The Execution

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.

2020 Toyota Corolla XSE seats

The sport seats in the XSE flavor allow this trim to make a good case for itself, along with larger wheels.PHOTO BY AUTOWEEK

The Takeaway

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.