Now in its 12th iteration, Toyota’s Corolla model has been around about as long as Toyota has marketed its cars in the United States. At one time it was the smallest Toyota available but is now the best-selling compact sedan in the company’s lineup—and worldwide. Corolla is also available as a hatchback, not just a sedan, which gives foe Mazda a competitor to the Mazda3 hatch that, until now, has garnered much of the enthusiast marketplace.
As the NHRA ended its season in Las Vegas, a viable mode of transportation was necessary to carry one photojournalist, one petite pooch and everything we might need for a weekend that was comprised of chasing drag racing, Halloween, a full moon and the end of Daylight Savings Time. A magnetic gray metallic 2021 Toyota Corolla Hatchback XSE, top of the model lineup, was just the ticket. That it was equipped with a six-speed manual transmission made it an even better ride.
The newest rendition of Toyota’s Corolla is handsome in its evocation of the larger Camry sedan and, like its larger relative, Corolla has been infused with a lot more bonuses for the enthusiastic driver. The looks promise a sporty ride, starting from the front with a gaping grille and well-functioning grille-adjacent fog lights. Sides of this hatch have curves within the bodywork and the rear of the Corolla XSE hatch is tidy, with dual exhausts hidden within the rear fascia and an upper spoiler. On this car, Toyota fits a black roofline that extends into the rear window surrounds and outside mirrors.
Power comes from an enhanced 2-liter inline four-cylinder engine that produces 168 horsepower at 6,600 rpm and 151 lb-ft of torque at 4,800. Redline is 6,750 rpm. The six-speed manual transmission is slick and smooth, and it’s easy to skip gears going up and down the selector if one’s feeling lazy. We’re told there are less than 125 manual-transmission Corolla hatchbacks available for 2021; we’re glad to have driven this one.
MacPherson strut and multilink suspensions front and rear keep the Corolla firmly planted, while electric power steering feels exceptionally direct, unlike so many. Yokohama 2256/40R rubber is mounted on split, five-spoke bicolor 18-inch alloy wheels. While the 2021 Toyota Corolla hatchback weighs 3,060 pounds, it’s easy to stop with the all-wheel disc brakes that produce effortless halts.
The interior of the Corolla Hatchback XSE is handsome in a practical manner, with its leather trimmed sports seats in a bicolor standard, cup holders in all four doors and two-setting heated front seats that went unused during our trip. There’s a seven-inch TFT display at the center of the dash that allows both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, making the lack of navigation system no problem. With a USB plug easy to access at the base of the central stack and a good, grippy area at that base, placing the phone where it’ll be useful is easy—and syncing is simple.
The gauge cluster is, as expected all digital and, while there’s a tachometer, the speedometer at the center is strictly digital and has no redundant display. There are both fuel and temperature gauges in the right side of the gauge pod, while the center is taken up with trip info or whatever other information the driver desires to see. For me, it’s always distance to empty and average miles per gallon. At the bottom of the central display are outside temperature, odometer and two trip odometers.
All pedals and controls are intuitive and easy to reach; if you’ve ever driven another Toyota it’s easy to be comfortable with this car. The leather-wrapped steering wheel handles trip information, phone and audio volume on its left side, while cruise control features occupy the right side of the wheel, along with audio mode, fast forward/reverse and lane departure. One can change following distance with the cruise control, but have to restart cruise control every time one ignites the car.
There are plenty of soft plastics on the dash and lower doors and those sport seats are magnificent for long trips. With sciatica issues in this house, that’s a very important attribute. Toyota fits a small central covered storage with a 12-volt plug and a second USB plug. The driver has a full power seat while the passenger has to adjust theirs manually. Toyota fits great courtesy lights for the Corolla Hatchback XSE.
The back seat of this hatch has been faulted for being a bit on the small side, but three slim folks can fit in the rear. They won’t get much in the way of amenities, other than a pull-down armrest, but the seats are comfortable and do offer support. The hatch area was heaven-sent for this photojournalist during race weekend. Although the covered hatch area is considered small by some, at 17.8 cubic feet, it does offer a 60/40 fold at the rear seats that can add space. Toyota fits a tire repair kit instead of a spare tire to add some under-hatch space. The hatch pulldown is easy to reach.
During race weekend, I was not permitted to work in the media room, which was limited to eight people. Understandable, as this was the first fan-permitted sporting event in Nevada since the novel coronavirus hit these shores. So the hatch became my office. All photo gear was spread out under cover, so lens exchanges were easily accomplished. All equipment was stacked in its given space on Saturday and Sunday and easy to access. Photo downloads took place in the back seat.
The drive to and from Las Vegas was uneventful but definitely frugal. When picked up, the 2021 Toyota Corolla hatchback XSE had a meager 1842 miles on it so economy expectations weren’t great. It’s rated at 28/37/31 from the 13.2-gallon tank and regular fuel is specified. After putting about 700 miles on this machine, mileage picked up, particularly after the final fill-up with much downhill cruising – and that 37mpg highway average became achievable and done. It can only get better from here!
The final rationale to buy or not to buy is always the price of admission, and in this case it’s definitely an agreeable situation, with a list price for this 2021 Toyota Corolla XSE Hatchback of $25,285. The starting price, including freight is $24,370 and the options on this Corolla are minimal: adaptive front headlights for $415 and that lovely black roof, spoiler and side mirrors for $500. Sign me up!
story and photos by Anne Proffit