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Looking for a new sedan that is practical and cozy? Then the 2021 Toyota Corolla might be the ideal vehicle for you. But let's hold off on making that determination. This vehicle, which was redesigned in 2019 for entrance into the 12th generation, has multiple trim levels that is packed with different standard features. Therefore, it is important to know the differences between all of them.
Know a few things up front: The Corolla's acceleration is not too spunky. Even the supposedly sporty XSE trim level leans too much into turns and has tires that give very little grip. When you are just using it as a daily driver, this is not such a huge deal. But if you are someone who likes to put the pedal to the metal on the highway or on winding mountain roads, you will notice this issue.
You will also notice road noise - a lot of road noise, at all times. Put the engine into full throttle and you will immediately regret it as the noise overwhelms your stereo. The one thing that helps keep droning to a minimum is the simulated gear shifting of the continuously variable transmission (CVT).CVTs don't normally do this so well, so this CVT is a bit atypical.
The interior is laid out simply, so the controls are not too confusing to use. Everything makes sense, although some of the design elements (such as the sloping roofline) are not too helpful.
There are some good things going on with regard to technology. Smartphone app integration via Apple CarPlay and Android Auto is finally standard. The Toyota Safety Sense suite of advanced driver aids work pretty well, save for lane departure warning, which is a little too intrusive.
Overall, the 2021 Corolla has a lot to offer. You can get it as a regular sedan, a hatchback, and as a gas-only or powertrain hybrid. Many choices exist, so to save you some time with your decision-making process, let's take a look at the different trims included in this year's Corolla line-up.
Compare the 2021 Toyota Corolla L vs LE - What is the Difference?
The 2021 Toyota Corolla's line-up starts off with the base L trim level. The L starts you off with the base 1.8-L 4-cylinder engine paired with the CVT. It manages to get an output of 139 hp and 126 lb-ft of torque. The LE gets the same engine, but the hybrid LE receives a variation of this that is fitting with an eCVT. All trim levels have standard front-wheel drive (FWD). All-wheel drive is not an option.
The exterior of the L gives you LED headlights, LED daytime running lights, and LED stop and taillights. There is a sport mesh insert with the black front grille, and the mirrors and door handles are body-colored. The Corolla's L trim rides atop 15-inch wheels and has a body-colored fin-style roof-mounted antenna.
The cabin has an air conditioning system with dust and pollen filtration built in. The engine can be automatically shut off to save fuel, and there is a built-in rear-view camera that shows a projected path's guidelines. The driver's seat is 6-way power-adjustable while the passenger up front has a 4-way power-adjustable front seat. The rear seat is 60/40-split folding, and there is a multi-functional steering wheel with tilting and telescoping maneuverability. There is a standard 4.2-inch color instrumentation display, auto locking with the power door locks, one-touch automatic up/down on the front windows, a day/night rear-view mirror, sun visors for the front seat occupants, and a center console with a decently sized storage bin inside.
The L gets one 12-volt auxiliary power outlet in addition to a front 2.0-amp USB port. A digital clock and two front cupholders are standard too. A 7-inch touchscreen display accompanies the infotainment system, which has SiriusXM Satellite Radio, a one-year trial of Safety Connect, a USB media port, and Bluetooth hands-free phone and audio streaming. There is also a 6-speaker sound system wrapped into the entire package.
Toyota's Safety Sense comes equipped on the L trim level. This means you get to use pre-collision warning (which includes pedestrian detection), lane departure alert with a steering assist function, automatic high beams, road sign assist, lane tracing assist, and full-speed range dynamic cruise control. On top of that, you get other safety features like the Star Safety System, an electronic parking brake, a grand total of ten airbags, the LATCH system for child safety seats, engine immobilizer, a tire pressure monitoring system, and hill start assist control.
So, what about the LE? This trim level (both the gas- and hybrid variations) gets a bunch of upgrades. Heating is added to the side mirrors, and you can opt to add blind spot warning indicators to them as part of a package. The vehicle gets upgraded to 16-inch wheels, and there are variable intermittent windshield wipers.
Automatic climate control gets equipped inside of the cabin, as does a premium fabric for the upholstery. A seatback pocket gets added to the front seats, and a center arm rest with two cupholders built in is put into the rear. Chrome interior door handles and metallic trim get added in. Also, the sun visors each gain an illuminated vanity mirror. A 2.0-amp USB port gets added to the console.
The infotainment system gets upgraded to an 8-inch screen. Wifi hot spot connectivity comes with it. Those are essentially all of the major differences between the L and LE.
Compare the 2021 Toyota Corolla LE vs SE - What is the Difference?
When you upgrade to the SE, you can get either the CVT or a 6-speed manual transmission along with a 2.0-L 4-cylinder engine. This dredges up 169 hp and 151 lb-ft of torque. There are two drive modes: Normal and Sport.
The SE gets treated to high-grade LED headlights on the front fascia. It also has a sport mesh metallic dark gray front grille. Turn indicators get integrated into the side mirrors, and there are side rocker panels and a rear spoiler done in dark metallic gray. It rides on 18-inch machine-finish alloy wheels with painted dark gray accents.
Inside, there are some changes too. The steering wheel gets wrapped in leather, and remote keyless entry with multiple functions gets equipped. The rear window has a defogger and timer. Also, there are two upgraded options available for the infotainment system if you get them as packages.
Compare the 2021 Toyota Corolla SE vs SE Nightshade Edition. - What is the Difference?
The SE Nightshade has all the trappings of the SE but with a twist - everything gets blacked out. The front bumper is black, as is the surround. The paint job is black with no other option, of course. The power heated side mirrors? You guess it - black. Door handles? Black. Rear spoiler and rocker side panels? Definitely black. You get the idea. Even the SE and Toyota Corolla badging is blacked out.
Compare the 2021 Toyota Corolla SE Nightshade vs XLE - What is the Difference?
So, what does the XLE (which has the same powertrain as the LE) offer that you cannot get on the SE and SE Nightshade? For starters, blind spot monitoring is standard. So is a power tilting and sliding moonroof with a sliding sunshade. 16-inch alloy wheels come equipped, as does SofTex sport seats. The driver's seat becomes 8-way power-adjustable with power lumbar support while the passenger's seat is 4-way power-adjustable also with lumbar support. Heating comes standard on both seats.
The steering wheel is trimmed in leather, and a 7-inch display comes with the instrumentation panel. Smart Key (which has features like push button start) comes standard as well. A wireless smartphone charging pad and ambient interior lighting can be equipped as parts of packages, and you get treated to an upgraded infotainment system as well. There is an option for a premium audio system with dynamic navigation and the JBL sound system included.
Compare the 2021 Toyota Corolla XLE vs XSE - What is the Difference?
The XSE is supposed to be the Corolla's sporty trim, and, in some ways it delivers. But the power output is a bit disappointing. It gets stuck with the 2.0-L 4-cylinder engine that comes on the SE but has the dynamic shifting CVT instead of the base CVT.
Accent lighting comes standard with the LED daytime running lights, and there is smoked sport trim around the LED taillights and stop lights. The sport mesh dark metallic gray front grille from the SE comes standard along with the matching rear spoiler and side rocker panels. The SE's 18-inch wheels also get equipped. A single exhaust with dual chrome tips gets added on for good measure.
Seatback pockets get added to the seats, which are otherwise the same as what you will find inside of the XLE. Paddle shifters also get tacked on. This is the extent of the differences between the XLE and XSE though.
Compare the 2021 Toyota Corolla XSE vs Apex Edition. - What is the Difference?
The Apex Edition is new for the 2021 model year. It takes the performance elements that you get on the XSE and makes some serious tweaks. The Apex Edition has an upgraded suspension, a lowered ride height, and the option of adding sticky summer performance tires. The exterior trim is done in black and bronze for the Apex effect.
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Which Trim to Choose?
The 2021 Toyota Corolla line-up gives you a ton of options to choose from. With so much to choose from, it can be hard to know which trim level really is the best one for you. What we recommend for most drivers who are interested in the Corolla is picking the SE trim level.
We have a few good reasons for advocating for this trim level. First, its price is still in a range that will be affordable for the average driver. Second, the more powerful 2.0-L 4-cylinder engine gives more 'oomph' than the 1.8-L, even if it is not necessarily a sporty ride. You can still tell the difference between the two power outputs in these engine options.
The SE certainly has a lot more standard safety features than the lower trim levels, which is something most drivers are going to be on the lookout for as they shop. There are also plenty of opportunities to add packages and stand-alone features on, giving you the ability to do some customization. The more flexibility, the more you might feel like the Corolla is truly your vehicle.
Finally, we like the SE because it has the option of equipping a 6-speed manual transmission. Manuals are a dying breed, but some drivers still prefer them - and for good reason. They tend to last longer than automatics and are less expensive to repair than CVTs. The 6-speed manual transmission on the SE works just fine and even creates a little bit of 'sport'. You don't have to get it, but if you want it, it is available.
• Compare the 2020 Toyota Corolla Trim Levels