SAVANNAH, Georgia—One argument for replacing the long-in-the-tooth Toyota Corolla with an all-new model is that this compact sedan is such an icon for the brand. More than 46 million have been sold globally since production began at Japan’s Takaoka plant in 1966, easily topping the Ford Model T and the original Volkswagen Beetle. Then there are the years and millions of dollars spent developing the new, 53-city-mpg hybrid model that would have helped the model glide through the Obama administration’s now-cancelled Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard of 2025. And of course there’s the hope that the 2020 Toyota Corolla will scoop up those first-car purchases left on the table by the departures of the Chevrolet Cruze and Ford Focus.
Arguments against? The production capacity at the plants that build the hybrid (Takaoka) and the vast majority of North American models (Blue Springs, Mississippi) would be better utilized assembling more RAV4s, which has become the bestselling non-pickup in America. At least Toyota plans to shift Corolla production from Blue Springs to a new Alabama joint-venture factory with Mazda in 2021, freeing up capacity for more RAV4s in Mississippi.
In case first-time buyers about to enter the new-car market are ready to turn this SUV trend around, though, Toyota is ready with a compact sedan that’s once again competitive in its rapidly shrinking segment.
Indeed, the 2020 Toyota Corolla is a vast improvement, though it remains a conservative counterattack against its biggest rival, the Honda Civic, and the ambitious new Mazda 3. The new lineup is split into “sporty” and mainstream trim levels, with the SE and XSE covering the former and the L, LE, and XLE making up the latter. There’s also the LE hybrid. The new car rides on Toyota’s TNGA platform and is claimed to be 60 percent stiffer in torsional rigidity.
For ’20, the Corolla switches from a torsion-beam rear axle to a multilink setup, and the chassis also takes advantage of Active Cornering Assist, Toyota’s marketing name for brake-based torque-vectoring that will slow an inside wheel to mitigate understeer. The non-sporty versions are powered by the familiar 1.8-liter 2ZR-FAE inline four-cylinder engine, upgraded by 7 horses to 139. It makes 126 lb-ft of torque. The SE and XSE scorch the pavement with the 169-hp, 151-lb-ft 2.0-liter M20A-FKS four. The hybrid combines a 1.8-liter 2ZR-FXE with an electric motor for a total of 121 total horsepower and 105 lb-ft.
The mainstreamers and the hybrid get a standard continuously variable transmission tuned for, well, mainstream driving, while the SE and XSE’s CVT incorporates a physical first gear that upshifts to the transmission’s belt to offer improved off-the-line response. The SE is the only Corolla to offer a manual, in this case a six-speed unit with rev-matching and hill-hold features. While the take rate for the six-speed manual transmission is about 10 percent on the Corolla SE and XSE hatchbacks, which launched for the 2019 model year, Toyota expects just five percent of buyers to shift for themselves in the Corolla sedan.
SE and XSE also add smoked LED taillamps, dual chrome-tipped exhaust, color-key sideview mirrors with turn-signal repeaters, sport mesh gray metallic grille and 18-inch machined alloy wheels with P225/40R-18 tires, which were Yokohama Avids, in the case of our test car. Toyota’s spec sheet notes that SE, XSE and XLE also add variable intermittent windshield wipers, which seems like something that should be standard across the Corolla board. But Toyota clearly has been counting pennies on the sedan’s development, with the popular LE model starting at just $20,880 and the LE Hybrid at $23,880.
There’s Apple Car Play and Amazon Alexa capability, but no Android for Auto. Safety Sense 2.0 includes a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, bicycle detection in daylight, full-speed range dynamic radar and lane-departure alert with steering assist.
We started out in an XSE. The roads leading out of charming, historic Savannah aren’t conducive to wringing out anything, even a small car with little power, though we were able to determine on the few curves that the XSE is taut and nimble, with decent compliance at turn-in and fairly minimal understeer (which may or may not have become moderate had we been on a more challenging road). The steering, despite the fact that the electronic power assist remains on the column and not the rack, is excellent. It transmits all kinds of road feel, although there’s also a lot of road noise coming in through the Yokohama Avid 225/40R-18s.
The XSE’s two-tone, faux-leather sport seats are handsome and more comfortable, with more bolstering, than those in the “L” models. (The SE gets the same basic seats with cloth upholstery.) The XSE comes with paddle shifters, with nine steps in the CVT-plus-first-gear transmission, though we mostly saved self-shifting for the SE manual. Sport mode affects the throttle response and turns the digital speedometer graphic from blue to red, though there was minimal seat-of-the-pants difference. The CVT doesn’t hold a “gear” and “upshifts” automatically at the redline even when using the paddles.
The XSE’s 2.0-liter is the standard engine in the hatchback and provides the same smooth power here, although the shift from first gear to the CVT’s belt was fairly noticeable under heavy throttle. In truth, this 169-horse engine should be the entry-level powerplant in this car from Toyota, a company which continues to eschew the turbocharging that is now ubiquitous.
A Corolla XLE with Dunlop Enasave 205/55R-16s that we drove next was much quieter, and the road feel still was good, though the low-rolling-resistance tires added a bit of twichiness, requiring regular steering corrections that we didn’t need to make in the XSE. The 139-hp 1.8-liter doesn’t feel that much down on the 2.0-liter four until you try full-throttle acceleration. While up front the seats are heated and feature eight-way power on the driver’s side, if you’re thinking of it as an analog to, say, the Civic’s semi-premium Touring model, you’ll come away disappointed. In reality, the XLE is slightly less expensive than the top-trim sporty model.
All the Corollas we drove had cheery, pleasant interiors, although there’s a bit of inconsistency shown in stuff like the dashboard stitching on the XSE, which is blue on the black upper portion of the two-tone dash and cream-colored on the cream-colored portion of the dash. The rear seat is capacious enough for a compact, with good outward visibility, although the bottom cushion is situated high to afford better legroom at the expense of headroom.
The driver’s version is the 2020 Toyota Corolla SE. It’s available with the CVT, though only the six-speed-manual version comes with a standard moonroof and proximity entry and ignition; it’s priced $700 higher as a result. And in a nod to purists, the SE manual has real gauges with actual needles, not the digital readouts of other models we drove.
The manual is a bit notchy, but it’s easy to use and has a nice, progressive clutch; it’s perfectly fine if you’re not spoiled by Miata or Honda stick-shifts. The iMT—for “intelligent manual transmission”—button turns on the rev-matching downshift function.
We also were able to sample the gas/electric Corolla, which the automaker positions as an affordable conventional hybrid that offers exceptional fuel mileage and a sticker price south of $25,000. It’s a Toyota hybrid, so the transitions between full battery power and the ignition of the 121-hp 1.8-liter four are fairly smooth. It’s still the sort of car you won’t feel compelled to drive quickly or fast, and sitting as it will in showrooms with hybrid versions of the Camry, Avalon, RAV4, and Highlander—to say nothing of the Prius, which also has a Prime plug-in variant—continues the normalization of the powertrain type that the automaker helped popularize.
In fact, with so many hybrids, it’s probably time to make the Prius Prime the base version of that car. And we’ll repeat our opinion that the 2.0-liter engine ought to be the engine across the conventional Corolla lineup. When each is equipped with the CVT, it beats the 1.8-liter’s fuel economy both in the city and on the highway, which means the old 1.8 is just there to keep the price down. Does Toyota really need a base model that begins just above $20,000 at the sacrifice of fuel efficiency? Perhaps fleet buyers will be charmed by that one.
But the rest of the lineup should charm plenty of civilian buyers. The 2020 Corolla is a competent, good-looking compact that, should its reputation hold, will pay off with years of virtually trouble-free driving. The new sedan isn’t as expressive or as much fun to drive as the Honda Civic or the new Mazda 3, but in most every other way it’s in the hunt, and the hatchback model broadens the lineup and offers enough fun and style to interest enthusiasts. In any case, every vehicle that Toyota sells that’s a Corolla instead of an SUV is a net positive in our book.
2020 Toyota Corolla Sedan Specifications
|ENGINES||1.8L DOHC 16-valve inline-4, 139 hp @ 6,100 rpm, 126 lb-ft @ 3,900 rpm; 2.0L DOHC 16-valve inline-4, 169 hp @ 6,600 rpm, 151 lb-ft @ 4,400 rpm; 1.8L DOHC 16-valve inline-4 with electric motor, 121 hp @ 5,200 rpm, 105 lb-ft @ 3,000 rpm|
|TRANSMISSIONS||6-speed manual, continuously variable automatic|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD sedan|
|EPA MILEAGE||29–31/36–40 mpg (city/hwy, nonhybrid), 53/52 mpg (city/hwy, hybrid)|
|L x W x H||182.3 x 70.1 x 56.5 in|
|0–60 MPH||7.8–8.6 sec|
|TOP SPEED||112 mph (mfr)|