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Review: Standout 2020 Toyota Corolla Adds Safety, Performance, Hybrid

Eleven generations of the Toyota Corolla were inexpensive and reliable, if not always memorable. Now the 12th-generation Corolla will dazzle you. This 2020 compact sedan rides better, provides an upscale interior, and insulates outside noises more thoroughly. The safety suite and telematics system standard on every Corolla are as good as it gets at the entry level.

Excluding the least expensive trim, the Corolla costs about $ 21,000 (base LE) to $ 29,000 (loaded XSE). The Corolla lineup now has a hybrid that gets 52-53 miles per gallon, city or highway, for $ 24,000. That’s encroaching on Prius territory. If Corolla wasn’t on your radar before when shopping compact sedans, it should be now. This makes it two home runs in a row for Toyota with vastly better vehicles: the 2019 RAV4 compact SUV last fall, and the 2020 Corolla compact sedan now, with shipments beginning in March.

The improvements show up in both city and highway driving: a more rigid body, a better ride on bumpy roads, and better handling feel on twisty country roads. The cabin is quiet at highway speeds. Steering feel is better with all 2020s and there seemed to be more of it with the S versions. That’s when you’re driving the car yourself.

When you’d like to hand off some of the driving to the car, Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 (TSS) system of driver assists can make the Corolla self-driving-lite on the highway, effectively Level 2 autonomy, similar to Nissan ProPilot Assist. (TSS details below.) On the highway, TSS’ adaptive cruise control and lane centering assist combine to keep pace with the car ahead, brake as necessary, and center the car in its lane, all as long as you keep your hands lightly on the wheel. Mind you, Toyota doesn’t promote this feature at all. But you’ll figure it out for yourself.

Basic dimensions are the same for the 2020 Corolla, as is the carry-over engine for the L-LE-XLE trim lines: 1.8 liters, four cylinders, no turbo, and a casual 139 hp, yielding 30 mpg city, 38 mpg high, and 33 mpg overall for the L and LE, 29/37/32 for the XLE. The sportier SE-XSE trims get a 2.0-liter Dynamic Force (high efficiency) engine, with gasoline direct injection and port injection, good for 169 hp. Sporty drivers can get a six-speed manual transmission on the SE with rev matching, meaning the gearbox automatically matches revs when shifting. The SE/XSE are sportier than ever, but they are probably not the first choice for, say, showroom stock racing.

All other Corollas get a Toyota-Aisin CVT (continuously variable transmission).  The SE and XSE get a mechanical first gear for more sure-footed starts, then switch to the CVT. There’s only a little rubber-band effect, the mostly-in-the-past CVT affliction where the engine RPMs don’t seem to match acceleration under hard throttle. The manual gearbox SE gets the lowest mileage of any Corolla, 29/36/32, while the SE CVT gets 31/40/34 and the XSE gets 31/38/34. Note again: The CVT trumps the manual in highway driving, and it costs less.

Toyota applied its Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) modular platform to the Corolla, as it has since 2015 with other new Toyotas and Lexuses. The rear suspension goes from basic torsion beam to multilink components. The owner just sees sheet metal, but TNGA provides a more rigid body for better handling and better crumple zones in a crash.

Every Corolla’s audio system includes Apple CarPlay compatibility (but not Android Auto), Amazon Alexa services (anything you can tell Alexa at home, you can in the car, too), and WiFi Connect (Wi-Fi access through the integrated telematics system).

Toyota has most all the safety you could want – standard on all trim lines – with TSS. The Corolla even does limited autonomous driving on par with Nissan ProPilot. Of the most important driver assists, only blind spot detection is limited to higher-end Corollas. (Source: Toyota spec sheet.)

TSS 2.0: Serious Safety in a $ 20K Car

Last fall, ExtremeTech named the Toyota TSS and Honda Sensing safety suites as Technology of the Year. At its best, a safety suite assists the driver front, side, and rear, including potential crash and pedestrian-incident warnings even when the driver hasn’t activated all the features. Both automakers are extending the scope of the suites this year, as is the competition. Every 2020 Corolla gets Toyota Safety Sense 2.0, even the cheapest Corolla L that exists so dealer can advertise a sub-$ 20K price (if you exclude shipping, sales tax, and dealer tack-ons that magically appear at the time of the final signing).

A complete safety suite needs cameras and radar facing forward, and radar facing to the back and rear sides. The cameras provide lane departure warning/lane centering assist (“lane tracing assist” in Toyota terminology), traffic sign recognition, and can do forward collision warning and emergency braking, plus pedestrian/cyclist/large-animal detection and braking, and auto high beams on their own. The front radar does adaptive cruise control and can do collision warning. The rear radar does blind spot detection and possibly parking sonar, and rear/side radar can do rear cross traffic alert when backing out of parking spots.

Note the chart above. Every box is checked with an S (standard). The only blanks are where adaptive cruise control (“dynamic radar cruise control” in Toyota terminology) is not full-range (stop and go). Toyota fits a version of ACC to the manual-transmission Corolla SE that returns control to the driver below 20 mph.

Toyota’s only missing circle-of-safety feature that could be included in a standard safety — arguably should be — is blind spot detection. It’s especially helpful for young drivers, who forget to check side mirrors or look over their shoulders, and for older drivers, whose look-to-the-side muscles are less limber. Toyota makes it an option or standard on all but the entry Corolla L.

Toyota also makes standard a telematics package, Safety Connect, using the Verizon wireless network. When Toyota can put this all in a car that sells for $ 20K, it’s harder to understand why some $ 40,000 or $ 60,000 cars don’t have full safety assists and telematics standard across the board.

The 2020 Corolla has four L (as in luxe) variants, including the LE Hybrid, and two S (sport) variants. The S models have better, newer engines.

7 Corolla Trim Lines

Corollas come in L (as in luxury) and S (as in sport) variants: L, LE, LE Hybrid, XLE; and SE manual, SE CVT, XSE CVT. The S versions cost $ 1,500-$ 2,000 more, in part because of more powerful engines.

Corolla L, $ 20,430, including $ 930 freight. There are zero options and only a handful of non-premium paint choices. It does get LED headlamps and brake lights, Bluetooth, 15-inch steel wheels and 65 series tires, daytime running lights, backup camera (required by law now), fabric-covered manual-adjust seats, one USB jack, 4.2-inch color LCD MID, multifunction remote, and intermittent wipers.

Corolla LE, $ 20,880, just $ 450 more than L. The LE adds tweaks such as better seat fabric, heated outside mirrors, 16-inch steel wheels with 55 series tires, variable intermittent wipers, a rear center armrest with cupholders, a second USB jack. A $ 2,000 options package comprises a smart key with blind spot monitoring, push-button start, 16-inch alloy wheels, and a moonroof. The LE lets you order additional, premium paint colors for $ 395. You can stop here and have a desirable new compact car, extremely safe, for $ 21K outright, or $ 140-$ 150 a month on a 36-month, 10-percent-down lease.

Corolla LE Hybrid, $ 23,880, no options except paint.

Corolla LE Hybrid, $ 23,880. The engine is a 121-hp four-cylinder with a 71-hp (53 kW) motor and a small NkMh battery good for a half-mile on its own. It rides on 195/65R15 alloy wheels (with aero cover) and tires. The front seats are manually adjusted, all seating surfaces are “premium-fabric-trimmed,” and standard audio has six speakers. The only option is premium paint for $ 395. The RAV4 Hybrid was just $ 800 more than the regular RAV4. Here the difference is $ 3,000. Toyota says there’s additional equipment beyond what’s on the LE.

Corolla XLE, $ 24,880, $ 4,000 more than LE model. The extra four grand gets you integrated blind spot detection, a 7- not 4-inch MID, SofTex (imitation leather) seat trim, heated front seats, a standard smart key, premium LED and not just LED headlamps (that’s what the spec sheet says), three years of free telematics and onboard Wi-Fi (2GB free spread over the first six months), and satellite and HD radio.

For both XLE and SXE, there’s a Premium Audio package that comprises a nine-speaker JBL (Harman) system and Qi wireless charging for $ 1,715. The Advanced Lighting package has steerable front headlamps and cockpit ambient lighting for $ 450.

Corolla SE, $ 22,880 with the CVT, $ 23,580 with the six-speed. It’s configured roughly as the LE is. There is also front accent lighting. The front grille is “sport mesh gray metallic” versus LE/XLE’s black, the wheels on all SE/XSEs are 18-inch alloy with 40 series tires (susceptible to pothole damage in cold weather states), there are gray metallic-look side rocker panels and a color-keyed rear spoiler, the steering wheel is leather, and there are sport seats with power driver adjustments. Interestingly, it’s the CVT not the six-speed SE that has normal/sport driving modes, as well as the premium JBL audio system. The SE CVT’s leather steering wheel gets paddle shifters.

Corolla XSE, $ 26,380. The XSE’s rocker panels are gray as is the rear spoiler. The front sport seats are SofTex with fabric, the driver’s seat is eight-way power adjustable, the passenger’s six-way manual. Like the XLE, the MID is 7 inches and the wheels and short-sidewall tires are 205/40R18. Like the SE, there are normal/sport modes. It has the same JBL Premium Audio and lighting options as the XLE, 8-inch center stack touchscreen display with CD player (still), and Wi-Fi connection for five devices.

In addition to the six Corolla sedans, Toyota launched a 2020 Corolla hatchback last fall. It’s 13 inches shorter: easier to park, harder on back seat passengers.

Should You Buy a Corolla?

The 2020 Toyota Corolla is the best buy-it/drive-it/occasionally-maintain-it new compact sedan you can buy today. Everything about the new Corolla is better. The standard driver safety assists (Toyota Safety Sense 2.0) and integrated telematics (Safety Connect) are class-leading. It’s rated by interior volume as a midsize car, although the rear legroom seems snugger. Up front, you feel closer to the other passenger than in the Camry, the next size car up.

The competition is strong among current compacts, many of which also are rated midsize based on EPA passenger volume data. The 2019 Mazda3, just out, has the most upscale interior of any mainstream compact car and handles better. Other good compacts are the Honda Civic (the only compact to outsell Corolla last year, 325,760 to 303,732), Chevrolet Cruze, Volkswagen Golf and Jetta, Kia Forte, Nissan Sentra, and Hyundai Elantra/Elantra GT.  If you want sharp handling, look to the Mazda3, Golf, and Jetta; the stock Civic is very good, too.

If you want a solid safety suite, Honda Sensing is on every Civic with roughly the same features as Corolla has. Neither Corolla nor Civic makes blind spot detection standard. On Toyota, it’s not on the entry L, nor the hybrid. On Honda, blind spot detection is a camera-based system called LaneWatch that isn’t useful at night and is omitted from the bottom two of the five trim lines. Other makers have decent safety suites, especially Nissan and Subaru.

The Corolla is front-drive only. If if you want all-wheel-drive, look at the Subaru Impreza and Crosstrek (a hatchback), the Mazda3, or the Golf All-Track. If you want a great deal on a defunct car, the well-regarded (except when you look at sales) Chevrolet Cruze goes out of production soon, and the still available Cruze diesel puts up hybrid-like numbers on the highway (48 mpg, easily topped by most drivers).

Also, look at compact or subcompact SUVs. A subcompact SUV will be closer to the Corolla on price and total volume (passenger plus cargo); a compact SUV will have rear seat legroom more like a compact sedan and cost several thousand more. Base price on the RAV4 is $ 26,000.

Toyota makes a Corolla Hatchback (which looks also like a tiny SUV), launched last fall with the same TNGA building blocks. It has a shorter wheelbase, resulting in a bouncier highway ride, and snugger back seat. It targets drivers seeking a car with a sportier look or one that’s easier to park, and at 170.5 inches long it’s 13 inches shorter than the Corolla. It has the same TSS 2.0 safety system.

As for Corolla LE Hybrid versus the Toyota Prius, the lone Corolla trim is $ 24,000 with premium paint as the only option. The Prius runs $ 25,000-$ 33,000 in a half-dozen trim lines. The Corolla is 3 inches longer and has more interior room while the Prius has more cargo capacity. The difference in fuel economy is marginal. If the Corolla Hybrid takes off, Toyota will add more options and trim lines.

The bottom line: If you buy the 2020 Corolla, you’re getting a very good car. No longer do you have to say, “I got a good payment plan,” or “I don’t want to worry about repairs after the warranty runs out.” It’s a very good car on its own. We especially like the Corolla LE for its affordability, and the XSE for the solid feature set including blind spot detection (same goes for XLE) and a bit sportier handling feel.

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