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The Toyota Corolla Is the Perfect Manual Car for Beginners

Road & Track logo Road & Track 12/7/2020 Brian Silvestro
a car parked on the side of a road: The Corolla is forgiving, providing all the tools you need to learn how to drive stick. And in Apex Edition trim, it has some real handling chops. © Brian Silvestro The Corolla is forgiving, providing all the tools you need to learn how to drive stick. And in Apex Edition trim, it has some real handling chops.

If you don’t have access to a manual-transmission car, it’s pretty tough to learn how to drive stick. Aside from begging a kind friend to let you tear their clutch to shreds, or going to one of Hagerty’s young driver seminars, your only real option is buying a car with a stick and diving in. That’s what I did when I bought my Fiesta ST back in 2014. My sincere recommendation? Buy the cheapest running three-pedal crapcan you can find, and drive it until you’ve got the skill down. But if you’d rather have something with a warranty, it’s hard to best the Toyota Corolla.

This is the Corolla Apex, a spicy version of Toyota’s bread-and-butter Corolla sedan, refreshed most recently for the 2020 model year. The car’s mean, bug-like looks are complemented by a set of funky black fascias and side skirts, each with their own gold accents. There are also some aerodynamic trinkets tacked on, including a splitter, a trunk-mounted spoiler, and a small diffuser. Handsome isn’t the right word—cool seems more appropriate. It's certainly not boring—something I didn’t think I would ever write about a new Corolla.

a motorcycle parked on the side of a car: SAM_5617.JPG © Brian Silvestro SAM_5617.JPG

Things are just as good inside. The Apex’s cabin isn’t vastly different from the normal Corolla’s interior, and that’s not a bad thing. Toyota took a minimalistic approach here, funneling most functions through a central infotainment touchscreen, with a small collection of easy-to-use physical buttons for climate control. The touchpoints are soft, the steering wheel is nice to hold, the analog gauges are easy to read, and the cloth seats are supportive enough. It’s not Mazda 3 good—very few new cars under $50,000 are—but it’s still a nice place to spend time, considering this SE-trim car’s $26,065 MSRP.

The star of the show here is, of course, the transmission. Seeing three pedals in any new car these days is a rare treat, and this manual is surprisingly satisfying to use. The shifts are direct, and while the throws themselves are long, each change is met with a rewarding engagement. The ultra-light clutch makes it easy for anyone to step in and feel out the catchpoint, plus, there are two buttons flanking the shifter that every anxious new manual driver will love.

a close up of a car: SAM_5669.JPG © Brian Silvestro SAM_5669.JPG

This first is a pretty simple switch found on a lot of modern cars, labeled “HOLD.” It’s located next to the parking brake switch, and puts pressure on the rear brakes to—you guessed it—hold the car in place at a stop. Once the car senses forward motion, it lets go of the brakes so you can be on your way. It’s a massive plus for new stick-shift drivers who might be worried about rolling back into the car behind them at a stop light. When it’s activated, it’s seamless, automatically clamping the rear discs when it senses you’re on a grade, and releasing as you take off. No worrying about flipping the switch every time you come to a standstill.

The second button is labeled “i-MT.” It sits just forward of the shifter assembly, and activates Toyota's intelligent Manual Transmission system. No, that doesn’t mean it’ll start shifting for you. But press it, and the car will automatically rev-match your downshifts. While not as perfectly seamless as Porsche’s ultra-crisp rev-matching system—perhaps due to the Corolla’s slow-revving engine—it’s still a massive help for those just learning how to drive stick. Rev-matching isn’t the easiest thing to get a hang of, but not doing it leads to extra clutch wear and a jerky ride. So having the car match the engine’s revs while you nail down the basics is a huge plus.

As welcoming as the transmission is, the same can’t be said of the Corolla's 2.0-liter naturally aspirated inline-four. It doesn’t sound great, and with just 169 horsepower and 151 lb-ft of torque on tap, it’s not exactly bursting with energy. There’s almost nothing below 3000 rpm, and torque drops off significantly once you cross 5000. On the plus side, the gear ratios are short enough that you can repeatedly spin the motor to redline without breaking the speed limit. Factor in the well-calibrated, progressive brakes and the sticky Dunlop Sport Maxx tires optional on the Apex, and you’re blessed with a healthy amount of confidence through corners. The slow-car-fast mantra rings true here.

a car parked on the side of a road: SAM_5632.JPG © Brian Silvestro SAM_5632.JPG

A good chunk of that confidence also comes from the Corolla Apex's super-stiff suspension tune. It works well on smooth tarmac, keeping both ends of the car planted, but its lack of sophistication becomes clear about 10 feet down any bumpy, pothole-filled road. The ride is harsh. Way too harsh for a car like this. Even small bumps will rock you through the seat, and it doesn’t ever really settle down at highway speeds. Consider a thorough test drive if the roads you drive aren’t glass-smooth.

There’s another problem: Out of the 6000 Corolla Apexes Toyota plans to sell in the U.S., just 160 will come with the manual. The others will receive a much less inspiring CVT, robbing owners of the thing making the car truly compelling. If you can get your hands on one and want to learn the joys of rowing your own, I recommend it—as long as you don't mind the harsh ride. Otherwise, consider the regular Corolla.

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