Car Reviews

2020 Toyota Corolla Sedan First Look: Civic’s Prime Competition Is Back

Just in time for Christmas—a Corolla in TNGA armor

Just in time for Christmas—a Corolla in TNGA armor

Toyota’s freshly minted Corolla hatch, based on the hot new TNGA architecture, has been winning friends and influencing editors ever since we first clapped our eyes on it in March. We’ve since buckled in and strapped our gear on a few times and lauded the little hatch for its quantum-leapfrogging of its dreary Corolla iM predecessor. Sprightly dynamics and an upscale cockpit have drawn praise, while stingy rear-seat and cargo space drew raspberries. Those problems would seem to be easily solved by stretching the wheelbase (and rear leg environment) by 2.4 inches and grafting on a trunk. Yes, after testing out the tooling and letting the youth troubleshoot its hatchback for a few months, Toyota is now revealing the Corolla sedan for sale to everybody else starting in March.

Like the 2019 Corolla hatch, the 2020 Corolla sedan gets a broader stance, with its front and rear track widened by 0.5 and 0.9 inch, respectively, relative to the outgoing sedan. It also gets the hatch’s new 18-inch aluminum wheels on top trim levels, with lesser trims making do with steel or alloy 16s. Following a trend that started with the Camry, the whole car stands a bit lower—the height comes down 0.8 inch, the hood sits 1.4 inches lower, and with it the cowl, beltline, and instrument panel each come down a bit. The driver even sits an inch lower and 1.6 inches further rearward. All of this helps lower the center of gravity by 0.4 inch, while thinner A-pillars improve outward visibility.

Other refinements include a huge new one-piece floor silencer pad to hush road and tire noise, and a clever stratified climate control system that can feed fresh dehumidified air to the greenhouse to prevent fogging while recirculating warm air lower in the cabin. A killer nine-speaker 800-watt JBL stereo is offered featuring the brand’s Clari-Fi technology, which can analyze, rebuild, and restore audio details lost to compression.

The top powertrain offering in the SE and XSE models matches that of the sportier hatch—Toyota’s new 2.0-liter port- and direct-injected engine featuring a lofty 13:1 compression ratio, electric cam phasing, and variable cooling and lubrication circuits. Here it produces 169 hp (1 more than in the hatch) and 151 lb-ft of torque and comes teamed with a six-speed manual (featuring new micro-polished gear teeth for reduced noise, hill-holding, and downshift rev-matching) or a CVT that uses a torque converter and a conventional first gear, which then hands off to the belt-and-pulleys system. Base L, LE, and XLE grades get an updated version of the last model’s 1.8-liter engine in essentially what was its Eco trim, producing 139 hp and 126 lb-ft of torque. We’re told the fuel economy improves, but no numbers have been shared yet. But the big news, fuel economy-wise, is the later arrival of a hybrid model. We’ll learn more about its specifics in a few weeks at the L.A. auto show.

The sedan and hatch share most of what’s forward of the B-pillar, with the notable exception of the sedan’s two new fascia and grille designs. The Toyota sombrero moves up from its central grille location on the hatch to that little island of painted bodywork that sits forward of the hood on the sedan. The Avalon-esque dash carries over, complete with its 8.0-inch touchscreen featuring the Entune 3.0 infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Amazon Alexa compatibility (sorry, no Android Auto yet). Base L models must make due with a less feature-rich 7.0-inch screen. Top models share the hatch’s 7.0-inch digital instrument cluster speedometer display, while lesser grades get a 4.2-inch multi-information display flanked by analog speedo and tach dials. A full suite of connectivity features is available, including accident reporting, remote vehicle status reporting via phone app, onboard Wi-Fi powered by Verizon, and concierge services.

Continuing where the last-gen model left off and matching the 2019 Honda Civic, every 2020 Toyota Corolla will feature Safety Sense 2.0 gear as standard. This includes a radar- and camera-based pre-collision system that warns and brakes, adaptive cruise control (on CVT models it even handles stop-and-go traffic), lane-departure alert that will steer to prevent lane departure, or with the CVT, “Lane Trace Assist,” which keeps the car centered in its lane. There’s even auto-high-beam assist and Road Sign Assist to interpret and display speed limit, stop, yield, and do-not-enter signs.

Many of us were underwhelmed by the 11th-generation Corolla. The 2020 Corolla’s predecessor placed a disappointing sixth out of seven compacts in a 2016 Big Test comparison. This new car’s TNGA bones, high level of standard equipment, and improved refinement seem poised to regain our respect. Once it arrives, we look forward to seeing whether its performance improves without overshadowing the practical strengths that have made the car a sales success for so many years. Of course, the proof of this rice pudding will be in the driving—and determining how eagerly its new and retuned engines can pull the skin off said pudding…