Destination Savannah in the 2020 Toyota Corolla

By Author: Harvey Briggs, Date: Feb 28, 2019
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Even though I regularly have the pleasure of driving more expensive and exclusive vehicles from BMW, Lexus, Rolls-Royce, Lincoln and other luxury and performance brands, the 2020 Toyota Corolla may be the most important car I drive this year. 

How can I possibly say that? After all, it’s a sedan and sedans are dying aren’t they? Not the Corolla if Toyota has anything to say about it. As Toyota CMO Ed Laukes pointed out shortly after I arrived in Savannah, Georgia to drive the new Corolla, Americans bought 5.3 million sedans last year and if Ford, GM, and others want to leave the market, he’ll be happy to sell their orphaned buyers a Camry or Corolla.

The 2020 Toyota Corolla in SE, XLE, and LE Hybrid Trim

And sell Corollas they do. 

In 2018, over 300,000 new Corollas hit the streets in the U.S. and since it made its debut in 1966, more than 45 million Corollas have been sold worldwide. But the car’s importance goes well beyond its sales. 25% of the time a Corolla is someone’s first new car, and 65% of people who buy a Corolla, go on to buy another Toyota, a remarkable loyalty number. It’s a franchise builder even if its not the brand’s best seller.

It’s not hard to understand why. Corolla is approachable. It’s affordable. It’s well-packaged. And, it’s damn-near bulletproof. The Corolla holds its value as well as any other car in its class. What it’s never really been is interesting. That’s part of the challenge of having such broad appeal. It’s a car most people like but very few people love. Enthusiasts especially are wont to refer to Corolla as the very definition of an automotive appliance, something that gets the job done, but doesn’t ever wow you while doing it. For 2020, Toyota is hoping to change that and with this new car they just might… a bit.

I began my Corolla immersion in the top floor conference room of the Perry Lane Hotel in Savannah. It was a fitting choice of venue because like the Corolla it’s new as well. Consisting of two towers that flank Perry Lane, the hotel was completed last June and is a jewel among the Starwood Luxury Collection offering five-star accommodations to visiting tourists and business people with a well thought out combination of classic luxury and the latest technology.

The Corolla offers no such luxury, but it does have its share of tech. Like all new Toyotas, it comes with Safety Sense 2.0 standard which includes radar cruise control, forward collision warning with pedestrian detection and automatic emergency braking, lane departure alert with steering assist, lane trace assist, road sign assist, and automatic high beams. It’s a nice suite fo standard safety features and a particularly clever bit of packaging seeing as it’s even on the L model which starts at just $19,500. This makes for a compelling value story against cars with a lower MSRP because to get these advanced safety features you typically add around $2,000 to their sticker price.

All Corolla trim levels also benefit from Toyota’s new TNGA C architecture which debuted last spring on the Corolla Hatchback. It provides 60% more structural stiffness which creates a more stable, quiet, and confident ride, no matter which version of the front-drive compact sedan you choose. Gone is the live rear-axle in favor of an independent multi-link unit with a rear stabilizer bar. Not that you’ll ever confuse Corolla with a Civic Type R or Focus RS, but it does create a more satisfying driving experience, especially in sport trim.

Corolla’s L, LE, and XLE models come with an updated 1.8L inline 4-cylinder engine under the hood. It’s more powerful and efficient, but at 139 horsepower, you won’t have to worry about being overstimulated behind the wheel. Especially since it’s paired with a lugubrious CVT transmission that gives new meaning to the term, “slushbox.” It’ll get you around but if driving matters to you, you’ll want to step either up or over to the SE and XSE models.

Sporty in the Corolla vernacular is a relative thing. The 169 horsepower 2.0L engine definitely offers more oomph than the base car and both the dynamic shift CVT and 6-speed manual (yes, you can still get a three-pedal Corolla in SE trim) put that power to the pavement efficiently. But if you’re coming to Toyota expecting a similar driving experience to the VW Jetta GLI, Civic SI, or Mazda 3, you’ll be disappointed. Just like the hatchback before it, the Corolla SE isn’t sporty, it’s sport-ish. It has little design touches and blacked out trim to signify its intent. The interior adds sport seats and faux-aluminum trim. The physical first gear on the CVT helps it get off the line quickly, but once it transitions to CVT mode, you still have the rubber-band effect when you mash the throttle to execute a typical passing maneuver on a two-lane highway. If you opt for he 6-speed, it confers the illusion of sportiness to the Corolla SE. The three pedals are a welcome sight, but the clutch itself is a little light, with a very high friction point and the shift lever feels a little mushy, lacking the precise feel of VW’s unit. If you want a sporty Toyota in this price range and can live without a real back seat, take a look at the 86. That’s a fun car.

Of the three Corolla models I drove, my favorite by far was the Hybrid. For about $24,000 you get a well equipped car. It’s available only in LE trim which gets you a smart key with push-button start, all LED lighting, heated outer mirrors, automatic climate control, premium fabric seats, tilt and telescoping steering wheel with integrated infotainment control buttons, 6-speaker audio system with an 8-inch touch screen that includes Toyota’s app system, Apple CarPlay, and Wi-Fi connectivity. It drives well – better than any Prius – and looks like a normal car. Toyota is incorporating hybrids into their model lines making the technology available to more people which is smart. And at 53 miles per gallon, this makes it the most efficient Corolla ever.

Inside, the new platform provides plenty of legroom for rear seat passengers and uses high quality materials in all the right places, delivering a more satisfying experience thanks to the tactile sensation of the switches and surfaces. Cabin noise is kept to a minimum thanks to the liberal use of sound insulation materials, more effective door seals, and additional aero work to reduce wind noise. Driving along the coast to get an afternoon coffee at Tybean Art and Coffee Bar, I was really impressed with the way the hybrid delivered a great driving experience while sipping fuel like it was more precious than espresso.

There’s no question this is the best Corolla ever built. It delivers more value, a higher quality experience, and depending on which model you choose, better performance or efficiency than any car in its previous eleven generations. While others exit the category, Toyota has decided to double down. And I for one am glad they did.

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Harvey Briggs

Harvey Briggs is the Founder, Editor, and Publisher of Rides & Drives. He has also written for Car and Driver, Winding Road, and the luxury lifestyle blog, Pursuitist.com. His passions run from fast cars, small planes, boats and motorcycles to music, travel, and sports. When he's not on the road testing the latest cars, he been known to turn up on stage playing rock and blues guitar at clubs around his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin. Follow Harvey's adventures on Instagram and Twitter @harvey_drives and find him on Facebook. Though keeping up could be a problem. As Harvey says, "If I don't slow down, time can't catch me."

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