Published 12:16 PM EDT Sep 10, 2019
The verdict: The redesigned 2020 Corolla rises above the sedan’s “appliance” reputation: It’s better-looking, nicer inside, offers more luxuries, has outstanding safety tech and is more engaging to drive.
Versus the competition: The Corolla is still a conservative choice among compact sedans, but the 2020 is a more interesting competitor – one you might choose because you actually want it.
The much-improved 2020 Toyota Corolla compact sedan has moved to a new global platform and has most of the underpinnings, amped-up tech and nicer trim that was previewed on the 2019 Corolla Hatchback – but it adds a legitimate back seat and trunk. A couple of sedan versions even get the hatchback’s added zip under the hood. The Corolla also comes in a high-mileage hybrid model that uses the Prius powertrain; that version is not covered in this review.
The Corolla has long been the safe choice for sedan shoppers, with both a well-earned reputation for dependability and the emotional appeal of an appliance; my refrigerator sparks more joy. It hasn’t wanted for buyers, though, splitting a third of annual compact sedan sales in the U.S. with the other big dog, Honda’s Civic. The new Corolla won’t upset its legions of loyalists, nor is it in danger of becoming a cult favorite, such as the Volkswagen Golf GTI or Honda Civic Si. But improved driving manners, better tech and more refinement make it – like its hatchback sibling – a Corolla you might want, not just need.
The 2020 sedan offers five trim levels: L, LE, SE, XLE and XSE. I drove several versions for this review. The new hybrid is unfortunately offered only as an LE, replacing the old LE Eco.
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A dose of the hatchback’s style
The Corolla’s new styling isn’t as sexy as the 2019 Mazda3 or as flamboyant as the Civic, but the formerly dowdy sedan now has much crisper styling, with stronger wheel openings and an upswept character line. The revised trapezoidal grille and new front bumper corners vary by trim level, but the standard skinny LED headlight assemblies stretching around the corners came directly from the hatchback, as did the “triple J” LED accent lights on higher trim levels. It keeps its tidy dimensions, varying less than an inch in any direction from the 2019.
The rear look is tamer (to wrap its arms around a trunk), with slimmer LED taillights, an upturned upper lip on the trunk lid and more lower bumper cladding. Sportier models add a dark gray rear spoiler and twin exhaust tips. Alloy wheels are standard on higher trim levels (with good-looking 18-inchers on the sportier SE and XSE) and optional on the LE.
A classier cabin
The new interior replaces the previous mishmash of rental-car materials with the hatchback’s cleaner design and better trimmings, including a soft-touch dashboard with piano-black accents even on lower trim levels. The dashboard’s shape enhances a roomy feel in the front. The standard upholstery is cloth, while the XLE gets SofTex vinyl and the sportier SE and XSE trim levels get the most undiluted version of the hatchback interior, including comfy, supportive sport seats with vinyl trim and color-accented cloth inserts that match the contrast stitching. As before, the only animal leather you’ll find in any Corolla is on the steering wheel and shift lever in higher trims.
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The backseat is roomy, unlike the hatch’s cozy rear quarters. There’s enough leg and head space for me, at 6-foot-2, to sit “behind myself” in the backseat. In most trim levels, quality doesn’t drop markedly in the back. The tops of the door panels were harder in the rear of the LE, for example, but the armrests front and rear were wrapped and padded. The cabin is still a little noisy, but there’s less wind, road and engine noise than in the 2019 – even more so in higher trim levels with added insulation.
Visibility is good all around and significantly improved at the front corners, thanks to thinner front pillars and the relocation of the side mirrors to the doors.
Cabin storage is a little stingy, even for a small car, falling short of the Civic’s space. There’s a large but hard device bin at the front of the center console and a small covered bin at the rear. The front door bins at least include a handy divider that kept my water bottle secure. There’s also a fold-down rear armrest with cupholders (except on the base L trim level). Trunk space is 13.1 cubic feet – competitive for a compact sedan, but less than the Civic or Volkswagen Jetta – and all trim levels have 60/40-split, folding rear backrests to expand the space.
Multimedia and tech amped up
Sitting atop the new dashboard is a touchscreen with welcome volume and tuning knobs and mechanical shortcut buttons rather than touch-sensitive panels like the Civic uses. Base L models get a 7-inch screen; all others get an 8-inch screen. Apple CarPlay integration is standard, as is Amazon Alexa, but if you’re an Android Auto user you’re still out of luck. A 4.2-inch driver information display alongside the analog gauges is standard on lower trim levels, while a fancier 7-inch configurable instrument display that sits prominently in the center is standard on the XLE, XSE and hybrid.
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Two USB ports are included on all but the L, with the second one in the center console bin meant to serve the rear seat. Wi-Fi capability (with subscription) is standard; wireless charging is newly optional. Six-speaker audio is standard, while a nine-speaker JBL system with a rear subwoofer is optional, bundled in a package with in-dash navigation for the XSE and XLE.
You want the engine upgrade
The more fun engine for the Corolla – which you can have only in the sportier SE and XSE trims – is a 169-horsepower, 2.0-liter direct-injection four-cylinder that made its debut in the hatchback. It puts out 151 pounds-feet of torque, and its acceleration is reasonably strong and smooth – much better than the base engine.
As in the hatchback, this engine is mated to a “smart” six-speed manual (but only on the SE) or a new-design continuously variable automatic transmission. The CVT does a good job of cutting CVT drone, and it also has a physical 1st gear to add pep and a more conventional feel off the line. Paddle shifters let you click through artificial gear steps once the CVT’s steel belt takes over. The stick has an Intelligent Manual Transmission mode that adds sports-car-like rev-matching on downshifts, unusual for a compact sedan. It also helps match engine and transmission speeds for smoother upshifts and mitigates stalling at launch. My main criticism is the engine’s limited availability; the rival Civic sedan puts its 174-hp, turbocharged 1.5-liter in all but the two lowest trim levels.
I was not able to drive the SE sedan with the six-speed manual, but I found that transmission made the hatchback a lot more fun. Cars.com’s L.A. Bureau Chief Brian Wong reports similar magic for the sedan, unlike the previous model’s sloppy and vague manual. He found that the downshift rev-matching doesn’t have “Porsche or Chevrolet Corvette levels of responsiveness, but it does a fine job of blipping the throttle slightly so you ease into downshifts. Another benefit is that it helps out on launches, especially for beginners, by adding a bit more throttle if you come up on the clutch without giving it enough gas” to avert a stall. “There’s a touch of vagueness in the gates between the gears, and the throws are a tad long for really vigorous driving. But predictable clutch feel, a shifter in the right spot – so you’re not stretching for any gears – and easy use go a long way toward an enjoyable stick experience.”
Sadly, most non-hybrid Corolla buyers will make do, even in the loaded XLE, with the ho-hum carryover 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine that puts out 139 hp (up 7 hp for 2020) and 126 pounds-feet of torque, which is mated to a conventional CVT (without the 1st-gear innovation). It will get you there, which may be enough for Corolla loyalists, but acceleration is sluggish, and the old-school engine is noisier and coarser than the 2.0-liter.
If you need another reason to want the 2.0-liter, how about better gas mileage? The 1.8-liter’s mileage improved slightly over the 2019, but the 2.0-liter with the CVT still beats it by 1 to 2 mpg in each category. You can compare them here. Toyota officials say this is because the new-generation 2.0-liter has improved fuel management and a higher compression ratio; the new CVT also spreads gearing higher. All versions and trim levels deliver very competitive 32-34 mpg EPA combined ratings, shamed only by the hybrid Corolla’s 52 mpg combined. In testing, I found I exceeded the ratings by an mpg or two.
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More engaging dynamics
Regardless of engine, all Corolla buyers get a better-handling car than in previous years. It feels more planted and composed, with a smoother ride that handles bumps well on all but the roughest pavement. Toyota says its new platform is 60 percent stiffer, and it shows. The 2020 Corolla also has a multilink independent rear suspension – an unusual upgrade among mainstream compact sedans, which commonly use cheaper torsion beam rear suspensions. It helps create a more agile feel – with or without the sportier suspension tuning, 18-inch wheels and lower-profile tires of the SE and XSE trim levels.
The standard Active Corner Assist system uses selective braking to help hold the line in cornering. The steering also has better weighting, though it felt less so in the LE than in higher trim levels, which Toyota officials said was due to the lower weight and different tires of the LE, not different tuning. Overall, the Corolla isn’t at the top of the compact car class when it comes to handling – try a Mazda3 or Volkswagen Golf, just to name two – but it’s a lot less bland to drive than it used to be.
Impressive safety and driver tech standard
All trim levels of the Corolla and Corolla Hybrid come with the full-featured Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 package of safety and driver assistance technology. The package includes a full-speed front collision warning system with automatic braking and pedestrian detection. It also includes lane departure alert with steering assist, road edge detection, automatic high beams and full-speed adaptive cruise control with stop and go (in CVT-equipped models). Also included is a new lane-centering system that proved very good at keeping the car in a marked lane, though it occasionally paused at exit lane splits. Blind spot warning is standard on higher trim levels and available in the LE and up. Adaptive headlights are optional in an Advanced Lighting Package on XLE and XSE trim levels. The Corolla’s standard safety and driver assistance bundle is comparable to (but more robust overall than) the Civic sedan’s standard package, including more features at more trim levels than most rivals.
Only higher-trim 2020 Corollas equipped with optional adaptive LED headlights earned an acceptable rating in headlight tests. The standard LED headlights were rated marginal for “inadequate visibility in multiple IIHS test scenarios.”
We have not yet done a Cars.com Car Seat Check on the 2020 Corolla, but the Latch anchors and tethers for child-safety seats appear to be easily accessible in the rear seat (though I wonder how long it would take me to lose one or more of the detachable Latch covers).
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You pay more for improved value
Prices are up for every trim level, though Toyota is quick to point to additional value, such as all the standard safety tech. As this was written, the base L starts $925 higher at $20,555 (all prices include a $955 destination charge, up $25 for 2020) and includes the CVT automatic. That undercuts an automatic base 2019 Civic LX at $21,280. Compare Corolla and Civic trim levels and features here.
The high-volume LE’s $21,005 starting price is $940 higher than the 2019, though if the LE appeals to you it’s worth checking out the high-mileage, LE-only hybrid that starts at $24,055 – about $3,000 more, but still less than the cheapest Toyota Prius. If you want the new gas engine, the sportier SE starts at $23,005 with the CVT and $23,705 with the six-speed manual (though this version adds other features, as well). The XLE is up $1,940 at $25,005 to start; the XSE with the new engine goes up $2,695 to start at $26,380. That pushes the XSE into new territory; add the $1,715 premium audio and connectivity package and the total hits $28,220. Compare that to $28,330 for the top-trim 2019 Civic Touring.
The Corolla has a typical warranty of three years/36,000 miles, five years/60,000 miles for the powertrain. But it also gives buyers two years or 25,000 miles of free scheduled maintenance and roadside assistance.
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