The 2021 Toyota Corolla and the 2021Mazda3 are two compacts offered in both sedan and hatchback body styles. Which is better?

Quick facts
  • The Toyota Corolla offers a hybrid variant.

  • The Mazda3 is available with all-wheel drive.

2021 Toyota Corolla

Base Price: $20,920

What we like: Sedan and hatchback body styles; standard active-safety features; affordable pricing; good fuel economy; available hybrid.

What we would change: Base engine’s leisurely acceleration; hatchback’s tight rear seat

Overview: The Toyota
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Corolla was long known for affordability, reliability, and little else. The latest Corolla expands the model’s appeal with attractive styling, the addition of a hatchback body style, new sporty variants, and an available hybrid. 

Most Corollas are equipped with a continuously variable automatic, and Toyota adds a conventional first gear to its CVT to limit engine droning when pulling away from a stop. Enthusiasts will be happy to know that a 6-speed manual is also available (SE only), and the Corolla’s stick shift will automatically match revs on downshifts. 

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The standard engine (found in the L, LE, and XLE) is a 1.8-liter with 139 horsepower and 126 lb-ft and is EPA rated at 29–30 mpg depending on trim. A 2.0-liter 4-cylinder with 169 horsepower and 151 lb-ft of torque powers the SE and XSE, and is not only more powerful but slightly more economical as well, delivering 33–34 mpg with the CVT and 31–32 mpg with the 6-speed manual. 

The Corolla Hybrid returns a whopping 52 mpg combined but is available in only one trim level. The 1.8L delivers tepid acceleration; the 2.0L is somewhat better. Ride quality is good, and the SE/XSE variants are fairly sporty as well. 

The interior of the upper trims is pretty snazzy. Rear-seat space is tight in the hatchback but much better in the sedan. The hatchback’s sporty styling impinges a bit on cargo space, but a new spare-tire-delete option (replacing it with an inflater kit) adds more space.

What’s new for 2021: A new Apex Edition package for the SE or XSE sedan offers a sportier appearance backed up by a firmer suspension, sport bucket seats, retuned steering, a more vocal exhaust, and shift paddles for the automatic transmission — or an available 6-speed manual. For all models, Android Auto joins Apple
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CarPlay as standard, and rear-seat side air bags have been added. Rear cross-traffic alert is newly paired with blind-spot monitoring.

Features and technology: The 2021 Toyota Corolla is offered in myriad forms. The sedan comes in L, LE, XLE trims, and the sportier SE and XSE, with Nightshade and Apex Edition packages also available. The hatchback is SE or XSE, and the Hybrid sedan is LE only. 

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All Corollas come with forward-collision warning with automatic emergency braking, lane-keeping assistance, lane centering, and adaptive cruise control with stop/go (lane centering and stop/go capability with the CVT only). 

Blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert are available on upper trims. An easy-to-use 8-inch touchscreen (7 inches in the L) has volume and tuning knobs, hard buttons for main menu items, and Apple and Android smartphone mirroring. The XSE/XLE additionally can be had with wireless charging, navigation, a 9-speaker JBL sound system, adaptive headlights, and ambient interior lighting.

What does the future hold? The Corolla lineup seems fully filled out at this point, so is not likely to see major changes soon. 

2021 Mazda3

Base Price: $21,445 

The Mazda3


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What we like: Sedan and hatchback body styles; three available engines; optional all-wheel drive; upscale interior; engaging driving experience

What we would change: Tight rear seat; hatchback’s large rear blind spots; base trim missing Android Auto and Apple CarPlay; pricey Turbo starts at $30,845

Overview: Upscale and fun to drive, the 2021 Mazda3
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delivers something more than the stereotypical small-car experience. The Mazda’s interior design and materials are a class above, although the perceived luxury does not extend to rear-seat space, which is tight. 

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The Mazda3 offers both sedan and hatchback body styles, the latter with greater cargo-carrying versatility but also big blind spots to the rear. We’ve been captivated by the little Mazda’s lively steering and eager handling but bemoaned the fact that this sophisticated chassis had only one engine offering. Now, there are three: 2.0-liter, a 2.5, and a 2.5 turbo. 

The 2.0 makes 155 hp and is relegated to the base sedan only. The 2.5, with 186 hp, is widely available and can be paired with front-wheel drive or AWD. The latter is uncommon among small cars. A new 2.5-liter turbo (250 hp/320 lb-ft with premium fuel, 227 hp/310 lb-ft with regular) comes standard with AWD. 

Mazda also still offers the rare choice of a 6-speed manual transmission, but it’s available only on the 2.5 S Premium hatchback with front-wheel drive.

What’s new for 2021: Mazda has added two new engines this year, which bracket the previous 2.5-liter. A new 2.0-liter powers the base sedan and lowers the entry price by $1,000. The more exciting news is a 2.5-liter turbo that brings an additional 64 horsepower over the naturally aspirated 2.5. Elsewhere, standard and optional features have been reshuffled among the various trim levels.

Features and technology: The base sedan comes with the 2.0-liter engine, adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go capability, automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning, lane-keep assist, automatic high-beams, a driver-attention alert, and a Wi-Fi hot spot. 

An 8.8-inch infotainment display operated via a rotary controller is standard, but the base car skips Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Those arrive with the 2.5 S trim, which includes the 2.5-liter engine and also is the entry point for the hatchback. 

The 2.5 S Select unlocks the AWD option and adds blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, passive entry, dual-zone automatic climate control, leatherette upholstery, and 18-inch wheels. 

The 2.5 S Preferred brings a sunroof, heated seats, a power driver’s seat with memory, and gloss-black exterior trim. The 2.5 S Premium includes navigation, 12-speaker Bose audio, a head-up display, adaptive headlights, leather, and additional interior colors. 

The Turbo sedan and hatchback have three trim levels. The base Turbo includes nearly everything in the 2.5 S Premium, minus leather and navigation. Those arrive with the Turbo Premium Plus along with a 360-degree-view camera, Traffic Jam Assist, and rear auto-braking.

What does the future hold? The low take-rate for manual transmissions means that the stick shift could disappear at any time. Other than that, we’re likely to see Apple CarPlay and Android Auto spread to the base trim.

Corolla vs. Mazda3: Strengths comparison

Toyota Corolla benefits: Better fuel economy; less expensive; available fuel-sipping hybrid; enviable reliability record; strong resale value

Mazda3 benefits: More powerful engines; available AWD; rich-looking interior; fun-to-drive demeanor

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2021 Toyota Corolla vs. 2021 Mazda3: Which is better?

The 2021 Toyota Corolla delivers all the traditional compact-car virtues, being inexpensive, fuel-efficient, and reliable. And with its sprawling model lineup, it also can be hyper-thrifty or sporty as well. The Mazda3, though, is arguably more stylish, has a richer interior, and is more engaging to drive. It also has two significantly more powerful engine options and optional AWD. An upper-end Mazda3, though, is considerably more expensive than a top-spec Corolla. The Corolla is the better economy car, while the Mazda3 is the upscale near-luxury choice. 

This story originally ran on Autotrader.com.

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