There is a certain nobility in accepting your place in the food chain and making sure you are the best you can be at that strata.
Such is the position of the 2020 Toyota Corolla. This is the 12th generation of the Corolla, the frumpy but economical entry-level sedan from a brand that traffics in reliability. Enough folks prefer such predictable A-to-B transport that the Corolla is the best-selling car in the world.
But change has been due. The Corolla’s last major redesign hit the streets in fall 2013. Pretty much every other compact car has turned over in the interim, each with impressive qualifications to be a new driver’s first new car.
In the past, reputation allowed the Corolla to get away with bland styling and limp dynamics. It was shinier than buying used, had a strong price-value equation, and had durability in spades—thus, several generations of Toyota families have advised their kids to make a Corolla their first purchase. Since it was introduced in 1966, Toyota has sold a dizzying 46 million copies. And internal data shows 65 percent turned in that first Corolla for another Toyota. In other words, it’s a key vehicle for the franchise in terms of owner loyalty.
Toyota still thinks the Corolla is the perfect car for the first-time driver and first-time buyer. Fortunately it is not resting on its laurels. For this new generation, which started with the 2019 hatchback and continues with the 2020 sedan, Toyota has upped its game substantially.
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It starts by moving onto Toyota’s strong TNGA platform, which will soon underpin all its cars and crossovers. Highlights of the move: lower center of gravity, 60 percent more body rigidity, and the addition of a multilink rear suspension (replacing the old torsion beam) and Active Cornering Assist to fight understeer. The dynamics might not topple the new Mazda3 or Honda Civic, but the move puts the Toyota back into the fun-to-drive conversation.
And with a full menu of standard safety features and a starting price of $20,430, the new Corolla scores high in some key MotorTrend criteria.
Looks like it might be time to reorder the compact sedan Big Test we did in 2016 when the Corolla—the oldest entry in the field, even back then—placed sixth in the seven-car field. The landscape has changed since then: The Civic has gotten some of its mojo back, and Mazda3 is launching with AWD and a much higher price point while dropping its multilink rear suspension for a less expensive torsion beam. A new Jetta is coming, but the styling is less than inspiring. Hyundai and Kia have added dollops of styling and performance. Meanwhile, Ford had dropped the Focus for the U.S., and GM is discontinuing the Chevy Cruze.
To those Detroit execs who voted to walk away from cars because SUVs are so hot, “We’re staying bullish on sedans and small cars,” says Ed Laukes, group vice president of Toyota Division marketing. After all, Americans bought 1.8 million compact cars last year, and Toyota is happy to take a bigger slice of that pie.
Toyota makes no apologies for the entry-level nature of this car. It is not trying to be premium or powerful. While keeping to its core values of safe, affordable transport, the new model is slightly sportier and more stylish.
To that end, the sedan kept the same wheelbase, but overall length is a bit shorter, track is wider, and the roof is lower.
There are several flavors of Corolla, but it’s safe to consider them vanilla, vanilla bean, and French vanilla.
The base L, LE, and XLE trims are definitely geared to the first-time buyer who is not put off by manually adjustable seats and 15-inch wheels (16s are standard on the XLE). Buyers can opt to upgrade to the 16-inch alloy wheels and add a moonroof and the triple-J LED headlights. At least the ’70s econobox hand brake goes away.
However, the base engine is almost as vintage. Corolla is the only remaining Toyota offered in the U.S. with the 1.8-liter four-cylinder that dates back to its 1998 introduction for the eighth-generation Corolla. The engine has been updated with more output and a new generation of variable valve timing. For 2020 it gets a 7-hp bump to 139 while retaining 126 lb-ft of torque, and it’s still mated to a CVT. No stop-start, but the L and LE trims get 30/38/33 mpg. XLE, with additional weight and content, gets 29/37/32 mpg.
The second flavor is sportier, in the form of the SE and XSE with a lip spoiler, rear spoiler, chrome dual-tip exhaust, 18-inch alloy wheels, sport seats, and an allegedly sport-tuned suspension. Under the hood is a new 2.0-liter that generates 169 hp and 151 lb-ft of torque. (This engine is also in the Lexus UX crossover.) It is paired with a different CVT with a physical first gear. Paddle shifters further make the case for sportiness. Mileage is certified at 31/40/34 for the SE with a CVT, and the XSE is 31/38/34.
Or go for the SE with a six-speed manual transmission with rev matching to smooth out the shifts and keep newbies from stalling. The shift throws are long but smooth and easy. No beginner should get tripped up here. SE mileage with the manual is certified at and 29/36/32 mpg.
Putting a manual in the hatch was an easy decision; we applaud Toyota for offering it in the sedan, as well. Currently about 3.5 percent of buyers go for the manual globally, Corolla engineer Yasushi Ueda says, and he thinks that will increase to 5 percent with the new car. However, in the U.S. the take rate is closer to 1 percent. Whoever thought Toyota would be leading the “Save the Manuals!” battle cry?
The third flavor is Corolla’s first hybrid, available in affordable LE trim. It uses the 1.8-liter Atkinson-cycle I-4, two electric motors, nickel-metal hydride batteries under the rear seat, and an e-CVT for 121 hp and 105 lb-ft of torque. The package is certified at 53/52/52 mpg. Although Toyota chose the higher trims for its RAV4 hybrid, for the Corolla the automaker went with the LE trim because it represents the largest volume—accounting for about 65 percent of total Corolla sales. We are told a second trim of hybrid could be added in the future.
The SE Hybrid has unique 15-inch wheels and special badging. The decision to use old-school nickel-metal hydride batteries instead of lithium ion keeps cost down, preserves the li-ions for other models, and provides a tried-and-true battery with less complexity for the high-volume global Corolla, which is sold in at least 150 countries. The expectation is hybrids will account for up to 10 percent of total Corolla sales. There are no plans for a plug-in hybrid or pure EV Corolla for the U.S.
To Toyota’s credit, the hybrid drives very much like the regular sedan. Engineers did a good job of keeping the hybrid brakes from grabbing, and the transition from electric power to gasoline engine is seamless and undetectable.
Overall, this is by far the best-driving Corolla in recent memory. On the roads around Savannah, Georgia, the new sedan exhibited substantially more life than its predecessor in almost every measure. It also differs from the new hatch, being longer and engineered for a more comfortable ride. The extra length and wider track combine to contribute to a sense of stability that first-time drivers can appreciate. It is designed to be more comfortable for rear passengers (who are less cramped as far as compact sedan back seats go).
We wish there were more winding roads near Savannah to properly assess the Corolla’s new suspension. Where we did find rough pavement, the suspension did not hesitate to gobble up the bumps and keep the ride smooth. But we need some canyon roads for a true verdict of whether the switch from a torsion beam will prove true long-standing conventional wisdom of the superiority of the multilink design. (Intriguingly, Mazda went the other way with its new Mazda3.)
With all engines, power is adequate but not inspiring, and the engines get a bit thrashy under load. True to Corolla’s place in the Toyota universe, engineers confirm there are no plans for the U.S. to get a turbocharged version —although a 1.2-liter turbo is offered in other parts of the world. Engineer Ueda thinks the 2.0-liter naturally aspirated engine is better suited to American driving, with a more linear power delivery and torque band for highway driving. The 1.2-liter in Europe has exaggerated low-end torque for city driving and would run out of air on U.S. freeways, he says. Toyota does not offer turbos in the U.S., the notable exception being the Supra with its twin-turbos. However, there will be a Corolla TRD variant at some point, we are told.
Also, no plans for all-wheel-drive. That is expensive, and the Corolla is not a premium vehicle. The same premise applied to the C-HR, which was originally to be a price-sensitive Scion. For AWD, buyers can go to RAV4 or the Prius e-AWD, Ueda says.
Impressive is that Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 is standard on all trim levels, offering a host of features to detect and prevent a collision by braking, accelerating, or steering away from an oncoming car, person, bicycle, or other object. There is dynamic cruise control with the CVT, and the car will alert you if the lane line is being crossed; if there is no line, the system detects the edge of the road. We found the steering assist to be extremely mild. Blind-spot monitoring is standard on top trims, optional on SE CVT and LE. Hill start assist is standard. Options for the XSE and XLE top trims include adaptive front lighting that swivels and provides a wider lighting area.
Inside, the Corolla offers an array of materials and fabrics. It ain’t RAV4 cool, but at least it loses a bit of its econobox vibe. My favorite: black leatherette seats with cloth inserts and a blue stitch pattern on the XSE. And they can be heated. Materials maintain their quality of grain and gloss in the back seat, but it’s spare back there; there are no vents or outlets. At least the rear seats get cupholders; they also fold down easily and completely flat. The trunk is roomy for a small car.
In terms of connectivity, there is Apple CarPlay but no Android Auto. Toyota has reached a deal with Google and will be introducing Android Auto in some 2020 models, just not the Corolla yet. Amazon’s Alexa comes aboard; there is Wi-Fi and available wireless charging. Phone apps provide nav. The base infotainment screen is 7.0 inches; step up from the L trim, and you get the 8.0-inch floating screen. It is integrated well enough that it does not look like it was stuck in place, and it’s surrounded by glossy black trim. There are bits of brightwork to keep the cabin from looking too dark.
Sedans should account for 90 percent of Corolla sales. The hatch, which launched last June, is proving popular with young male buyers and should account for the remainder. We won’t get a wagon version. Corolla also resonates with nonwhite buyers, who make up about 57 percent of sales. And that demographic will only grow amid predictions that more than half the U.S. population will be nonwhite by 2040.
The 2020 sedan is starting to roll into dealerships now. Pricing starts at $20,430 (including $930 destination), which is $815 more than the outgoing model. The LE, which is the volume trim, starts at $20,880, a $1,300 increase from last generation. Upper-end XLE is $24,880. The hybrid can be considered a deal, starting at $23,880. On the sporty side: SE CVT starts at $22,880 (adding the manual adds $700), while the XSE is $26,380.
The car is built in 15 plants around the world. Initial inventories for North America will come from Japan, but the plant in Blue Springs, Mississippi, starts making the 2020 model in March to augment supply. When Toyota’s new plant in Huntsville, Alabama, opens in 2021, all Corolla sedans will be sourced in the U.S. with the exception of hybrids, which are assembled in Takaoka, Japan.
Corollas have remained popular over the years, even when such recognition was not fully deserved. This new generation hits the nail on the head for first-time drivers and buyers. Safety is standard. It has adequate power but not enough to get into trouble. There are decent amenities but manual seats and other nods to cost efficiency. It may be Toyota’s best Corolla. Now that it’s a legitimate competitor, we look forward to seeing how it places against the rest of the pack.
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