2020 Toyota Corolla Sedan Review
In the realm of compact cars, there are two juggernauts that can’t be ignored: the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. Both wear nameplates that have been around for decades, consistently providing basic, cheerful, and reliable transportation for millions.
Now in its 12th iteration, Toyota’s Corolla gets a ground-up transformation. Last year, the 5-door hatchback arrived, riding on the company’s latest global vehicle architecture that increasingly underpins the majority of its cars and crossover SUVs. This year it's the 4-door sedan’s turn. Not surprisingly, it’s much like the hatchback that arrived in 2019, but with a trunk and more accommodating back seat.
You can get the 2020 Toyota Corolla sedan in L, LE, XLE, SE, and XSE trim levels, the latter two designated as the sporty models and equipped with a more powerful engine. A Corolla Hybrid is also available, only in LE trim, and representing a real bargain in comparison to Toyota’s legendary Prius.
For this review, J.D. Power evaluated a Corolla XSE equipped with carpet floor mats and a carpet trunk mat. The price came to $26,629, including the $930 destination charge.
What Owners Say…
Before we discuss the results of our evaluation of the Toyota Corolla, it is helpful to understand who bought the previous version of this compact car, and what they liked most and least about their vehicles.
In terms of gender, Corolla owners are evenly split between men and women. Overall, the segment leans male (55%). The average owner in the segment is 48 years old, compared to 49 for the Corolla. Among Corolla owners and owners of all compact cars, 40% identify as members of Generation Y or Z.
Corolla owners are not as affluent as people across the compact car segment. The average annual household income of a Corolla owner is $52,619, while owners of all compact cars earn $70,279 per household.
Reliability, low maintenance costs, and high fuel economy are important to Corolla owners. According to J.D. Power data, 74% strongly agree that a first consideration in choosing a new vehicle is reliability (compared to 65% across the segment). Furthermore, 74% strongly agree that they avoid vehicles they believe will have high maintenance costs (vs. 67%). Additionally, 87% agree that a first consideration in choosing a new vehicle is miles per gallon (vs. 77%).
Corolla owners view their vehicles as a means to an end. More than half (53%) agree that a vehicle is just a way to get from place to place (vs. 37% at the segment level). Not many more (57%) agree that they like a vehicle that stands out from the crowd, (vs. 65%). And while 83% of Corolla owners agree that they like a vehicle with responsive handling and powerful acceleration, that number falls short of the 87% of all compact car owners who feel that way.
Buyers say their favorite things about the previous Corolla were (in descending order) the exterior styling and interior design (in a tie), visibility and safety, driving dynamics, and climate system. Buyers indicate their least favorite things about the previous Corolla were (in descending order) the seats, storage and space, engine/transmission, infotainment system, and fuel economy.
What Our Expert Says…
In the sections that follow, our expert provides her own perceptions about how the Toyota Corolla measures up in each of the 10 categories that comprise the 2018 APEAL Study.
Previous-generation Corolla owners cited the car’s looks as their favorite aspect of the vehicle, so the new version has lots of live up to.
Maybe that’s why I think the new Corolla’s front end looks similar to the previous Corolla. It’s got a sharply attenuated and sickle-shaped headlamp design, a more aggressive lighting signature, and an overwhelmingly vast stretch of honeycomb grillework.
In profile, the character lines are familiar, and in my test vehicle’s lovely Celestite paint job, the Corolla looked fairly upscale. This premium appearance is certainly enhanced by the great-looking 18-inch aluminum wheels that come standard with the SE and XSE trim levels.
Around back, the new Corolla looks sleek yet tame, and perhaps a bit less distinctive than last year’s version in spite of the XSE’s black lip spoiler and racy looking diffuser panel.
Aside from some blue seat stitching and detailing, silver accent trim, and a gray headliner, the Corolla XSE’s interior is black as far as the eyes can see. And that makes the cabin seem smaller than it really is. There are some nice design features, though, like crease lines that start on the dashboard and radiate out into the door panels.
A tablet-style touchscreen dominates the dashboard, and the Corolla’s cabin contains a mix of appealing soft-touch materials and brittle plastics. Yes, this is an entry-level small car, and yes, this interior is improved over last year’s version. But I’d had the occasion to drive some of the Corolla’s competition in the weeks leading up to this review, and I was more impressed with the interiors of the redesigned Mazda Mazda3 and hot-selling Honda Civic.
I always prefer a vehicle with a passenger’s seat height adjuster, but the Corolla does not provide one. Sometimes it doesn’t much matter, but in the Corolla the seat is mounted quite low, so when I sat on that side of the car my legs were splayed out in an unbecoming way. The driver’s seat is fine, though, thanks to its 8-way power adjustments.
In the back, the kids found that there was plenty of shoulder space and legroom, but they were bummed about the lack of air conditioning vents. It had been a prickly week with the blazing sun heating up the black interior. Whining ensued.
Climate Control System
Thankfully, the Corolla’s climate control system was effective at cooling down the cabin, but it was up to my husband and I to aim the dashboard air vents toward the rear, which meant that it was uncomfortable for everybody for the first few minutes.
Toyota has wisely kept physical buttons and knobs for controlling some aspects of the infotainment system, surrounding the 8-inch touchscreen with them and greatly easing operation. Standard for XLE and XSE trim, the Entune 3.0 Plus system proved fairly intuitive and simple, and it included Apple CarPlay (but not Android Auto) smartphone projection and Amazon Alexa compatibility.
Toyota gives you a free trial subscription to a number of connected services, ranging from six months to three years in duration. You can also get a navigation system in the Corolla, and a JBL premium sound system.
Storage and Space
For operating a car’s transmission, I’m always happy to see a traditional shifter rather than buttons or knobs or a toggle. However, Toyota gives the Corolla’s shifter way too much real estate on the center console. The area is devoid of useful cubbies and bins, save for a small shelf under the center stack where you can store a phone. The center console storage and door panel bins are small, too.
If you like to keep your phone within eyesight, like I do, you can use one of the cup holders. Just keep in mind that if you pull the center armrest forward for extra comfort the other cup holder is blocked. But hey, I didn’t really need that iced macchiato, anyway.
At least the glove box is a normal size, and the trunk is reasonably generous providing 13.1 cu.-ft. of space.
Visibility and Safety
With a low hood, oversized mirrors, and slim pillars all around, visibility is not a problem the majority of the time. A reversing camera helps, and Toyota offers a blind spot monitoring system for all but the basic Corolla L. What’s missing here is a rear cross-traffic alert system.
Toyota offers a comprehensive list of active safety features for the Corolla. Every trim level has adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning with pedestrian and cyclist detection, automatic emergency braking, and a useful road sign detection system.
Lane departure warning is also standard, but is error prone so I shut the system off. That, in turn, meant that I didn’t use the new Lane Tracing Assist system that only works when both the adaptive cruise control and lane departure warning systems are engaged. It is designed to help keep the Corolla in the middle of its lane.
As this review was written, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had not completed crash tests of the new Corolla sedan. The car does get a 5-star frontal-impact rating, but the side-impact rating remains a mystery.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has completed its crash testing of the 2020 Corolla sedan, and it earns a Top Safety Pick rating.
Get a Corolla L, LE, or XLE, and the powerplant under the steeply raked hood is a rather meek and mild 139-horsepower, 1.8-liter 4-cylinder.
Choose a Corolla SE or XSE, and a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine is standard, putting out a respectable 169 horsepower. As a result, my XSE test car proved far more spirited than comparatively lackadaisical Corollas of yore. Power delivery is predictable throughout the rev range, and while the car is not fast, it does manage to get out of its own way.
A continuously variable transmission (CVT) is the only choice, unless you get SE trim, which offers a rare 6-speed manual gearbox. In SE and XSE versions of the car, the CVT boasts paddle shifters and a physical first gear designed to make the Corolla feel more energetic when you’re taking off from a standstill.
Those who are interested in wringing maximum miles from every gallon of gas will want to investigate the Corolla Hybrid, which returns an estimated 52 mpg in combined driving.
Speaking of fuel economy, the EPA says that my test car should’ve gotten about 34 mpg in combined driving. On my test loop, the Corolla XSE proved relatively thirsty, averaging 30.1 mpg in mixed driving conditions. That’s a pretty significant shortfall. Fuel economy is cited as the least favorite aspect of Corolla ownership, and this new Corolla isn’t likely to change that ranking.
“Speak louder,” I implored my children in the back, when they were trying to tell me how their day went. The Corolla is notably loud inside, with plenty of road and engine noise intruding into the cabin.
Generally speaking, the Corolla isn’t capable of putting a big grin on the driver’s face, or inspiring you to take the long and scenic route just because the car is pleasurable to drive. With that said, the Corolla XSE’s dynamic tuning is pleasing. The suspension transmits quite a bit of feel from the road, the steering is agreeably responsive, and the brakes are effective.
Last year, the Corolla’s driving dynamics fell mid-pack in owner rankings of what they like and dislike. This new version’s on-road character is likely to improve that standing.
Some say we’re experiencing the twilight of the 4-door sedan. Given insatiable consumer demand for crossover SUVs of every size and flavor, it’s easy to agree.
At the same time, I tend to think that this is actually the golden age of sedans, with plenty of terrific choices in every size and price category. And while the 2020 Corolla lacks true excellence, it is improved to the point where it can handily compete against its many worthy opponents.