Auto123 reviews the 2021 Toyota Corolla Hatchback Special Edition.
It’s not news: the automobile as we knew it in the last century is dying. Not that SUVs will be obliterating sedans, wagons and coupes from the face of the earth anytime soon, but it’s crystal clear that the trend toward vehicles offering higher ground clearance, which have been dominating sales figures for a few years now, is not going to fade away.
But what does this have to do with the 2021 Toyota Corolla Hatchback SE Upgrade (in Special Edition garb)? At first glance, none, but in reality, my latest test drive of the smallest car Toyota sells in Canada (since the departure of the Yaris) reassures me on one aspect at least: the industry simply cannot abandon the traditional car, not completely at least!
OK fine, it’s true that a Volkswagen Golf GTI or Toyota GR Supra might be a more compelling choice if one wants to make the case for the car, but I prefer to take advantage of this test drive of a mainstream car, one the average person knows well, if not for having owned one at least by name and reputation.
Here's why I believe the traditional car still deserves its place in the automotive landscape, even one dominated by SUVs.
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Closer to the ground
High ground clearance is one of the main attractions of SUVs and other crossovers. The idea being that an SUV is better able to get out of a snow bank, for one, and withstand our infamous Canadian potholes, for two. This higher stance is also an attraction for those who don't like descending into a car. And granted, it is easier to simply slide into one’s vehicle.
But the fact is this: not all SUVs are created equal. Not all utility models can cross the Rubicon Trail like a Jeep Wrangler. Depending on the type of all-wheel drive it has - some SUVs even come with two-wheel drive only - and the ground clearance, your SUV is quite capable of getting stuck in a snow bank.
And of course, increased height also affects handling. Yes, it's true that the majority of SUVs in 2021 offer a car-like driving experience, but the centre of gravity is still higher. A compact car like this Corolla Hatchback is nowhere near as sharp as a BMW M4, but it’s still more agile than a RAV4 or a Highlander. A car that can move about nimbly is also more fun to drive.
Of course, I can't say that the 168 hp and 151 lb-ft of torque from the Corolla’s 2.0L 4-cylinder engine gave me any goosebumps when I accelerated, but I have to say this powertrain is very well suited to Toyota’s global platform. This is another advantage of the front-wheel drive car. Generally, a car weighs less than an SUV, so engineers don't have to fit in a more powerful engine to move the body.
Wth less weight on its back, a car like this Corolla Hatchback, with the right engine (the 1.8L block found in base versions isn't as lively as the 2.0L, I should point out), doesn't feel underpowered in heavy traffic, although you do have to learn to live with the continuously variable transmission that will make for a cranky engine in certain passing situations on the highway.
In the city, though, the presence of that initial gear makes starts less jarring. It’s also possible to change the ten “programmed gears” of the CVT yourself, but that’s not really as genuine as the manual gearbox available in the brand's catalog.
And even if the engine isn't as explosive as a Honda Civic Type R, the rigidity of the chassis makes for a very smooth ride. For a mainstream car, the Corolla Hatchback really has nothing to be ashamed of when compared to the sportier and more expensive options in the industry - if only because that's not its primary mission!
Limited cargo space?
OK, here’s one area where a Corolla Hatchback just doesn’t measure up to the RAV4 and its cavernous cargo area. Even the new Corolla Cross does better than its hatchback cousin in this regard.
Just a few years ago, remember, the wagon format offered a very interesting alternative to the compact SUV for enjoying lots of luggage space. The last one we had here, the Volkswagen Golf SportWagen, folded in 2019 and despite the renewal of the car in Europe, the wagon variant is now a thing of the past even there. In fact, the withdrawal of the affordable wagon from the North American market is directly related to the invasion of utility vehicles.
Ah yes, the question of price! A car like the Toyota Corolla Hatchback is generally less expensive to buy than a crossover. For example, while a 2022 Corolla Hatchback S sells for $21,390, the cheapest version of its SUV equivalent, the 2021 C-HR LE, comes at a starting price of $23,750.
In the case of our 2021 Corolla Hatchback SE Upgrade tester, it comes with a price tag of $25,300. Note that the equipment included with this version being almost as generous as the most-equipped Corolla XSE. The car we tested was a Special Edition, which gets a few more additions, namely in the form of unique styling touches.
My test drive of the Corolla Hatchback reminded me of the several reasons why I continue to believe in the survival of the car, even as consumers stampede to the SUV categories.