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A sporty economy car is more than just the sum of its parts, but the parts still factor in. Leave too many things on the table, and the end result will feel purgatorial, trapped between what it is and what it could be. That, dear readers, is the 2021 Toyota Corolla Apex in a nutshell.
Don't take that to mean that the Corolla Apex's upgrades are for display purposes only. Quite the contrary, actually; the Apex packs a number of tweaks that work to live up to its handling-adjacent badge. New springs lower the body by more than half an inch, and they work in conjunction with new shocks, solid sway bars and a unique tune for the power-steering system.
I can feel every single upgrade. In fact, I can't stop feeling them. The Corolla Apex is demonstrably stiffer than its pedestrian sibling, entirely too much so, in fact. The one super-smooth road I experience is met with a fine ride, but the second the pavement swaps over to something a little more worn, the ride becomes tiring. Every bump or highway expansion joint is met with an incredibly sharp vertical jerk, and just about every undulation in the roadway will send the Apex tracking off-line.
When I'm actually giving 'er the beans on a twisty backroad, the result is as expected, with almost no body roll to speak of and an agility that I have a hard time ascribing to a Corolla. In daily use, however, the suspension becomes straight-up annoying, and quickly. Adaptive dampers, like those found on the Volkswagen GTI or Honda Civic Si, would go a long way here. You might think the Apex is akin to the Honda Civic Sport, but the Civic Sport's ride quality is so much better suited to daily use. The brakes are standard Corolla fare, and they still provide more than enough stopping power. The steering is nicely weighted -- very nicely weighted, actually -- but it's not like there's much feedback going through it.
No-cost Dunlop SP Sport Maxx summer tires wrap around my tester's 18-inch alloys, which is halfway to cheating. Anything in this segment is going to feel like twice the car in corners when it's wearing the same rubber as a Subaru STI S209 or a Nissan GT-R Nismo.
The Corolla Apex almost seems like it's missing something, and in my opinion, that something would be about 25 or 30 horsepower. This hopped-up 'Rolla uses the same engine as its higher-trim siblings: The 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine puts out just 169 horsepower and 151 pound-feet of torque, sort of dragging its feet behind the Civic Sport's 1.5-liter turbo four that makes 180 hp and 162 or 177 lb-ft (depending on transmission). Sure, there's a new exhaust on the Apex, but its bass-friendly tune is only really noticeable outside the car, or inside at lower RPMs, and it does nothing to address output. Combined with my tester's optional CVT (a six-speed manual is available), the Apex's powertrain is fine, moving its way through gear ratios at simulated shift points that get a little sharper with a press of the Sport button on the center console. Somebody get this thing a turbocharger, or some lower-down torque. Something.
Honestly, my favorite part of the Corolla Apex is the way it looks. The front end's more aggressive intakes and the bronze accents within them look properly shouty without looking like a SEMA reject, and that go-fast aesthetic heads rearward by way of the aforementioned alloys, some surprisingly sharp side skirts and, in my tester's case, a $375 rear wing that's on the tasteful side of aggressive. It's like a miniature Camry TRD, especially in this two-tone black-on-white getup. The interior of my SE Apex is adorned with comfortable cloth on the seats and a splash of white that defines the beltline without creating annoying windshield reflections.
The Apex's tech is all standard Toyota fare, which means it's excellent. An 8-inch touchscreen is standard, running Toyota's usual operating system, which is a little low on graphic fidelity but packs plenty of features including Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Amazon Alexa integration and a six-speaker audio system. It's also stacked to the brim with safety systems, including automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control (for CVT variants), lane-departure warning and lane-keep assist. Blind spot monitoring is standard on the XSE Apex and optional on the SE Apex.
It's all affordable, too. My SE Apex tester starts at $26,065 including $995 for destination, with the rear wing bringing the window sticker to $26,440. That's a couple grand more than a Civic Sport Hatchback, which offers more space and a more sensible ride, but it's a couple grand less than a VW Golf GTI, which is… frankly, it's just a better car all-around and worth the extra scratch if you appreciate both sporting pretensions and not being shaken to pieces constantly.
This isn't the "Corolla hot hatch" you've heard rumors about -- not that you'd be likely to make that assumption, considering the Apex isn't a hatchback. That car is still on the way, and it should come toting a potent powertrain that will put fire to the feet of cars like the GTI. While I was hoping the Apex would have a bit more of a middle-child approach here, acting as an intermediary between the bog-standard 'Rolla and the forthcoming sports car, the 2021 Toyota Corolla Apex is, if anything, a reminder that patience is a virtue.