Review: 2021 Toyota Corolla Hatchback SE Nightshade

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Cameron Neveu

“The greater the similarity between products, the less part reason plays in brand selection.”David Ogilvy*

“It’s funny how, day by day, nothing changes. But when you look back, everything is different.” —C.S. Lewis

***

It is time for a quick look at the basics. Because that is what this car is: the basics.

The Toyota Corolla SE Nightshade—our test car here—starts at $23,840. It produces 31/40 mpg, city/highway, per the EPA.

The Corolla SE starts at $21,840.

The Corolla XSE starts at $24,700.

You probably want the SE. The Nightshade is little more than some lightly aggressive cosmetic trim over the base SE, and it cannot be had with a manual gearbox. That trim looks nice, but not $2000 nice. The XSE gives you dual-zone automatic climate, heated leather sport seats, premium audio, wireless smartphone charging, a cross-traffic and blind-spot alert, and a larger center-console display screen.

These things are great to have, but let’s be honest: If you’re buying a $21,000 small car, you’re doing so because it costs $21,000. Another three grand on top will probably make a significant dent in your monthly bottom line, whether purchase or lease.

2021 Toyota Corolla Hatchback SE Nightshade front three-quarter
Cameron Neveu

Before we go any further, as they say on Well There’s Your Problem, we have to ask: What is a Corolla? This is a small car from Toyota, now front-drive but once rear-wheel-drive and the stuff of anime legend. The Corolla is currently the best-selling car on earth—more than 1.1 million examples moved globally in 2021—but it is also the eighth most popular vehicle in America. Cut the trucks and SUVs off that list, it is the second-most popular car in this country, after the Toyota Camry.

The current Corolla has been with us since 2019. You can have this champion of the common as either a sedan or a five-door hatch; the hatch is better to look at and slightly more engaging to drive, owing to tidier proportions, but it also offers a more claustrophobic interior. Blame the fat pillars and low roof. Unlike the sedan, the 3110-pound hatch is only available with a 2.0-liter, 169-hp four; the sedan can also be had as a 121-hp hybrid. Grownups really only fit well inside the back of the sedan, with rear legroom a problem in the hatch.

Naturally, most of us here are drawn to the hatch.

2021 Toyota Corolla Hatchback SE Nightshade side profile
Cameron Neveu

The staff of this website recently booked a media loan of an SE Nightshade for an all-hands review event in California. That event held a lot of stuff, from luxury sedans to a pure-bred sports car and an off-road truck. I had driven all of those cars before, including the Corolla, but—and this is the catch, see—I got excited for the Corolla, despite the fact that a modern Toyota Corolla is not exactly an exciting car.

Most people would call this tinny and slow. The Corolla hatch is about the size of a VW GTI and ten grand cheaper, but it is also louder inside, 60 hp weaker, and possessed of a more cramped interior. The average Honda Civic is similarly priced and somehow feels like less of a penalty box. This is probably why the Honda Civic hatch has grown to be nearly as large as the Civic sedan, and why Toyota sells more Corolla sedans than hatches.

Everyone called it “the little ****box” the first day, but 24 hours later, they were saying that with genuine affection.
—Grace Houghton, Editor, Hagerty Media

The president of Toyota Motor Corporation is a billionaire named Akio Toyoda. Some time back, Mr. Toyoda grew upset with the global perception of his company. He decided that its products needed to be more entertaining. One of the results of that corporate mandate was the capable but uninspiring J29 Supra, launched in 2019; the redesigned 2019 Corolla hatch was another. As with other Corollas, the new car was relatively comfortable and good value.

2021 Toyota Corolla Hatchback SE Nightshade engine bay
Cameron Neveu

Digression: The Corolla’s engine belongs to a tech family that Toyota calls “Dynamic Force.” A few years back, I was fortunate enough to spend a good hour wandering aimlessly around a grocery in central Tokyo. Inasmuch as a grocery store can teach you anything, that experience taught me a bit about Japanese marketing culture, specifically the practice of using certain English-language phrases as unintentionally humorous packaging punctuation for innocuous products. To make a long story short, your narrator is now incapable of reading a pairing like “Dynamic Force” without thinking of that particular grocery’s vast selection of digestive aids, which should tell you that 1) Americans see 169 hp a bit differently than the Japanese, and 2) you are probably going to be just fine if you are ever distressingly backed up in Ginza.

There’s no meaningful torque. Normal traffic sees the throttle floored a lot. The tires squeal and shout early in a corner, losing traction just below or a hair above the speed limit. The steering is linear but numb, and it goes more numb when the inside front wheel lights up in a corner. (No limited-slip, can’t have one, not on the order sheet, zip, zilch, nada.)

Consider other bits and pieces:

The 13.2-gallon fuel tank gives a 400-mile range.

The first 2019-on Corolla I had the privilege of testing was a manual, while employed at another publication. The delivery tire on that car was a 205/55-16 Dunlop Enasave, which sounds like a protein supplement. Nobody ever delivered an exciting car on a tire that sounds like a protein supplement.

2021 Toyota Corolla Hatchback SE Nightshade front three-quarter action
Cameron Neveu

The Corolla hatchback is not an EV, not a truck, not a sport model. It cannot peel your eyelids back with torque, and it remains patently incapable of hauling six people and a canoe. Europe sees many small hatches in this class, and many are sharper and more entertaining. The few cars that remain in this class in the American market are mostly Korean, and are more feature-laden and, save resale, generally a better value.

The above points suggest a certain experience. And yet.

I think the joy comes from playing rather rough with it, rather than using any bit of finesse.
—Nathan Petroelje, Associate Editor, Hagerty Media

I have just as much fun on a back road in one of these as I do in a McLaren or Ferrari. What is it about the tiny econocans you can whale on? What is it, even more, about the ones that have zero sporting pretense, and are simply tuned well for what they are?

There is just enough rear roll and spring stiffness here that the rear tires feel involved in the game. (Rare in a modern front-driver. They certainly aren’t dragged around like a trailer, dead to the world, as in a base Golf.) At the same time, the car is soft enough that managing roll and weight transfer between corners is like balancing a broom on your palm. You tend to underestimate how much work it is just to keep the Corolla on the boil, brushing up against the limits without going over. The whole thing seems to morph to fit your treatment, rough or gentle.

In panic stops, you can come right up against the ABS activation threshold, playing fun little games of tire-screech before the computer wakes up. The pedal and pads are nicely calibrated, letting you keep the whole assembly on the bridge of slip without much thought. The engine is only lightly cammy, a smidge top-heavy on power; it needs revs but is also strangely indifferent to its own redline.

You apex things unnecessarily, like fast-food drive-thrus.

2021 Toyota Corolla Hatchback SE Nightshade interior driving action
Cameron Neveu

Being a small Toyota hatchback, it is almost completely invisible to the law. Balling down a road at max everything gives few broken laws and a perpetual sense of getting away with something.

Europeans still buy stuff like this. In the American market, most machines of this ilk, at this price point, are gone. Because we decided they weren’t good enough to buy. Or maybe just not big enough to buy. The Corolla feels small and feisty in the lane. Ordinary and alive at once, a combination much harder to engineer than it sounds. We are talking here about that holistic feeling we all know, the one where nothing matters but the car and the road, and then you don’t think much about the car at all.

This is a necessary ingredient with good cars, but it is never the only one. Call it automotive umami. The fifth taste. It can appear at 169 hp, and it can show its face at 1000 horses, but it is never guaranteed. Maybe that’s what Akio meant: More than expected.

This isn’t a sports car. It wears the clothes of a hot hatch but falls short of even the slackers of that breed in every measurable metric. It just seems like the bare minimum, in a good sense. As if everyone could and should love it, in the right environment.

I’ve been thinking about that manual test car I tried a few years ago, in the idle way you can want something modest that you do not actually need. I occasionally look to see if any dealers in the region have one in stock. They don’t, of course, because nobody buys a manual Corolla in 2021. Again: Not that I need one. It just sounds fun and unnecessary, the good kind of childish. Umami does that to you.

Don’t run to the dealer for a test drive. No lives will be changed by a drive here. Only an accountant would be impressed that you chose this over anything else.

I mean, an accountant and a journalist.

Not all journalists.

But definitely this one.

 

***

 

2021 Toyota Corolla Hatchback SE Nightshade

Price: $23,840 / $23,840 (base/as-tested)

Highs: A small car like we used to want and buy in this country, fun and honest, not overtly sporting, punishing, or gimmicky.

Lows: Corolla sedan is easier to see out of and far more comfortable in the back seat. Bodywork writes performance checks the car can’t cash. Steering is relatively mute. Road noise can be excessive over imperfect pavement.

Summary: A thoroughly ordinary small Toyota with a surprising splash of verve.

*h/t to R. Brennan for the reminder that this quote exists!

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