There may be no more dedicated group of automotive enthusiasts than the #SaveTheManuals crowd. These eager stick-shift drivers constantly complain that every new car only comes with some form of two-pedal transmission, to include luxury sedans and school buses. As fewer drivers each year prefer manual transmission cars, the options available on the new car market are slim – doubly so if you impose a price cap that is within reach of most buyers. Compact cars, though, seem to be the lone holdout in the market. Naturally, I was excited when Toyota dropped off their 2021 Corolla SE and it came with a third pedal on the floor and a six-speed manual transmission between the seats.
I’m not some manual-hater, but I do believe that there’s a time and place for a manual transmission. Certain vehicles and drivetrains would be incredibly clunky if you had to row your own, and others would have far more personality and bring far more joy to the world if they kept you more involved as a driver. My goal in driving the 2021 Toyota Corolla SE was to see if its six-speed manual was really worth choosing, or if the more-popular continuously-variable transmission was the better choice for the model.
What Is It?
This is a 2021 Toyota Corolla SE. Toyota released this Corolla for the 2019 model year, and has made minimal changes for 2021. Two more airbags are standard on all trim levels, and so is Android Auto capability. Toyota also added the Apex edition, which is more or less the “TRD” version of Corolla. The Corolla Apex features a differently-tuned suspension, stickier tires on unique wheels, a little trunk spoiler and body kit.
Most Corolla Apexes have a CVT, just like most Corollas. But this is not “most Corollas” – this Corolla SE has something exclusive to the SE trim and rare overall in 2021… a three-pedal manual transmission. Toyota calls it an iMT, which is the marketing team’s attempt to add flash to automatic rev-matching, a useful feature.
My Blue Crush SE sedan sits dead-center in the Corolla lineup, with lower-tier L and LE trims below and XSE and XLE above. Starting with SE trim, Toyota gives you the bigger of the two gas-only engines, a two-liter four-cylinder with no form of forced induction. It produces 169 horsepower and 151 lb-ft of torque, the former of which is made at the tippy-top of the tachometer’s range – 6,600 rpm with a 7,000 rpm redline.
Curb weight of the 2021 Toyota Corolla SE 6MT is 3,055 pounds, providing a power-to-weight ratio of 18.07 pounds per horsepower. Hyundai’s 2021 Elantra N-Line can be had with a six-speed manual, weighs less and makes another 32 horsepower. Mazda will sell you a six-speed Mazda3, but only as a hatchback – though that hatchback is 33 pounds lighter than the Corolla and produces another 17 horsepower. So, the Corolla is technically the slowest of the three. But “slow” on paper doesn’t always translate to a lackluster experience behind the wheel.
Beyond the drivetrain, the Corolla is offered exclusively in front-wheel drive, and every Corolla uses the same suspension setup no matter the trim level. The 2021 Corolla uses MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link rear suspension, no twist beam here.
Given the SE trim is mid-pack, you might assume it’s lacking some key options. But, it’s actually pretty well equipped, including LED headlights, both CarPlay and Android Auto, one-touch (up and down) windows on all four doors, a sunroof, and 18” alloy wheels.
MSRP of my particular 2021 Toyota Corolla SE 6-Speed Manual was $23,930 – spitting distance of Hyundai’s Elantra N-Line and undercutting the higher-end Mazda3 hatch by thousands. Toyota will sell you a Corolla XSE six-speed hatchback that’s more inline with Mazda’s offering for about $24,500.
Before I get into the general driving characteristics, let’s talk transmissions. Most Corollas will be sold with a continuously-variable automatic transmission, which includes a physical first gear. The six-speed manual, by comparison, is the same-old-same-old that we all know by now. Toyota has included a few helpful features with the manual, namely automatic rev-matching on downshifts and a hill-hold brake assist.
The shifter itself provides precise action for a cable-shifted front-drive transmission. It’s not quite as snick-snick as a sports car, but engagement is easy. Throws are an appropriate length for a car that’ll serve more commuter duty than anything. Clutch feel is light, again appropriate for commuting and never annoying even in heavy traffic. Pedals are spaced well enough for some heel-toe (or toe-toe?) rev-matching action of your own accord.
Where drivability falters is around town. Though clutch engagement is easy, the Corolla’s electronically-controlled throttle has some significant lag away from a stop. It makes smooth takeoffs difficult, and I wish Toyota had included some sort of Sport button that would sharpen throttle response.
Both automatic rev-matching (dubbed “iVT” by Toyota) and hill hold were handy in most cases. Neither is active by default, and both can be turned on and off quickly using dedicated buttons by the shifter – bravo, Toyota, for keeping this simple.
On The Move in the 2021 Toyota Corolla SE
Once you figure out how to make the best of the laggy throttle situation, the Corolla is pretty pleasant both at city and highway speeds. Gearing is spaced out well and I enjoyed being more engaged than normal with that third pedal, although the added experience compared to the CVT at lower speeds is minimal.
Power, not the strongest on-paper figure of the Corolla, builds as well as you’d expect from a naturally-aspirated four. Though peak torque is made around a playful 4,400 rpm, peak horsepower doesn’t happen until 6,600 rpm – a figure the engine strains to hit with much ease. It runs out of breath around 6,000 rpm and pushing past that is no fun for anyone.
Regardless, the whole car “gels” more if you’re willing to keep it in a lower gear and keep the revs somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000. Toyota makes no claims that the Corolla is sporty, per se, but it’s entertaining enough on back roads, absolutely made better by the manual transmission. That the Corolla makes less power and is heavier than its competitors didn’t necessarily matter, I was still having a good time.
And although the tires keep overall limits low, I found the Corolla to turn-in well and remain composed as I pushed through some faster corners. Power never overwhelms the front tires on corner exit – any understeer you find will come from your own over-driving.
I was pleased to see a test car arrive in “not fully-loaded” trim, an infrequent occurrence. The 2021 Toyota Corolla SE is very well-equipped for the price, though Mazda pulls off the semi-premium vibe for similar cost if you’re okay with an automatic.
But if you are sold on the manual, the 2021 Toyota Corolla SE is one of increasingly few new-car options and can be had for less than twenty-five grand. Though I did find some drivability annoyances, they were overcome every time I found any semblance of a corner to rev-match, downshift, and power out. This six-speed Corolla variant is absolutely good enough to be worth choosing over the now-establishment CVT.
Of course, none of this matters if the #SaveTheManuals crowd plan on buying a 2021 Corolla 6MT many years from now after several owners and associated depreciation have taken their toll. Toyota is offering this manual-transmission Corolla at a reasonable price with reasonable equipment stuck to it, and those who clamor-as-hobby need to step up.
In order to save the manuals, you must buy the manuals brand-new in the first place.