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2020 Toyota Corolla Test Drive Review
Known for decades as an affordable, reliable, efficient, and practical compact sedan, the redesigned 2020 Toyota Corolla adds “stylish” and “enjoyable” to that list of attributes.
If ever a car was to be described as an appliance, the Toyota Corolla was it. Cheap to buy, dependable as a sunrise, thrifty with fuel, and roomy enough for a frugal family, the Corolla faithfully delivered its owners to their destinations without a hint of fuss... or emotion. That changes with the redesigned 2020 Toyota Corolla, which adds a sense of style and a bit of thrill to its longstanding mission.
Look and Feel
Looking like malevolent aliens suffering hunger pangs, modern Toyotas are not pretty. That goes for the redesigned 2020 Corolla, too.
But if you equip the car with SE or XSE trim, add the mighty attractive Celestite paint color I enjoyed on my test car, and get past the headlamps, you’ve got a compact sedan that looks terrific. Even its face is more palatable than what you’ll find on other Toyota sedans. Perhaps with time, we’ll all get used to it, as we did with the latest Honda Civic... and the Demogorgon from “Stranger Things.”
Based on my experience in a top-of-the-line XSE version, Toyota has clearly improved the perceived level of quality inside of the latest Corolla. Gone (mostly) are the cheap, hard, and glossy plastics that made the interior of the previous version resemble a McDonald’s Happy Meal's free toy. In their place, soft-touch surfaces abound, and the plastic panels that remain are finished in such a way that they don’t glisten like a Venice Beach bodybuilder in the sun.
Unfortunately, the transmission shifter will remind you that the Corolla is an economy car. This component lacks the solid and secure feel common within a Hyundai or Kia, and because you’ll use it every single time you drive the Corolla, it will remind you of the car’s low-rung position on the automotive ladder.
Speaking of which, the Corolla starts at a base price of $19,600 plus a destination charge of $955. That’s for the L trim level. You can upgrade to LE or XLE trim or, if you want more power and a great looking set of 18-inch aluminum wheels, you can choose the sportier SE or XSE trim. People seeking maximum fuel economy can get a hybrid version of the Corolla LE, which the EPA says will get 52 mpg in combined driving. Choose the XSE with the top option package and a set of floor mats, and you’ll spend about $28,800.
Toyota equips the Corolla L, LE, and XLE with a tame 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine good for 139 horsepower. A continuously variable transmission (CVT) powers the front wheels, and the cars sit on 16-inch wheels wrapped in all-season rubber. Granted, I haven’t driven one of these, but this trio sounds just as exciting as turkey on white, no mayo.
Upgrade to SE or XSE trim, and the Corolla adds a hint of Sriracha. These trims have a more powerful 169-hp, 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine, a more sophisticated CVT with paddle shifters and a physical launch gear to improve off-the-line acceleration response, and styling upgrades including a great looking set of 18-inch aluminum wheels. You can even get a 6-speed manual gearbox with the SE trim. That’s something you can’t get in a BMW 3 Series anymore, let alone most of the Corolla’s competitors.
Starting with the good stuff, the Corolla XSE’s driving dynamics are expertly tuned. Because you’re going to drive this car every day, it’s not stiff. And Toyota's switch to an independent rear suspension for 2020 gives the car a smooth and stable ride.
At the same time, however, the Corolla XSE isn’t soft. You feel and—because this car lacks adequate sound insulation—hear what’s happening at the road surface. There isn’t much feedback through the steering, but inputs are accurately conveyed to the front wheels, giving the Corolla XSE confidence-inspiring handling.
Regardless of the situation—threading through heavy traffic, thrumming down highways, or thrilling around corners—the Corolla can put a smile on your face. The brakes are excellent, too, withstanding miles of abuse on a writhing mountain road without suffering a hint of fade.
Indeed, the XSE can convince an enthusiastic driver that it’s a sport sedan. Until it comes time to accelerate.
Begging for a turbocharger, the Corolla XSE struggles to take advantage of holes in traffic. It has trouble passing slower vehicles on two-lane roads and climbing mountains at a rapid clip.
During commutes, the dearth of power isn’t a big deal, and the CVT performs unobtrusively. It even sounds and feels like a traditional automatic transmission the majority of the time. But when the ride and handling qualities encourage more dynamic driving, the powertrain simply isn’t ready to play, detracting from what otherwise could be a truly impressive experience in this segment.
With that said, if you want a fun little sedan, get the Corolla SE with the 6-speed manual gearbox. That’s why Toyota bothers to build it in the first place.
As far as fuel economy goes, my test car was EPA-rated to get 31 mpg city, 38 highway, 34 combined. I averaged 29.8 mpg on my testing loop. Keep in mind that my loop includes mountain driving, and I used Sport mode and manual mode with paddle shifters to keep the 2.0-liter revved up. Chances are that you’ll extract greater efficiency from this car than I did.
Form and Function
Compact cars are not as small as they used to be. In fact, the EPA officially rates some of them as midsize cars due to their roomy interiors. Last year, the federal government designated the Toyota Corolla, Camry, Avalon, and Prius as midsize cars.
Dimensionally, the Corolla is smaller than a Camry. Practically speaking, however, my family of four had no trouble using one for a week of summer trips to the beach, shopping excursions, and runs into the city. Well, almost no trouble.
My kids, aged eight and eleven, hated riding in this car. A Southern California heat wave baked the black SofTex leatherette to a temperature that produced tears. The Corolla XSE lacks rear air-conditioning vents, too, and there aren’t any USB charging ports. Whoever sat on the sunny side of the car roasted due to the lack of privacy-tinted rear glass. Also, it’s worth noting that my younger child’s booster seat scraped the heck out of the plastic trim where the seat's bottom cushion meets its backrest.
My wife wasn’t fond of the Corolla, either, because it lacks a front seat height adjuster. Already low to the ground due to the Corolla’s move to the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) platform, she felt like she was skimming along just inches above the pavement. And because the seating hip point is quite low, graceful entry and exit eluded her.
So, everyone was unhappy except me. The Corolla XSE’s 8-way power-adjustable driver’s seat is quite comfortable, and while SofTex does have a reputation for trapping sweat, the XSE’s cloth seat inserts help. Plus, the car’s single-zone automatic climate control system is mighty effective at cooling the cabin in short order, and people living in northern climates will appreciate the heated front seats and heated steering wheel.
I gave the front passenger’s seat a try. Thanks to its good thigh support, I found it acceptable. The back seat is comfortable, too, thanks to a tall bottom cushion, decent legroom, and softly padded front seatbacks. You sit up high in this car’s back seat, though, which means taller people are going to have a problem with headroom. They’ll also need to duck when exiting the car.
More than anything else, what bothered me about the Corolla’s interior is the lack of storage bins and cubbies. Even the cupholders are small, though they worked fine for the largest size iced coffee drink from my favorite café and Hydro Flask water bottles taken for a hike at Malibu’s Point Dume. Slide the center armrest forward for added comfort, though, and you effectively eliminate one of the two cupholders.
Trunk space measures 13.1 cubic feet, just two cubes less than a Camry. You can fit a couple of suitcases, a couple of roll-aboard bags, and a compact folding stroller into the space, and there’s still some room for a duffle bag and several backpacks. Toyota does not, however, provide a handle to use to shut the trunk without putting your hands on the dirty lid.
The redesigned Corolla includes Toyota’s family of next-generation Entune 3.0 infotainment systems. The most important thing for you to know is that Apple CarPlay is finally available. Android Auto is not. As far as user-friendliness is concerned, Entune 3.0 is a delight. The touchscreen sits up high, where it is easy to see and reach while driving. Stereo volume and tuning knobs are instantly familiar, and main menu access buttons line each side of the screen. The voice-recognition system worked well with Apple CarPlay, too, and the USB port is located near a smartphone shelf tucked under the dashboard. Wireless device charging is an option for XSE and XLE trims.
All versions of the Corolla's infotainment system get Amazon Alexa compatibility, as well as Siri Eyes Free, a 3-year free trial of a Scout GPS Link navigation app, a 3-year free trial of Safety Connect services, and a 6-month free trial of WiFi Connect with up to two gigs of data. Upgrade to LE trim or higher, and the system features an 8-inch display instead of a 7-inch screen and a USB charging port in addition to the standard USB media port.
My test car came with Entune 3.0 Plus, which adds advanced voice recognition, HD Radio, a 3-month trial of SiriusXM satellite radio, a 3-year trial of Service Connect services, and a 6-month trial of Remote Connect services. A 3-year trial of a cellular-connected dynamic navigation system, a 6-month trial of Destination Assist Connect, and a JBL premium sound system are available for XLE and XSE trim.
No, that’s not complicated, is it?
If you have an iPhone, you don’t need this stuff. The standard setup, with either the 7-inch or 8-inch touchscreen, provides what you need. If you have an Android device, well, consider leasing in order to leverage all of those free 3-year trial periods.
Toyota equips every 2020 Corolla with Toyota Safety Sense (TSS) 2.0. This next-generation suite of active driver-assistance systems (ADAS) is enhanced with new low-light pedestrian detection, daytime cyclist detection, road-sign recognition, and Lane Tracing Assist.
Lane Tracing Assist is a lane-centering assist technology. It works when the adaptive cruise control is on, helping to keep the Corolla in the middle of the lane of intended travel.
Generally speaking, TSS 2.0 operates with an impressive level of refinement and accuracy. For the most part, it is subtle, too. It would be nice, however, if the lane-departure warning system used a steering-wheel vibration instead of a short, sharp aural alert. The alert is irritating, prompting the driver to shut off the system.
On my usual testing loop, the new Lane Tracing Assist technology proved accurate and refined. But during a late Saturday night drive home from Dodger Stadium near downtown Los Angeles, on a day that began for me at dawn and culminated with Ringo Starr joining Paul McCartney for a thundering rendition of “Helter Skelter” just before midnight, my worn-out self was let down by it. Instead of relying on the tech, on the narrow lanes of the 5, 134, and 101 freeways, I continually second-guessed and fought it, adding to—rather than solving—my fatigue.
My test car also had a blind-spot monitoring system. In my opinion, this is one of the most significant safety features of the past decade. It is standard for XLE and XSE trims and optional for LE and SE trims. It does not, however, include a rear cross-traffic alert feature.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) gives the new Corolla sedan a 5-star rating for frontal-impact protection but had not completed side-impact testing as this review was published. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) named the redesigned Corolla sedan a Top Safety Pick for the 2019 calendar year.
Most people buy more expensive cars than they really need, which makes a compact sedan like the 2020 Corolla a truly cost-effective solution to your transportation requirements.
However, complaints from my family members deserve consideration. Space wasn’t an issue inside the cabin or the trunk. Comfort, however, was a problem for the people I love most. And with the Corolla, Toyota offers no solutions to their complaints.
Comfort, not space, is an issue in most compact cars. Cloth seats are usually restricted to lower trim levels. Rear-seat air-conditioning vents are typically absent. Front-passenger seat height adjusters are rare. And none of them come with factory tinted rear glass, like a crossover SUV.
So, while cars like the Corolla are cost-effective when compared to their SUV counterparts, like Toyota’s own RAV4, they can’t provide the same level of comfort or utility. And that’s why the traditional sedan has become a dying breed.
SUVs, however, typically aren’t as much fun to drive as a car. The new 2020 Toyota Corolla XSE is entertaining as far as its ride and handling go. With a turbocharger and a different transmission, it would at least back up its racy appearance and athletic driving dynamics with genuine performance.
And with some more attention to passenger comfort, Android Auto smartphone integration, a more accessible blind-spot monitoring system, and extra cabin storage space,, Toyota would be closer to setting the bar among compact cars rather than merely coming close to hitting it.
Christian Wardlaw has 25 years of experience reviewing cars and has served in editorial leadership roles with Edmunds, J.D. Power, the New York Daily News, Autobytel, and Vehix. Chris prefers to focus on the cars people actually buy rather than the cars about which people dream, and emphasizes the importance of fuel economy and safety as much as how much fun a car is to drive. Chris is married to an automotive journalist, is the father of four daughters, and lives in Southern California.
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