Cheap thrills and poor everyday drivability.
In theory, the 2021 Toyota Corolla Apex is every enthusiast’s dream: cheap, good looking, and somewhat performance-oriented. If it were around when I was in high school, 16-year-old me would’ve been figuring out exactly how many burritos I'd need to fold at Chipotle to afford the monthly payment on one. And now that it does exist, there are probably many young enthusiasts out there also wondering if the Apex is worth their hard-earned cash.
Toyota deserves a major pat on the back for creating a car like this, which is the perfect sporty, enjoyable daily driver (on paper). That’s exactly why it pains me as both a car nerd and evangelizer of affordable fun cars to tell you that the Corolla Apex is a bad car with good intentions. And its problems are almost entirely related to the tuning.
Looks Good On Paper… And In Person
So what exactly is the Corolla Apex? It’s a limited-edition model for the 2021 Corolla that employs a unique look and special performance tuning of the chassis and suspension. In fairness, Toyota isn’t hyperbolizing the word limited either – the company is only making 6,000 Apexs this year (and only 120 with a manual transmission). Put another way, there will be more Bugatti Chirons after its production run than there will be manual-equipped Apex models.
There’s something of a value proposition here, too. The Apex starts at $25,460, and this test car only packs a $375 spoiler atop that. Add in the destination charge and it comes out to $26,830 as tested, which isn’t all that bad. That sticker puts the Apex right in line with chief rivals like the Honda Civic Si ($25,930) and Kia Forte GT ($22,490).
There will be more Bugatti Chirons after its production run than there will be manual-equipped Apex models.
And unlike those two models, this little Corolla actually stands out in a parking lot. Our editor-in-chief joked that it’s not quite the Batmobile, but more like the car that Robin would drive, if that were a thing. My test car features a black over black motif, including murdered-out badges, front grille, rear bumper, and extra glossy 18-inch wheels. It’s a stealthy look until you notice the brash bronze accents, which are most prominent surrounding the Corolla’s gaping mouth.
Toyota also snuck in some bronze detailing along the rocker panels and on the rear bumper to give the Apex a little more pizzazz. The styling is a tick in the "W" column, if a bit silly. But cars like this are supposed to have fun, so I’m here for it.
Exterior > Interior
This particular car features a funky white over black interior color scheme, which is a little too “orca whale” for my liking. Making things worse are some very plain cloth seats, that are... gray. Who on earth wants gray seats when the rest of the interior is black and white? That said, there are other color combos available, which make things a lot more copacetic, so at least the problem’s avoidable.
In terms of overall quality and comfort, the Apex’s interior is solid, though it could use more sugar and spice. The gauge cluster looks a bit old with its tiny 4.2-inch display, and the cabin lacks the fun details that the exterior wears so proudly. But this SE-trim car still includes nice touches like an 8.0-inch touchscreen, which now features Apple CarPlay and Android Auto functionality, and keyless entry with push-button start. For extra goodies like heated front seats and blind-spot monitoring, you’ll have to upgrade to the Apex XSE, which starts at $28,210.
So, What’s The Problem?
“Oof, that can’t be right,” I thought, as the Corolla Apex rattled over over a speed bump exiting the parking garage. In the first five minutes of driving this car, my excitement quickly soured to disappointment – the suspension is so stiff that it becomes the focal point of the entire driving experience.
For context, this is coming from a former Volkswagen GTI owner with a lowering kit and aftermarket shocks. I appreciate a stiff setup in a budget hot compact because it often adds excitement in lieu of horsepower. But with the Apex, Toyota took a car that we already thought was too stiff and went way overboard, making it damn-near undrivable. Compared to the standard Corolla, there's a massive 47-percent increase in roll stiffness in the front, with a 33-percent increase in the rear. This is largely because of the Apex-specific coil springs that reduce the ride height by 0.6 inches and new shocks that are tuned specifically for the car.
Toyota took a car that we already thought was too stiff and went way overboard, making it damn-near undrivable.
Bumps, potholes, speed bumps – anything other than smooth pavement unsettles the car to a worrying degree. There’s a solid TNGA-C platform supporting the Apex, but this architecture mostly underpins less sporty applications like the Prius and CH-R. Here, the high-strength chassis is no match for the over-stiffened suspension, with driver and passenger bouncing like pogo sticks over any rough road surface.
That’s all a huge shame because the Apex is an otherwise fun, eager little car to play with. Toyota took the engine from the higher-trim Corolla SE and XSE and made use of it unchanged in the Apex: The 2.0-liter four-cylinder puts out 169 horsepower and 151 pound-feet. There’s enough going on under the hood to move the 3,110-pound Corolla along just fine, although it feels much more potent closer to the 7,000-rpm redline. Wring it out and the motor produces a fun baritone snarl that’s more pronounced than the majority of four-pots on sale today. This is also thanks to the cat-back exhaust, which comes at no additional cost on the Apex.
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With the six-speed manual in this car, I felt more than encouraged to push toward that redline when the road ahead called for it. Shifting the Apex isn’t as precise or enjoyable as in the Civic Si; that’s because this is the same gearbox used in less sport-focused Toyota models. But the experience is made better by near-perfect clutch pedal weighting and a catch point that is super easy to determine. It’s likable enough to recommend over the optional CVT, especially considering how few of these cars Toyota is building with three pedals.
If there isn’t a flaw in the road to challenge the ride quality, the Apex is a good time in the corners, too. This shouldn’t be a surprise, but the obvious benefit of the increased roll stiffness is flat turn-in with only moderate understeer. The steering provides great feedback to the driver and strikes an appropriate middle ground on weighting for this breed of car. Toyota didn’t upgrade the Apex’s brakes, but the standard stoppers still get the job done on the road. That said, I wouldn’t trust them to bite hard enough after repeated use during a track day.
Where Does That Leave Us?
I admire whomever added the Apex to the Toyota HQ mood board years ago, because they had the right idea. We should all celebrate any car with sporty intentions that keeps its price point below $30,000, but with the Apex there’s just not enough to be happy about. And that’s before you compare it to the competition.
Honda’s had this market cornered for years with the Civic Si, and in no uncertain terms, that remains a better-driving car than the Corolla with much better everyday manners. Throw the others into the mix, like the Forte GT, Volkswagen Jetta GLI, and Hyundai Elantra Sport, and the Toyota finds itself at the bottom of the pack.
The Apex’s first impression is indeed a miss, but that shouldn’t stop Toyota from trying again – hopefully more aligned with the Camry and Avalon TRD, two cars that we love. But until that day comes, I’ll advise you to take your burrito-folding money and head straight to the nearest Honda dealer.
Gallery: 2021 Toyota Corolla Apex: First Drive
2021 Toyota Corolla SE Apex Edition