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2022 Toyota Corolla SE Apex Test Drive

The entrance to the Ritz-Carlton Bacara is packed with high-end hardware, including a Lamborghini Huracan STO, when I roll up in the 2022 Toyota Corolla SE Apex. But while the little Toyota might be more far humble than the six-figure sleds peppering the hotel's driveway, the valet can't hide his excitement as he slides behind the wheel. "Whoa. This is a stick? Awesome!" And I'm inclined to agree. 

I'd just arrived in Santa Barbara to attend a first drive event for the all-new 2023 Lexus RX, and the two-hour drive up from Los Angeles had proved a total blast. Because while this Corolla was far from the most powerful or expensive car I've driven this year, when it comes to the fun factor, it punches far above its weight. Like its longtime rival, the Honda Civic, this car is the enthusiast equivalent of a gateway drug. 

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2022 Toyota Corolla SE Apex Exterior

2022 Toyota Corolla SE Apex Test Drive

My SE Apex was delivered in Cement, a killer gray hue that's been in Toyota's paintbox since the Scion days. It's long been one of my favorite automotive colors, and it looked fantastic on the sporty mid-size sedan. A contrasting black roof provided some additional flare, and a careful examination of the exterior revealed plenty of cool details. 

For starters, all the trim and the badging is black. The aggressive grille features a honeycomb pattern and a gloss black surround, which blends into the front splitter. While the "vents" at the corners of the fascia aren't functional, they have trick brass accents which match the sharp-looking side skirts. The black 18-inch alloy wheels are upgrades from the standard car's 13-inch units, and are also shod with sticky Dunlop SP Sport 5000 rubber. 

2022 Toyota Corolla SE Apex Test Drive

Out back, the rear diffuser features the same honeycomb as the grille, and sits below a decklid with a subtle spoiler. While the spoiler looks good, it makes me wonder how the Apex would look with the "baby Supra" tail feather that came on the GR86 I recently tested. And I bet the answer is great. That said, my favorite exterior touch might be the flared exhaust tip, which reminded me of old-school velocity stacks. The only problem with that trick touch is that there isn't a matching one at the other corner.

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2022 Toyota Corolla SE Apex Interior

2022 Toyota Corolla SE Apex Test Drive

The interior of the Corolla SE Apex is a delightfully simple affair. The gauge cluster features an analog speedometer and tach, and there's also a small configurable screen at the right corner, which displays data like speed, ambient temp, and fuel economy.  

The fabric seats in my tester were comfortable, and also featured good bolstering so drivers will stay snug in the seats. The center console features just four buttons, including the iMT, traction control switch, electronic parking brake, and hold function (which activates the brakes when sitting in traffic). For the uninitiated, the iMT stands for Intelligent Manual Transmission, which is a rev-matching function. 

In keeping with the straightforward vibe of the cabin, the climate controls are activated by buttons and knobs, and the eight-inch touchscreen center touchscreen is intuitive to navigate. The infotainment supports both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and the six-speaker system sounded good. Tech-wise, my only complaint is that the center console only features a single micro USB input, so if your friends need juice, you're going to have to share. 

While it's hardly as spacious as what you'll find in a full-size sedan or SUV, the back seats are surprisingly roomy. Even at over six feet tall, I found there was enough space for me. Those seats fold in a 60/40 split, which adds a few cubes to the 13.1 cubic feet of trunk space. 

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2022 Toyota Corolla SE Apex Performance

2022 Toyota Corolla SE Apex Test Drive

Under the hood, the Corolla SE Apex is packing a 2.0-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder, which is good for 169 horsepower and 151 lb-ft of torque. Now, that's not a crazy amount of power, but it's more than enough to make the little Corolla feel peppy around town, and keep pace on California's famously fast freeways. In the upper registers of the rev range, it even has a nice rasp to it. 

2022 Toyota Corolla SE Apex Test Drive

Of course, the ace in the hole here is the transmission. The available six-speed manual gearbox lets drivers wring the best out of the little mill, and since peak twist arrives at 4,400 rpm, and peak power at 6,600 rpm, there's plenty of incentive to wind it up. While seasoned stick drivers might notice that the throw between fourth over to the fifth and six gears is a little long, this is an exceptionally easy transmission to operate. Plus, engaging Toyota's iMT rev-matching function means even novice drivers can nail perfect downshifts every time. No fancy heel-toe technique required. 

2022 Toyota Corolla SE Apex Test Drive

But as good as the engine and transmission package is, the chassis and suspension set up is even better. Unlike most cars, there's no "sport" button to be found, and the Apex is sprung stiffly. That means you'll feel bumps around town, but it also means it's flat in the corners, and loves to be pushed. After my drive to Santa Barbara and back, I spent some time in canyons of Angeles National Forest, and the Apex truly sparkled in the twisties. Because while dropping the hammer doesn't make you feel like you're being shot from a cannon, the Apex is remarkably light on its feet. Also, the chassis and steering feedback is excellent, which means hurling it into corners is a joy. 

In the event that you can keep your foot out of the carpet, the Corolla SE Apex is EPA rated at 29 mpg city and 36 highway. But if you've got any enthusiast inclinations? That's going to be tough. This baby is just too fun to drive. 

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2022 Toyota Corolla SE Apex Safety 

2022 Toyota Corolla SE Apex Test Drive

In testing from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the 2022 Toyota Corolla earned a 5-Star rating, the agency's highest. 

It was also equipped with Toyota Safety Sense 2.0, a robust suite of advanced driver aids, which includes a Pre-Collision System with Pedestrian Detection, Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, and Lane Departure Assist with Steering Assist. 

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2022 Toyota Corolla SE Apex Overall 

2022 Toyota Corolla SE Apex Test Drive

As gearheads say, "it's more fun to drive a slow car fast than to drive a fast car slow," and the Corolla SE Apex is a perfect illustration of that old adage. This is a machine which celebrates the tactile delight of driving, but is also practical enough to handle a daily commute with aplomb, and I loved it. After driving the Corolla SE Apex, I'm even more excited to drive the forthcoming GR Corolla, as it'll be packing a 300-horsepower engine and an all-wheel drive system. That version will be aimed squarely at the Subaru WRX, and I can't wait to see how it stacks up.     

The base Toyota Corolla starts at $20,425, but that car is equipped with the 139-horsepower 1.8-liter engine, and doesn't get any of the go-fast bits of the SE Apex. Opting for the hot version raises the MSRP to $25,610. Add in the destination charge, and the as-tested price of this SE Apex was $26,884, which is one heck of a bargain.

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John Coyle | August 31, 2022

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NHTSA Rating

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

AutoNation Drive Test Drive Review: ★ ★ ★ ★

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