Toyota’s 2020 Corolla XLE –
A VERY STABLE COMPACT
Toyota’s Corolla is, at any airport offering shared rides, literally Uberquitous; the compact sedan is seemingly everywhere, for any number of good reasons. As a new car it offers a price point that remains accessible – with a reasonable (i.e., about 20%) down payment, you can still keep 60 monthlies at under $300/month. And if you’re buying your Corolla pre-owned, you can regard the first 100,000 miles of a Corolla’s life as simply break-in miles, with another 100,000 good miles to go. Finally, if you spring for any Toyota other drivers will regard you as simply sensible, which resonates so much better than simply cheap.
If Toyota’s Corolla is ubiquitous, know it didn’t happen overnight. It was launched in 1966 to an audience that was still working through its perception of Japanese products as inferior to those made in America or Europe. And with gasoline well under 30 cents a gallon, it would take the OPEC Crisis of 1973 to fully awaken these United States to the benefits of Toyota ownership. Once American drivers did awaken, the Corolla delivered, providing commuters with VW-like economy without the by-then-obvious shortcomings inherent in a Volkswagen Beetle. While compact, Toyota’s Corolla was utterly conventional, offering a water-cooled four driving the rear wheels. And unlike those Falcons, Novas and Valiants populating the domestic showrooms, the Corolla was unapologetically small and carefully – almost obsessively – assembled.
Now in its 12th generation, and with over 40 million Corollas sold to date, today’s Corolla follows today’s format. While still powered by four cylinders, those cylinders drive the front wheels, and – in the Corolla Hybrid – are augmented by an electric motor and its attendant battery. Our test vehicle was a 2020 Corolla XLE, which sits near the top of the Corolla food chain.
In the walk-up, I found the Corolla meeting most of my expectations. The compact sedan continues to exhibit some stylistic restraint when compared to Toyota’s Camry or larger Avalon, with a front fascia that – within the context of 2020 – is conservatively rendered. In profile, there’s a surprising degree of ‘coupe’ in the Corolla’s 3-box profile, which amplifies the Corolla’s sporty appeal (as if…) while necessarily compromising rear seat headroom. But then, if you wanted an old Volvo you could have found an old Volvo…but you don’t. Notably, the Corolla is also available as a hatchback, and were it my money that’s probably the box I’d check. Also worth a mention is that in other markets the Corolla is available as a wagon, something last offered in the U.S. when Bill Clinton was still driving a Mustang.
Inside, the Corolla’s XLE trim includes Toyota’s SofTex trim (no animal was harmed in the production of this material), a driver’s seat which is 8-way power adjustable complemented by a passenger seat with 4-way power adjustment, heated front seats and what Toyota calls Audio Plus. That ‘Plus’ gives you an 8-inch touchscreen, six speakers, HandsFree Bluetooth and three months of SiriusXM.
In a compact interior that the EPA rates as midsize, four adults of average size should find all the room and comfort they might reasonably expect. But while Uber drivers rely on the Corolla’s compact dimensions for their livelihood, don’t expect Japan’s embassy personnel to use it; for them, Toyota offers the Crown. Also, if you’ve become accustomed to the high perch provided by your folks’ Highlander, know that you’ll be stepping down into the compact Corolla and, when maneuvering in traffic, looking up. For those of us born before 1980 it won’t be an adjustment, while those of you born later will want to (eventually) consider chiropractic…or hot yoga.
On the road, I was impressed by the Corolla’s overall composure. You won’t confuse this with a sport sedan, as its on-the-road dynamic is closer to that older Volvo than a newer BMW. But the steering is reasonably direct, and the ride/handling compromise doesn’t impress as overly compromised. Finally, the urge coming from under the hood, with the XLE’s 1.8 liter powertrain delivering 139 horses through a CVT automatic, comes across as credible, if not incredibly urgent.
If it was my $25K, I’d probably opt for the Corolla SE, the (slightly) sportier variant in the Corolla lineup. (And again, I’d be opting for the hatch.) With a full two liters of thrust providing 169 horsepower and 151 lb-ft of torque (improvements over the 1.8 liter of 30 horsepower and 25 lb-ft of torque), the end result is something approaching sporty, while also incrementally improving efficiency. You won’t confuse any Corolla with VW’s Golf GTI or Jetta GLI, but then, cross-shopping between those two showrooms ended sometime around 1973.