2020 Toyota Corolla first drive review: A better value in the compact sedan space

The Baader-Meinhof effect, also called the frequency illusion, says that when you focus on something, suddenly you'll notice it all around you. It happens to car reviewers all the time: Evaluate a Jeep Wrangler and all of a sudden there's one on every street corner. Research a minivan and you spot one in every parking lot. But with the Toyota Corolla, well, it's not an illusion. The car really is everywhere.

In January of this year alone, Toyota Corolla sedan sales totaled 23,630, which is more than the entirety of Volkswagen's US sales that month. In other words, when the 2020 Toyota Corolla sedan, the car's 12th generation, goes on sale this week, it'll have huge name recognition on its side.

But that's not the only positive thing about the car. A first drive in Savannah, Georgia, reveals the all-new Corolla sedan is a pretty good update for the famous nameplate all round.

New bones, new skin

The 2020 Corolla is built on the company's global TNGA platform, versions of which are used for everything from the Prius right up to the RAV4. The new model's wheelbase is identical to the outgoing Corolla, but overall length is down 0.8 inch, resulting in shorter overhangs that help make the car look a little better. More important improvements for the new platform include a 60-percent increase in rigidity and the installation of a multilink rear suspension, which replaces the simpler torsion-beam arrangement of the last Corolla.

With the caveat that it's a low bar to clear, the 2020 Corolla looks a whole lot less bland than its predecessor. The improved proportions help, as does more interesting design up front, with the low hood and skinny LED headlights. A new trunk lid offers a bigger opening into the cargo area and also smarter design, with standard LED taillights at either side. The SE and XSE trim levels go even further, with 18-inch wheels, a different front fascia, gray accenting on the side skirts, a trunk-lid spoiler and an exposed twin-tip chrome exhaust.

A new interior mostly follows the design of last year's Corolla Hatchback.

Toyota

Highly functional interior

Move inside the 2020 Corolla sedan and you may recognize the design from the Corolla Hatchback. Pretty much everything carries over from five-door to four-door, meaning a simple dashboard with lots of horizontal lines. The secondary controls are all easy enough to manipulate. While high-trim models, like the XSE, have neat design elements including contrast-colored seating and even some accent stitching, the Corolla's dash is overall somewhat boring to look at. At least all the materials feel nice to the touch and are less plasticky than before.

Some downsides: The center console cubby is small. The front USB and auxiliary ports are mounted near-vertically on the right-hand side of the center stack, just where a passenger's knee would bump it. And the glovebox is undamped on some trims, making it slam open.

The car's visibility is excellent in every direction. This year the car's hood is lower and its A-pillars are thinner, and the side-view mirrors move onto the doors so engineers could install a small quarter window to further help visibility. The standard instrument cluster has a big and legible analog speedometer in the center with a configurable 4.2-inch color trip computer to the right, while XSE and XLE models use a full-digital, 7-inch instrument cluster than can show either a virtual analog speedo or a digital velocity readout.

This optional 7-inch digital instrument cluster can show lots of vehicle information.

Toyota

Back seat space is good, with class-competitive amounts of head- and legroom. In fact, legroom is so plentiful that even with the passenger seat slid all the way backward, I can still sit behind it without issue. Cargo volume is 13.1 cubic feet, only a smidge better than before and behind rivals like the Honda Civic (15.1 cubic feet), Hyundai Elantra (14.4) and Volkswagen Jetta (14.1).

Better to drive in most ways

The car's base engine is a 1.8-liter inline-four, a derivative of the mill used in the old Corolla's LE Eco trim. Now up 7 horsepower, it delivers 139 horsepower and 126 pound-feet of torque, which are unimpressive figures even within the Corolla's class.

The engine sounds gruff but accelerates and performs just fine. It's not a quick car, but in urban driving most people will never find themselves aching for more power. The standard continuously variable transmission exhibits the so-called rubber-band effect, sending the engine's revs zinging up and down, which makes linear and smooth acceleration a little tough.

The Corolla offers 1.8- and 2.0-liter inline-four engines, both mated to a CVT.

Toyota

The Corolla suffers from a notable delay when you step on the accelerator: There's a beat between when you press the right pedal and when the engine begins to respond. It is, frankly, hugely annoying in city driving, especially compared to the predictable ways in which the Corolla's competitors step away from a stop.

Though the powertrain isn't particularly memorable, the new TNGA chassis pays dividends in how well the Corolla comports itself overall. It rides well over all road surfaces, its brake pedal is firm and the steering has much more directness than the last Corolla.

The Corolla SE and XSE, meanwhile, use the same 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine as in the Corolla Hatchback. It's rated for a much more exciting 169 hp and 151 lb-ft, and the accompanying transmission is Toyota's "Direct Shift" CVT. That means it has a fixed first-gear ratio, for crisper acceleration off the line, as well as manual shift controls and a sport mode. You can also get a six-speed manual transmission, but I didn't end up driving a version so equipped during this first-drive event.

2020 Toyota Corolla XSE

In addition to sportier bodywork, the Corolla XSE gets the more powerful engine and different suspension tuning.

Toyota

Acceleration is, obviously, far peppier in these models, and the engine is smoother and quieter, too. With unique spring and shock tuning, as well as wider tires (225/40 aspect ratio) on 18-inch wheels, the SE and XSE models have noticeably more weight to their steering, as well as a slightly firmer ride. Calling these cars "sporty" would be a bit of a stretch, but they drive with a lot more maturity than the 1.8-liter Corollas alone. Frankly, they drive so well I wish every Corolla were set up the way the SE and XSE are.

Both cars have higher-than-expected amounts of wind and road noise, which is especially concerning given my mostly suburban test drive routes never had me driving faster than 60 mph. A 75-mph cruise would presumably be even louder. But road noise is dependent on local pavement surfaces, so I'll wait until I can drive the Corolla at home to make a full judgement.

Your mileage will vary depending on trim level

Fuel economy has improved considerably versus the old Corolla, though as ever, Toyota breaks out mileage figures by trim level. The Corolla L and LE are rated for a respectable 30 miles per gallon city and 38 miles per gallon highway. Meanwhile the XLE scores 29/37 mpg.

2020 Toyota Corolla XLE

Rear-seat legroom is plentiful for adult passengers.

Toyota

But the 2.0-liter engine is thriftier: It returns 31/38 in XSE trim and 31/40 mpg in the SE (the SE with a six-speed manual offers up 29/36 mpg). Note that rivals match or better those numbers: The Volkswagen Jetta returns 30/40 mpg in every trim level and the Honda Civic sedan can post as much as 32/42 mpg with its turbo engine.

So not only is the 2.0-liter engine more powerful than the 1.8 by 37 horsepower, it's also more efficient -- so why not use it on all trim levels? Ed Laukes, group vice president of Toyota Division Marketing, said it comes down to keeping entry prices lower on L, LE and XLE models. The 1.8 engine and older CVT are cheaper, thus that powertrain remains standard despite its objective demerits.

Plentiful in-car tech

Infotainment is taken care of by touchscreens that stick up from the top of the dashboard, with a 7-inch screen standard and an 8-inch one optional. Despite somewhat dated-looking graphics, the systems work well enough, with prompt responses and redundant physical controls for jumping between functions or adjusting the volume and tuning the radio. Satellite radio is offered only on the XLE and XSE models, and is optional on the SE.

Both 7- and 8-inch touchscreen infotainment systems have Apple CarPlay and Amazon Alexa integration.

Toyota

Navigation is optional on the 8-inch screen, but all Corollas come with Apple CarPlay support. Android Auto is unavailable. Toyota did recently fit the smartphone tech to some 2020 trucks and SUVs, and Laukes hinted it might be offered for the new sedan at a later date, saying Android Auto is "a top priority for our multimedia group." Also standard are Amazon Alexa integration and a Verizon4G LTE wi-fi hotspot with support for five devices, while wireless phone charging is a available as an option.

Safety technology is in abundance, with every single trim level featuring Toyota Safety Sense 2.0, the automaker's latest suite of active-safety features. The automatic emergency braking system now adds cyclist and low-light pedestrian detection. There's also lane-keep assist, adaptive cruise control, highway lane centering when using cruise control, automatic high beams and road-sign recognition. Blind-spot monitoring is optional and only available on certain trims. Having auto braking and the other safety systems as standard is a nice touch when some competitors require extra options packages to get those features.

Approachable pricing

The Corolla remains an affordable choice within its segment, with base prices starting at just $20,430 with destination. That low, low entry price is for the Corolla L, but it's so sparsely equipped that most buyers should begin their research at the better-equipped LE model, which lists for $20,880. Its equipment roster includes things like 16-inch wheels, automatic climate control, an 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system, two USB ports, keyless entry and heated mirrors.

The XLE, shown here, is the Corolla's top trim level.

Toyota

The $24,880 XLE trim, meanwhile, boasts push-button start, alloy wheels, a sunroof, blind-spot monitoring, navigation, a power driver's seat, heated front seats, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and the 7-inch digital instrument cluster. Compared to similar trims on rival cars, the loaded-up XLE isn't bad value.

Buyers who want to pick the sportier 2.0-liter models will pay a bit extra for the privilege. The SE trim level is offered with a six-speed manual transmission for $23,580 or with the CVT for $22,880. Its equipment list mostly mirrors that of the LE. The priciest Corolla is the XSE, which starts at  $26,380 and is similar, features-wise, to the XLE.

Much improved and ideal for most shoppers

For all the improvements throughout, the 2020 Toyota Corolla still would not be my first pick among its competitors. A Honda Civic is more satisfying to drive, a Volkswagen Jetta or Mazda3 look better and have nicer interiors. But that's not to disparage the fact that Toyota seems to recognize that for a lot of buyers, affordability and value for money are some of the biggest factors to consider when buying a new car. In both respects, the Corolla delivers.

The 2020 Corolla is a marked improvement over its predecessor in every way and does everything most buyers could ever need from an entry-level compact sedan -- all for an impressively approachable price and with good fuel-economy figures. Add in the fact that so much safety tech is standard and the Corolla makes a lot of sense as a practical, everyday commuter car.


Editors' note:Travel costs related to this feature were covered by the manufacturer. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists. While Roadshow accepts multi-day vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews, all scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms.

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