2020 Toyota Corolla Sedan & Hybrid - Finally Getting Cheerful

Chris Chin
by Chris Chin
2020 toyota corolla sedan hybrid finally getting cheerful

I had a nickname for the Toyota Corolla once. Back in my days as an overly judgmental prepubescent teenage boy, I used to call Toyota’s honest economy car the “Crapolla.” Growing up in an affluent North Jersey neighborhood in the ‘90s, everyone and their mother had a Bimmer, Benz, or even a Bentley. If you drove a Corolla, you were either a maid at the McMansion down the street or the underpaid seventh-grade social studies teacher of the local school district.

Although a by-word for cheap, efficient, reliable, and honest transportation, I simply couldn’t see beyond its reputation as a soulless tin econobox. It was far from a total dog. Yet, it still clearly gave off the impression that it was for people who didn’t have a pulse and couldn’t care less about cars or driving them. And let’s be honest, with the Toyota Corolla surpassing the Volkswagen Beetle as the best-selling automotive nameplate in history – over 46 million Corollas sold over its 11 generations – the vast majority of the car-buying public might have a questionable pulse.

My teen years were almost 20 years ago and the Corolla has certainly changed since then. Up until 2012, the Toyota Corolla maintained complete anonymity and was more inconspicuous than a loaf of Wonder Bread. It was hardly any more exciting than the loaf in nearly every aspect.

With the emergence of the eleventh-generation Corolla, Toyota began slightly hinting at the prospect of injecting some cheerfulness to the Corolla’s cheap portfolio. In what seems like a perpetual upswing towards this goal, particularly with the recent reintroduction of the Corolla five-door hatchback, has Toyota finally swung a hit with the twelfth-generation sedan?

To find out, the Japanese auto giant flew me to Savannah, Georgia for the national media drive of its newest compact sedan, which includes a completely new hybrid model.

­(Full disclosure: Toyota paid for my flight to Savannah, my meals, and my hotel room.)

Previously, looking at a Toyota Corolla was just about as stimulating and exciting as watching paint dry. Its simple mission meant simple looks and with it, a reputation as an unremarkable transportation appliance.

For what seems like the first time ever, the Corolla now comes with actual styling – it no longer resembles a toaster oven on wheels.

The Corolla benefits from a relatively radical redesign. Its curvaceous roofline and swept-back profile is complemented by unique “double-“ or “triple-J” LED bi-beam headlights (depending on the trim), giving it a sporty and hip appearance. And it looks even more aggressive in top SE and XSE forms with 18-inch wheels, quad exhaust tips, and rear diffuser.

Proportionally, the only thing that remains the same as the previous model is its wheelbase. Otherwise, the new sedan is shorter in length and height by almost an inch, and about a third of an inch wider than the outgoing model.

The new sedan essentially adopts the same interior layout and appearance as the Corolla hatch. Top-notch and quality materials festoon the insides, given the price point and segment. The dashboard swoops outward for a more driver-centric angle, bringing the center console into easier reach. It also slopes downward, versus the previous model’s upright shape, giving the cabin a much airier feel. Overall, the Corolla’s interior remains functional, practical, and space efficient, making the most use out of every inch of the car’s compact dimensions.

All L, LE, and LE Hybrid models come standard with a seven-inch color touchscreen infotainment system, while the upper-tier XLE, SE, and XSE models gain a larger eight-inch interface. Standard kit includes all sorts of wireless and phone connectivity capabilities like Bluetooth and Apple CarPlay; and Toyota’s suite of safety systems, bundling pedestrian and bicyclist detection with automatic braking, radar-guided cruise control, and road-sign reading assist. Toyota representatives did say that Android Auto will roll out later in the Corolla’s product cycle. Choose the XLE, SE, and XSE cars, and the Corolla gets the option for a JBL premium audio system.

The outgoing model’s base 139-horsepower, 1.8-liter naturally-aspirated four-banger carries over as the base engine with 126 lb-ft of torque. A welcome addition is the new and more powerful 2.0-liter naturally-aspirated mill from the Corolla hatch with 169 hp and 151 lb-ft of torque. And for the first time ever, a new hybrid model transplants the Prius’ 121-hp powertrain directly into the sedan. So you can enjoy the fuel-saving benefits of the Prius without the tree-hugging snobbery.

Regardless of the engine, fuel economy remains a hallmark for the Corolla, with the lowest figure bottoming out at 29 mpg in the city cycle. Highway ratings top out at 38 mpg for the gas models. The Corolla Hybrid is rated for up to a whopping 53 mpg.

A continuously-variable automatic transmission (CVT) with 10 preprogrammed, imitated gears remains the sole automatic choice for the gasser engines. It’s smoother than previous versions, dialing out nearly all of the “rubber-band feel” associated with CVTs, except at throttle levels above 60 percent. A slick-shifting six-speed manual is available on the SE models only.

Like the manual in the Corolla hatch, it comes with a clever “iMT” rev-matching program that smooths out upshifts and downshifts with automatic throttle blips. It can be disabled if you want to heel-toe your own downshifts. Sure, such tech can also be found on a Chevrolet Corvette or a Nissan 370Z. But on a car like the Corolla, it’s a neat function to have. Though I wish the gearing or final-drive ratio were shorter; and the clutch engagement is a bit vague, with light pedal feel.

Thanks to Toyota’s latest rendition of its “TNGA” modular architecture, the Corolla benefits from a 60 percent stiffer chassis than the outgoing model. Gone is the cost-cutting and rudimentary rear “beam” axle in favor of a far superior four-way multilink fully-independent suspension setup for all models. A MacPherson arrangement remains up front.

Without beating around the bush, the new Corolla undoubtedly sets a new benchmark for handling for the nameplate. This is single-handedly and by far the best-driving and best-handling front-wheel drive Corolla, ever made, full-stop.

When compared to the competition, it might not be as sharp as the outgoing Mazda3 sedan, or as perfected as the slightly more expensive Honda Civic. But again, by Corolla standards, the sedan, especially in sport SE and XSE form, is a road-hugging revelation, with excellent brakes to boot.

Opting for the SE or XSE models reveals an observable difference when compared to the non-sport L, LE, and XLE models. The latter experienced more lane wandering at speeds, but a suppler ride due to the smaller 16-inch wheel and softer tire combination on the non-sport models. With the sport models’ 18-inch wheels and stiffer rubber, the Corolla felt like it stuck to the road better with more stable straight-line tracking and less tramlining.

For the first time ever, it’s safe to say that the Toyota Corolla finally climbs up on my list as a top recommendation for compact economy sedans. No longer is it the “Crapolla” I grew up dreading as a life-long car enthusiast. Prior, it was far easier to recommend its competition for just being more interesting as a package and from behind the wheel.

But thanks to extensive revisions, attention to detail, and a desire to inject some character and personality into its cars, the new Corolla sedan joins the hatchback in Toyota’s bid to shed its beige reputation. And it does so with a very solid effort.

[Images © 2019 Chris Chin/TTAC, Toyota]

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2 of 81 comments
  • INeon INeon on Feb 28, 2019

    "A continuously-variable automatic transmission (CVT) with 10 preprogrammed, imitated gears remains the sole automatic choice for the gasser engines. It’s smoother than previous versions, dialing out nearly all of the “rubber-band feel” associated with CVTs, except at throttle levels above 60 percent." If the first 20% of the pedal wields 80% of throttle-- are you telling us Toyota 'dialed-out' (lol) driveline lash while idling in-gear?

  • MorrisGray MorrisGray on Dec 19, 2019

    Does the sedan drive better than the hatchback? *** with manual transmission *** ??? more exciting, more responsive, better handling, etc... ???

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