2020 Toyota Corolla

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Only two cars rival the success of the Toyota Corolla. They do not exceed it.

The Model T Ford – and the VW Beetle. The original Beetle (the one made from the mid-1930s through the early 2000s  . . . Hecho en Mexico) which is a continuous production run of 70-something years.

Toyota has sold twice as many Corollas – 46 million of them – over the past 50 years.

Impressive.

Like the Model T and the Beetle, the Corolla has never been a sexy car. But sexy is often superficial – and hides something ugly underneath.

The Corolla’s solid bones are what’s kept people committed. It was – it is – a good car. Solid, dependable.

A car that you could bank on not falling apart on you the week after the warranty expires; the one that will be your trusty companion for years after you make that last payment – and probably still trusty enough to hand off to your kid when it was time for his first car, fifteen years after you left the dealer’s lot in it.

But solidity has caught on.

The Corolla’s rivals are also good cars.

Several – like the Mazda3 – are sexy, too.

Which is just what Toyota has added to the mix with the latest Corolla.

It’s very different.

And yet, still the same.

What It Is

The Corolla is the world’s perennially best-selling entry-level compact-sized sedan.

Which is now available as a sporty hatchback, too.

With a new, larger – and much stronger – engine, for those who want some pep to go with the Corolla’s legendary practicality.

Which includes a stupendous 41.4 inches of backseat legroom for the sedan. That’s several inches more legroom than some larger sedans (including the mid-sized Camry) have for their back seat passengers.

And nearly as much as they have for the front seat occupants, too.

Prices start at $19,500 for the base L trim sedan, which comes standard with an updated version of  the 1.8 liter engine  that was last year’s only available engine – paired with a continuously variable (CVT) automatic transmission.

You can get a larger/stronger 2.0 liter engine in the SE trim – and with a six-speed manual transmission – for $22,650.

A top-of-the-line XSE with the same engine but paired with the CVT automatic, heated leather seats, an upgraded (8 inch vs. 7 inch) tablet-style LCD touchscreen and an 18-inch wheel/tire package lists for $25,450.

The hatchback Corolla, which comes standard with the 2.0 liter engine/manual transmission combo, starts at $19,990 for the SE trim. A top-of-the-line XSE with the 2.0 engine and CVT stickers for $24,090.

A 52 MPG-capable hybrid version of the Corolla is also available; it will be reviewed separately.

What’s New

Both versions of the Corolla are new. They are styled more aggressively – and sit much more suggestively.

Both are almost two inches lower to the ground: 5.1 inches  vs. 6.7 for the previous Corolla. The hatchback is also almost a foot shorter overall – but has much more cargo capacity due to its hatchback vs. trunk layout, which allows almost all of the available interior space to be used for carrying stuff when you’re not carrying people.

All Corollas come standard with Wi-Fi, AppleCarPlay and Amazon Alexa.

For the first time, you can get a configurable LCD main gauge cluster in a Corolla, as well as turns-in-the-curves adaptive LED headlights and Dynamic Radar Cruise Control – features that as recently as ten years ago were only available in a Lexus – and not for $22k or so.

What’s Good

The safe bet is no longer stodgy.

New larger/stronger engine gets better mileage than previously standard smaller/ weaker engine.

Sedan’s backseat legroom is comparable to what you’d find in a six-figure, full-size luxury sedan.

What’s Not So Good

If you want a manual transmission, you have to buy the larger/stronger engine.

Hatchback’s back seats are much tighter than sedan’s – and rivals’.

Pushy saaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaafety tech is standard.

Under The Hood

The sedan still comes standard with the familiar 1.8 liter engine that used to be the Corolla’s only available engine – but it’s not quite the same engine.

Horsepower is up a bit – to 139 now vs. 132 last year – and the mileage it manages rises to 30 city, 38 highway, a significant 2 MPG uptick from last year’s 28 city, 36 highway.

The updated 1.8 liter engine’s mileage is nearly as good as the LE Eco version of the 1.8 liter engine that was available – at extra cost – in last year’s Corolla.

It managed 30 city, 40 highway.

The bad news, if you prefer to shift for yourself, is that Toyota has decided to offer the 1.8 liter engine only with a continuously variable (CVT) automatic transmission.

Last year, you could get it with a manual, which made up for the lack of horsepower by letting you make the most of the horsepower there was.

The very good news, however, is that you can get a manual transmission – a six-speed manual, with rev-matching downshifts – and a much more powerful engine to go with it.

A 2.0 liter engine is now available in the sedan and standard in the hatchback.

This engine produces 169 horsepower, which makes it the strongest engine ever offered in a Corolla. It is also a very high-compression engine (13.0:1) which Toyota uses to increase cylinder pressure – and so power and efficiency  – without the cost (and complexity) of a turbocharger, as almost everyone else is doing.

This engine has fewer parts than its turbocharged cross-shops (for example, the Honda Civic) and so fewer things to wear out and cost you money after the warranty expires.

Impressively – there’s that word again – the 2.0 liter engine is designed to run best on 87 octane regular gas. This is a perk of direct injection, which the new engine also has. Without it, a 13.0:1 compression ratio would mean mandatory high-octane premium gas – and an extra 20-30 cents per gallon at every fill-up.

On the other hand, the 1.8 liter engine is still a port fuel injection engine – and so even simpler and probably even less apt to make you open your wallet after the warranty expires.

If you prefer not to shift for yourself, the 2.0 liter engine can be paired with the CVT automatic – and in both versions of the Corolla.

The CVT has the usual manual-control mode, which mimics the up (and down) shifts of a conventional automatic, but without the shift shock.

It also has something unusual in a CVT: A traditional (geared) first gear, with the usual CVT pulleys and bands taking over after the car gets moving. Why do this? To help the car launch stronger and more reliably.

The geared first gear takes most of the load of getting the Corolla going, which ought to reduce wear and tear over time on the bands, the part which usually wears out first in a CVT.

Which means the Corolla’s CVT should be as durable as the rest of the car.

 

Be advised, however, that the manual-equipped version is noticeably quicker. It gets to 60 in about 7.5 seconds vs. 8.5 for the same car with the CVT.

Either way, the 2.0-equipped Corolla is almost light-speed quicker than the previous 1.8 liter-equipped Corolla, which took about 10 seconds to get to 60.

On The Road

The changes go deeper than what’s under the hood.

The hood itself is 1.4 inches lower than before, which – along with a lowered-to-complement dashboard – greatly improves forward visibility, something that’s becoming harder to find in many new cars, which seem to have been styled by Stevie Wonder.

The engine – either one – also sits lower in the bay, which puts its weight closer to the road, always a good thing as far as stability and balance are concerned.

Both Corollas sit just 5.1 inches off the pavement vs. 6.7 inches for the previous model.

There’s newness under the floorpans, too. The previous torsion beam rear suspension has been replaced with a multi-link design that improves the car’s handling and its ride.

Equipped with the optional 18-inch wheels (largest ever offered by the factory) and the new 2.0 liter engine and six-speed manual, this Corolla lives up to its looks.

It also gives Toyota buyers the kind of looks – and feelings – they used to have to shop Mazda or Honda to get.

The Corolla is quick – a superlative that was among the very few which did not apply to previous Corollas.

It is also fun – and there’s another one.

The fact that it’s more fuel-efficient than the previous-gen Corolla with the 1.8 liter engine is like getting a ribeye steak for the price of hamburger.

The sedan is the same package, only in a subtler – and longer – wrapper.

At The Curb

The Corolla is almost a mid-sized car now.

Inside, it’s more than mid-sized.

Though about a foot shorter overall than the Camry sedan – nominally, Toyota’s mid-sized sedan – the Corolla has more legroom in both of its rows: 42.3 inches up front and 41.4 inches in the second row vs. 42.1 inches up front in the Camry and 38 inches in the backseat.

The only thing the Camry’s got more of, space-wise, is a slightly larger trunk – 15.1 cubic feet vs. 13 cubic feet for the Corolla – but it’s a difference without much distinction.

Meaningfully different is the Corolla’s smaller overall footprint. It is 182.3 inches long vs. 192.7 inches for the Camry. That almost-a-foot difference in length gives the Corolla more maneuverability when it’s moving (including a tighter turning circle) and gives you easier access to parking spots when it’s time to stop moving.

The hatch fits in even tighter places – because it’s about a foot less long than the sedan (169.9 inches) but there is a price to be paid for this.

There’s about a foot less backseat legroom in the hatchback, which only has 29.9 inches for your gams.

But, the compensation for that is much more room for your stuff.

The hatch has almost 18 cubic feet of cargo space behind its backseats and with them folded down, that opens up to 23.2 cubic feet.

This space is also more available because of the hatchback layout. The liftgate opens wide and you have full access to the car’s interior. It may have less backseat legroom, but the hatchback Corolla can carry objects that the sedan can’t – unless you strap them to its roof.

The secondary LCD touchscreen for the car’s audio and infotainment systems has been moved up to the top of the center stack, so it’s easier to look at without having to look down.

Base trims get a 7 inch screen; higher trims get a larger 8 inch screen with more apps. With either screen, the app icons are nice big squares that are easy to ID at a glance and even easier to tap accurately with the car in motion.

The center console cubby is small, but it’s deep – and so will take things like oversize drink cups too large for the cupholders near the shift lever.

The Rest

The new Corolla would have qualified as a new Lexus as recently as five years ago. It might even qualify today.

You can get it – a Corolla – with an 800 watt/nine-speaker JBL ultra-premium audio system with voice recognition, configurable interior ambient lighting and adaptive LED headlights that turn in the curves.

Also standard is something called Road Sign Assist, which is almost certainly a precursor to Intelligent Speed Assist – just mandated by the European Union for all new cars sold there beginning with the 2022 model year. RSA “sees” speed limit, stop, yield and other traffic signs and – for now – displays the appropriate icon in the main gauge cluster on the theory of in-case-you-missed it.

When Intelligent Speed Assist is mandated here – which the Safety Cult will surely demand – RSA will do more than let you know the speed limit is X or that there is a stop sign ahead. It will assist you to hew to the speed limit  – and otherwise obey the various traffic laws, to the letter.

A related feature – also standard (part of the Safety Sense 2.0 package, included with all 2020 Corollas) is Lane Departure with Steer Assist – which countersteers when the system thinks you are wandering out of your lane or making a lane change/passing maneuver without having signaled first.

It can be turned off, for now.

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.

The Bottom Line  

There have always been plenty of rational reasons to buy a Corolla. Now there are other reasons, too.

. . .

Got a question about cars – or anything else? Click on the “ask Eric” link and send ’em in!

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23 COMMENTS

  1. 29.9″ of leg room in the back seat of the hatch? Useless for adults. That’s just a slight bit more than a bloody Gremlin or Monza from the 70s. Progress !!!

    And what was the reason for lowering the car ? The biggest complaint about sedans and the greatest attribute of the CUV apparently is the ease of entry and exit.

  2. I find it ironic….and depressing that cars are soooooo complicated yet now have comparable fuel mileage to cars in the late 80’s, early 90’s. I’ve thought about finding a Detroit Diesel 6V53T and stick in a pickup. Old enough pickup, such as the ’93 and older GM diesels had no computer so any diesel should be legal.

    I get tired of hearing the neighbors Cummins with an 8″ echo chamber on the exhaust with no muffler but the DD is another story. I listened to one for so many years it sorta became ingrained in my mind as a “good” sound. I still sometimes find a video of an old one in an old truck and close my eyes and reminisce.

    • Hi Eight,

      Amen.

      I can remember test driving full-size/V8-powered six passenger sedans back in the ’90s – e.g., the “shamu” Impala – that got about the same highway mileage (low 30s) as the typical modern,compact-sized four-cylinder crossover SUV, which seats five.

      • Hey eric, there are a lot of things that make no sense I know I’ve heard you speak of many times. The mileage a vehicle gets tells you how much carbon is being produced and just because there’s an incremental reduction of certain chemicals such as oxides doesn’t mean that vehicle is any better unless you run the exhaust through the cab and probably not even then.

        I’d bet ammo there are few of the greenies who scream bloody murder about “carbon” who even know what percentage of the atmosphere is CO2. Even though it is a minuscule amount it has changed greatly even before man existed.

        But the truth, and we never want to point out the truth, is that more CO2 makes plants grow faster and larger and emit more O2. I’d also bet those same screaming greenies couldn’t tell you what gas is dominate in our atmosphere. That would be a good question Leno could ask in one of his street quiz videos that highlight just how ignorant people are, esp. the young “adults”. Well, their bodies are adult anyway. I can just see that look of befuddlement as they ask such as “what are my choices?”, a great one I always get a laugh from. Your best choice would be to gain a little knowledge. But I haven’t been on Facebook or Twitter today…..or ever, so I’m the dumb one.

        • Hey 8, I remember those “Jaywalking” bits from his show years ago; nobody could recognize a picture of Washington, Lincoln, or whoever was president at the time, but everyone knew Michael Jackson, the winner of American Idol, or some other airhead celebrity. That’s when I knew for sure our future was doomed.

          • MIB, they’re a curious bunch aren’t they? You’d think at some point in their life they might look at the images on currency and coins and be interested enough to find out who those people are. But no, they probably haven’t had any currency in their life to speak of, just that all-important card mommy and daddy keep tanked up for them.

  3. I get tired of the fat, pudgy, padded everything. The small pudgy go-cart steering wheels, and clit-shifters. They are all becoming claustrophobic little padded coffins on 4 wheels. Trying to do repairs inside these things is virtually impossible, and I am only 5’6″ & 130 lbs. Under the hood service has become increasingly frustrating , in some cases needing a transmission funnel just to add engine oil. Changing a headlight or parking light bulb usually requires removal of the majority of the front grill and bumper cover, not to mention a fender well or two.

    • Hi Graves,

      What troubles me more is the galloping addition of Automated Driving Tech – marketed as “assists” – in almost all new cars. They are pushing hard to take the controls away from us. Another five years, I think, and it’ll all be over. Then they’ll heel back around and come after us, the people who still have vehicles under our control.

      Wait. It’s coming.

    • gtc, “I get tired of the fat, pudgy, padded everything.” Me too. I’m tempted to grab one and tie her to the bumper of my pickup like an old man I know did with his horse he wanted to keep in shape but didn’t want to ride it. In just a few weeks little fat, pudgy and padded would be slim, trim and tight. It would work even if you just made them walk since it’s difficult to munch with a rope around your neck.

    • gtc, decided this was as good as any to air another grievance of “alternative controls”, via tiny joystick instead of a steering wheel. If anyone has a doubt as to what generation are designing equipment controls, the newer stuff won’t leave you with a doubt it’s the Atari bunch and younger.

      Cat Dozers with two pushbutton throttle settings, idle and WOT. Slow or speed up with a deceleration pedal under each foot…..gives you a lot of incentive to be able to never have to slow down. A tiny joystick that controls the blade, careful with that Axe Eugene.

      Trackhoes with nothing but a tiny joystick, maybe a bit of and inch tall. I guy I was working with, he was sorting rock that came out of a ditch with a trackhoe and I was hauling it to a quarry. At the end of the day he was all in. He said “I’m worn out. My thumb and finger are killing me……seriously, it’s almost all I moved all day and moved it a lot.”

      I’ve been in loaders where the operator’s seat and controls float and it has the usual joystick for most everything. It’s a bit disconcerting to me to have a 12 yard loader lumbering around over rough ground while I am simply floating with the controls.

      Another precinct from where I work has a new roadgrader….with no steering wheel, just a joystick. I understand this crap is cheaper than a steering wheel and a gearbox since the joystick merely controls to hydraulic rams……electronically since there is no spool valve as you’d have with a steering wheel. Nobody likes the thing. If the joystick were large it wouldn’t be so bad but it’s a tiny thing to control a huge piece of road equipment that runs 30mph. Better not get a twitch.

      Soon they’ll be self-operating. That should result in some real carnage.

  4. Eric,
    Do you have the CVT model to test, or just the 6 speed? I had a rental Corolla 4 or 5 years ago. It had the CVT. I hated the way it shifted, if you can call it shifting. It acted so strange and I couldn’t find anything positive about a cvt transmission.

    I’m someone that enjoys the drive. That Corolla would have made me hate the drive. No matter what the drive was.

    • Hi Ancap,

      They sent me the manual (six-speed) for the week but I got a little seat time in the CVT model, too. It is much better, at least with the 2.0 engine. I can’t vouch for the 1.8 engine, not having tried a ‘2o so equipped. The 2.0’s additional almost 40 hp vs.last year makes a yuge difference. CVTs are mostly sucky, in my experience, when paired with marginally powerful engines.

      • I recall in ’08 a friend who worked as an insurance auditor had a Corolla company car. It wasn’t up to west Texas speeds and got bad mileage, was loud and rough and the guy couldn’t wait for the company “policy” regarding vehicles changed since management would always be changing from supplying the car to having the person supply the car and paying them mileage. He was soon rewarded with that “change” and promptly bought a slightly used Q45 that he put over 300K on. He wanted to rebuild the car but the parts were ungodly expensive, somewhere along the lines of $1K per shock and an amount for new brakes to stop your heart. I never knew anyone with a Q ship that didn’t love it.

        But he drove the whee out of it. Everyone who worked for that company drove the whee out of their cars since they had to drive a huge amount of miles every day. The guy with the Corolla once said his all-time one day mileage was something along the lines of 880 miles. You don’t do that at the speed limit nor even in daylight only.

        • My one “day” driving record was 1,100 plus miles, from Orlando FL to Austin TX. Left around 7 am, got in at maybe 4 am.

          • He was working though, stopping for customers. Don’t know how many hours he was gone.

            I used to go to the plains and get a load, return back to within 20 miles of Sweetwater, Tx. Rest and clean up and then leave for the east coast, get out there to a port, unload, and return to Atlanta Georgia before laying it down for a while. I was younger then……much, much younger.

  5. I feel the need to dispute your leading point Eric, the Model T and the VW Type 1 were a single design single models, the Corolla has been at least 7 or 8 distinctly different cars in its history most sharing little more than the name.

  6. Many times I have had to ‘swerve’ into the next lane when some clover does something stupid or for a animal. Like -Mark3-, to me it looks like a P O’ed Bass out of water. Imagine how many love bugs it will scoop up. Too many safety features for me,,, Auto High Beam? , Dynamic radar cruise control?, Lane tracing?,,, of course all to make driving “less of a chore” and b o r r r ing. We all know its all a precursor to Self-Driving, Auto-Everything,,, the end of driving fun.

    Now I like the hatch back feature. Had a Ford Escort Hatchback ‘back in the day’. A nice car except for the engine that liked to break timing belts which bent valves and broke pistons. Called the Crasher. The hatchback was very useful. Course it didn’t have Alexa and wifi but I somehow muddled through.

    • Wagons are the best cars to have. The amount of large stuff I could carry in it using the whole length of the car was astounding.

  7. What’s the shoulder room like v the Camry? they are starting to feel a bit pinched there versus a decade of so ago.

    • That pinching is due to the fattening arms and chests of western populations. I don’t notice the pinching but I am a skinny person, who doesn’t drink 3 liters of soda pop and eat 3 full packs of potato chips every day.

      • Hi Joe,

        I don’t notice it, either. I’m also skinny – but some of my friends aren’t and they really have trouble fitting into a standard sedan or coupe. The rate/degree of obesity is startling. In my area (SW Va) I’d estimate three out of every five people are seriously overweight (20-plus pounds) and it’s common to see people 50-plus pounds overweight, which was rare when I was a kid back in the ’70s and ’80s.

  8. well the front end looks like an angry trout about to swallow a fish. Similar to the predator front end lexus look. Aside from that Im sure its fine despite all the new safety stuff and likely ASS. At least they improved visibility some. As you said lacking in modern cars. I occasionally drive my mid 80s cars and am amazed at the difference in visibility. And at least toyota still make cars I guess rather than these jacked up crossovers and suvs. Btw my first car was an 84 corolla. Managed to turn it over though. It was a nice car.

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