SAVANNAH, GA – As one of the best-selling car nameplates in the history of the U.S. light-vehicle industry – 11.2 million sold since 1970, per Wards Intelligence data – the Toyota Corolla has a lot to live up to.
The good news is the redesigned ’20 Corolla sedan, on sale now in the U.S., is the best version of the compact 4-door we’ve driven and boasts a great new hybrid version, too.
The bad news is the appetite for cars of any size is waning in the U.S. and elsewhere as drivers embrace the utility and higher ride height offered by CUVs in a time of relatively cheap gas.
Sales in Wards Upper Small segment, where most compact sedans live, fell 14.3% last year from 2017, to 1.73 million. It was the lowest tally for the group since 2011’s 1.75 million and well off the 2.21 million sold in 2015.
The Detroit Three have decided to exit the segment, sales of their entrants declined so much.
Corolla sales fell last year and are expected to fall further even with the new generation 4-door.
But the car remains a big seller – 285,865 U.S. sales in 2018 – and Toyota is hopeful the new generation has enough allure for those who still want a compact.
While the outgoing Corolla’s fuel-efficient-but-unexciting 1.8L 4-cyl. and CVT combo continue on in the L, LE and XLE grades, sport grades of the sedan, the SE and XSE, get the same 2.0L “Dynamic Force” 4-cyl. found in the new Corolla Hatch. The 2.0L is smaller and lighter than the 1.8L and has Toyota’s power- and efficiency- minded D-4S direct- and port-injection technology. (We don’t test an available 6-speed manual in the 2.0L SE.)
But the big news for the ’20 Corolla lineup is the addition of a hybrid variant. It’s been available in other markets for years. Based on our Savannah test drive, it has phenomenal fuel economy. More on that later.
The Corolla hatch and now sedan ride on Toyota’s new TNGA-C platform, which is more rigid than the outgoing Corolla’s thanks to more ultra-high-tensile steel and structural adhesives.
A multiload-path front structure is “totally new,” Toyota says, able to better absorb and disperse energy in frontal collisions to help keep the passenger compartment intact. Meanwhile, side collision severity should be lessened due to squared figure-eight-reinforced ring-shaped door structures.
The Corolla’s ride is quite comfortable, even when we veer off course onto some potholed streets. No doubt Toyota’s change to a multilink rear suspension from the outgoing Corolla sedan’s torsion beam helps soften blows.
The car still has a MacPherson strut front suspension but it has been “totally revised,” with new shock absorbers and a strut bearing mounted coaxially to lessen the impact from road craters.
Although we don’t love the 1.8L – updated for ’20 with 139 hp and 126 lb.-ft. (171 Nm) of torque, compared with 132 hp and 128 lb.-ft. (174 Nm) in ’19 models – it is serviceable for the kind of low- and mid-speed suburban driving we do here. Just crank up the radio to drown out engine and CVT-related noise present while passing and climbing inclines.
Without Scion around anymore, as it was when the outgoing Corolla launched in 2013, Toyota can amp up its compact sedan’s performance without stepping on any toes.
However, the 2.0L, at 169 hp and 151 lb.-ft. (205 Nm) of torque, is a mild performance engine when compared against the turbocharged 1.5L 4-cyl. in the Honda Civic Si making 205 hp and 192 lb.-ft. (260 Nm).
The Corolla’s chief engineer, Yasushi Ueda, was noncommittal when asked if Toyota would ever pursue a challenger for the Civic Si. The Civic is the Corolla’s chief rival in the compact segment, and last year was the No.1-selling C-car in the U.S. while Corolla placed second.
The Dynamic Force CVT from the hatch also is in the SE and XSE 4-door, giving the XSE tested here a spiritedness not present in the LE and XLE. The Dynamic Force CVT’s fixed first gear hastens acceleration and beyond first gear seems to have less annoying rubber-banding than the carryover CVT in the LE and XLE grades.
Fuel economy, and the ability to exceed EPA estimates, has always been a strong point of Corollas. Over several short routes we return stellar numbers. We get 41 mpg (5.7 L/100 km) in the LE, above the estimated 33 mpg (7.1 L/100 km) average. In an XSE with the 2.0L, we get 36 mpg (6.5 L/100 km), compared with an estimated 34 mpg (6.9 L/100 km) average.
The Corolla Hybrid, which uses the current-gen Prius’ propulsion system of a 1.8L Atkinson cycle gasoline 4-cyl. paired with a 53-kW drive motor, obliterates its 52-mpg (4.5 L/100 km) EPA estimated average, returning a fantastic 60.3 mpg (3.9 L/100 km).
The 52-mpg combined rating is the same as the Prius’ LE, XLE and Limited grades and at $2,000 less than the Prius LE, and with less polarizing styling, we predict the Corolla Hybrid will overtake the Prius as Toyota’s best-selling hybrid car.
Prius sales have cratered in recent years, down nearly 25% in 2018 from 2017 to roughly 49,000 and falling 52.6% to 6,648 in the first two months of 2019 from like-2018.
Many automakers, Toyota included, continue to step up the style in the cabins of their lowest-priced vehicles in an effort to distract from affordable but sometimes unsightly hard-plastic trim.
The XSE grade does this with eye-catching black-and-blue seats, as well as blue accent stitching on the instrument panel. The LE and hybrid grades tested here have an hourglass-style stitch pattern on the seats.
The hybrid and XSE have thickly padded upper door panels for soft touchpoints. Fit-and-finish throughout all grades we drive here is good.
The Corolla’s touchscreen, similar in size and layout to those in other newer Toyotas, including the C-HR and RAV4 CUVs, isn’t a favorite. Its virtual buttons are close together, making it easy to hit the wrong button. As with the screen in the new RAV4, resolution is fuzzy.
We also aren’t a fan of hard-to-reach audio switchgear placed right of the screen, but thankfully the car’s standard voice-recognition system accurately and quickly responds to audio and navigation commands.
Like most new Toyotas, Apple CarPlay is standard in the Corolla, as is WiFi (pending a Verizon subscription).
Toyota’s Safety Sense 2.0 suite of advanced driver-assist technologies (ACC, LDA, BSM, etc.) is standard on every Corolla, a remarkable thing considering many German luxury brands still upcharge for those features and the Corolla ranges from just $19,500 to $25,450 sans handling fees.
Like the Corolla hatch, newer ADAS features such as road-sign detection and lane-centering technology are included, with the latter thankfully not too intrusive during testing.
With decades of reliability under its belt, the Corolla should continue to be a top-selling vehicle in the U.S. The 250,000 annual sales Toyota forecasts, although down from the 300,000-plus of the past, sounds right in the current market and should be easy to achieve, as should a hybrid take-rate of 10% given the green car’s $22,000 starting price and great mpg.
Assembled in Blue Springs, MS, or Takaoka, Japan, the new Corolla sedan is on sale now at U.S. Toyota dealers.