2020 TOYOTA COROLLA XSE FIRST DRIVE: RETURNING CHAMPION KNOWS ITS AUDIENCEMar 8th, 2019
The Toyota Corolla’s annual output (300,000-plus) dwarfs that of entire automakers, even at a time when just about everything is slowly being molded into a crossover. But the 12th generation is once again a compact sedan and hatch duo, and it’s even offered with the option of a six-speed manual transmission. And as most of its competitors feverishly try to find an emergency exit out of the compact sedan market, Toyota is happy to sit back and enjoy a larger share of the segment.
One might be tempted to observe that it’s not the recipe, but rather the execution that has made Corolla a best-seller year after year. More than 50 years after its debut in 1966, the basic formula of the Corolla needs little introduction, and the 2020 version makes a case for itself with a careful evolution of the ingredients that have made it a best-seller.
The new sedan is lower and wider than the outgoing model, and it uses the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) platform with an independent MacPherson strut suspension up front and multilink suspension out back, both with antiroll bars, that aims to deliver a lower center of gravity, better handling and reduced noise levels. While a 1.8-liter inline-four powers the lower trim levels, including L, LE and XLE, sending 139 hp and 126 lb-ft of torque to the front wheels, the upper trim levels use a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. This unit produces 169 hp and 151 lb-ft of torque, sent to the front wheels via a continuously variable transmission (CVT). Also on the menu starting next month, when the lineup goes on sale, is a hybrid that pairs a 1.8-liter Atkinson cycle engine with a battery, good for 121 hp.
But the model I’ve sampled is the XSE trim that starts at $26,380 and will tempt a solid percentage of buyers with its hefty list of premium features such as SofTex-trimmed power seats, an 8-inch infotainment screen, six-speaker sound system, 18-inch wheels, LED headlights and daytime running lights and a leather-trimmed steering wheel, among other items.
When it comes to design the 2020 model keeps the large trapezoidal black grille shape of the outgoing model, but it achieves a better balanced appearance. Headlights feature an all-new shape, retreating down from the front fenders and ditching the scaled-down last-gen RAV4 appearance for a sharper, meaner look. Toyota has given the new sedan a more aggressive character line that leads from the top of the front fender to the C-pillar, giving the sedan a sportier profile too. Out back, the new Corolla wears slimmer taillights that hug the top of the trunk lid, balanced out by a larger lower bumper that works to give it a wider look. It’s a busier design out back compared to the outgoing model, but it pulls the Corolla in a more adventurous direction, one that’s not afraid to actually take some small risks.
Toyota has given the interior soft-touch plastics, and this goes for the far reaches of the dash that you’d have to stretch to find. Outward visibility is not hurt by the high-mounted infotainment screen; optioned with ambient lighting in the XLE and the XSE models, the new Corolla serves up a sophisticated-enough interior. There is still a family look — the new Corolla shares some visual elements with the recently redesigned RAV4 and Camrymodels even if it seems a little minimalist at first glance.
When it comes to tech the 2020 Corolla XSE offers a 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system, standard on the XLE, XSE and Hybrid models, along with Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 that will be standard across the lineup. This suite of safety features includes a full-speed range dynamic radar cruise control, lane departure alert with steering assist, road sign recognition, and an improved pre-collision system with pedestrian detection capability. The latter feature now includes day-time cyclist detection and pedestrian detection in low-light conditions, while the lane tracing assist system featured in all models equipped with a CVT keeps an eye on lane markers and the vehicle ahead to center the car, depending on road conditions.
Designed as a system that relieves driver fatigue and strain, the lane tracing assist is more of a “background” system than a Level 2 semi-autonomous driver assist feature, offering subtle corrections when needed. A blind spot monitor is standard on the XLE and XSE models, but is optional on the LE as well as the SE model that’s paired with a CVT. If all of these systems still won’t be won’t be enough to prevent a crash, there are eight standard airbags on board as a last resort, along with automatic collision notification.
The new Corolla greets me with a quiet, comfortable interior that takes no time to get used to — this new sedan is merely improving upon the solid ergonomics and ease of use of the outgoing model instead of trying to reinvent the wheel. But from the very start it’s also clear that this 12th-generation model is a little different, trading the wobbly handling of Corollas of years past for something a little more modern, even if commuter comfort is still its main goal. Has the new Corolla ditched the indifferent, floaty road manners of its predecessors?
The answer, for the most part, is yes, at least in the XSE model with larger wheels and a sportier suspension setup, and it doesn’t come at the expense of ride comfort. Acceleration is brisk enough and it doesn’t arrive with wild revs or excessive noise from the continuously variable transmission. Even though the Corolla XSE features a CVT, Toyota fitted it with a physical first gear to ease quiet acceleration along with steps to simulate the feel and sound of a conventional automatic. Acceleration still comes with a modest tuck of the tail — all Toyotas do this — but all 169 hp is put to good use without unseemly sounds from the engine bay. Passing doesn’t mean taking a chance with this 2.0-liter engine, which serves up just enough power through the range, and this goes for in-town and highway cruising alike.
Speaking of highway cruising, the 2020 Corolla is among just a handful of cars in this segment that feels at ease at higher speeds, and doesn’t convert a cushy in-town ride into a floaty, detached experience when you have to swallow hundreds of miles in a single day.
Can this Corolla dance on back roads, something that its predecessors have had a tough time doing?
That’s still a bit of a stretch, but its Sport mode provides a more urgent throttle response than most systems of its type, especially those paired with CVTs. Revs stay higher and the engine provides acceleration with a little more aggression, but it’s not a mirage (unlike in the actual Mirage), as the Corolla seems ready to play checkers in traffic while still offering solid steering and handling response, up to a point. Obviously, there is only so far that a small, comfort-focused sedan with 169 hp on tap can be pushed, but the Corolla XSE feels poised enough to nudge itself a little past expectations when it comes to handling, with the larger 18-inch wheels on the XSE model delivering an extra helping of steering precision when pressed into something resembling action. I’d need much more demanding roads than those of coastal Georgia to push the Corolla out of its comfort zone, but not everyone commutes on twisty mountain roads, after all.
Ultimately, this is a sedan aimed first and foremost at those who have been buying Corollas for the past quarter if not half century — the generations that made this car a best-seller in the States. Those who have been with the Corolla since the early 1990s will find this generation a logical, gradual evolution of a recipe that has made the Corolla a solar system-wide success story, finally with a touch of mildly exciting design.
The sport seats in the XSE flavor allow this trim to make a good case for itself, along with larger wheels.
The 12th-gen model is a timely reminder of why the Corolla has been a hit for the preceding 11 generations. It has somehow managed to stay relevant as other body styles and competitors have come and gone. The 2020 model delivers the usability and ergonomics that have made previous Corollas something that people buy new every generation or two, along with the latest safety and driver convenience tech. The XSE trim makes a good case for itself at the far reaches of the price ladder, but much of the point of the Corolla is inexpensive driving day in and day out, so there are less expensive ways into 2020 Corolla ownership.
The 2020 model still errs on the side of comfort and calm so you won’t find a true performance flavor in the lineup, but this is a car that knows its audience well and knows what it has to do every day.