? Mind blown.

The Apex Edition is a Corolla sedan with the more powerful engine of the two offered, a 2.0-liter inline-four-cylinder with 169 horsepower verses 139. If it’s not an ultra rare manual, it comes with Toyota’s continuously variable transmission with a real first gear to get the car rolling. Toyota also stiffened the suspension and lowered the ride height and, pretty hard to miss, actually, perked up styling to give a sportier, or flashier, look. This is no sleeper.

a car parked on the side of the street: Lots of black accents to contrast the white paint on the 2021 Toyota Corolla Apex Edition © Robin Warner Lots of black accents to contrast the white paint on the 2021 Toyota Corolla Apex Edition

The coolest changes came to the suspension. Toyota installed stiffer springs that also drop ride height 0.6 of an inch. Shock tuning came next with more emphasis on handling over ride. And engineers went with bigger anti-roll bars as well. All told, roll stiffness for both front and rear axles significantly increased—47 and 33 percent—Toyota claims.

While the engine is not unique to the Apex (it’s also in the SE, XSE, and Nightshade models) turbochargers are pleasantly absent, meaning linear power build-up and no lag. And here are some cool specs: compression ratio is 13.0:1, whaaat?! And you get both port and direct fuel injection to spray in a necessary ingredient for combustion.

All told, that delivers 169 horsepower at 6,600 rpm, and peak torque arrives at 4,400 rpm. Those aren’t barnburner numbers, to be sure, but the XSE Apex CVT model you see here weighs a relatively light 3,150 lbs and that makes weight-to-power a decent 18.6:1. Fuel economy figures of 31 mpg city, 38 highway, 34 combined are both appropriate and pleasant, as well.

a piece of luggage sitting next to a car engine: 2.0-liter four cylinder with a 13.0:1 compression ratio, is that a race car? © Robin Warner 2.0-liter four cylinder with a 13.0:1 compression ratio, is that a race car?

Clearly, this Apex Edition Corolla is still a low-end car, just one step above basic transportation. That’s reflected in the base price, $26,065 verses $23,270 for a comparable Corolla sedan. And, in-addition to the aforementioned mods, the price gap includes the switch from 18-inch all season rubber to Dunlop SP Sport Maxx 050 performance summer tires, 225/40R18 at all four corners.

Gallery: A Close Look at the 2021 Hyundai Sonata N Line (Autoweek)

When put all together it makes the Corolla Apex Edition a competent driver. The powertrain provides enough muscle for the Apex to feel peppy and the CVT does a good job responding to driver demands. It’s much better than CVT’s of yore. Engine noise isn’t satisfying, it must be said, though, sounding a bit buzzy and a touch unrefined, but it gets the job done.

And this Corolla handles. The Apex gripped the road harder than expected, always kept good body control, and gave me a nicely weighted steering wheel that even provided some feedback. I had fun chucking it into corners, playing with the balance in the middle of it and stabbing the throttle on exit.

a person driving a car: Pretty standard interior these days. © Robin Warner Pretty standard interior these days.

The one caveat is if you went just the slightest bit beyond the limit, vehicle behavior got weird. It felt as if the stability control tucked the nose in just a touch too aggressively, unnecessarily tightening the car’s turning radius and giving you a sudden change in balance. This was minor and only occurred when the tires really howled, but it’s there.

Calm the driving down, however, and the Apex is a peach. Switching from sport to eco mode lowers engine revs and causes the CVT to react to requests more smoothly, allowing you to cruise trouble free. Road and wind noise and, really any kind of noise, vibration, and harshness, are not premium car levels, but totally tolerable for a modern mainstream compact.

But then there’s the Apex’s look. To start, I really like the black on white motif. White is one of three color options; the other two are cement (grey) and black. The white paint looks stark against the black roof, sideview mirror covers, wheels, spoiler, and front grill. The problem is Toyota kept going, adding a black lower front-splitter—not functional—and rear diffuser—also not functional. This is overwrought and sophomoric, more like a caricature of a car than the real thing.

a car parked in a grassy yard: That’s a bit much. © Robin Warner That’s a bit much.

It looks like old people put together a car while thinking, “this is what the kids are into these days.” That, or it’s simply, and frankly more likely, that I’m old and don’t get it and it is indeed what the kids are into these days. But, either way, I don’t get it.

It’s not to say the car isn’t practical. It comes standard with Toyota Safety Sense, a selection of automated driver assists like adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist, and automatic emergency braking. You also get standard Android Auto and Apple Carplay with an eight-inch touchscreen to look at and play around with, and generally competitive features in a car of this class.

Overall, Toyota took a sensible, well-built and engineered car and just got a little over excited on the styling. It’s more tchotchke than you’d expect a limited edition to look, but delivers genuine driving pleasure. And, these days, that’s worth a lot.


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