Autonomy on the cheap
A few days before I drove the 2020 Toyota Corolla XSE sedan, I got cut off—by a Corolla. The offender was a circa-2006 model that drifted into my lane—sans turn signal, natch. I jumped on the brakes, and despite my headlights being a few feet behind its bumper, the Corolla didn’t accelerate until our paths diverged a block later.
Corollas aren’t generally driven by people who spend much time thinking about driving. The car’s reputation and multimillion-unit sales are built on affordability, reliability, efficiency—and little else. But as I reflected on the traffic indignity I’d been dealt, I realized that had we both been driving the new 2020 Corolla, we would have been better off.
The Corolla hatchback was fully redesigned for 2019 (the sedan is new for 2020), now riding on a stiffer platform featuring independent rear suspension, ostensibly an upgrade over the previous torsion beam setup. Toyota says this Corolla is the most fun-to-drive yet, a claim we gauged in our First Test of the hatchback. Eager to find out, my immediate destination was the canyon roads above Malibu. After a few corners, it was clear: The most fun Corolla does not a fun car make.
Acceleration from the 169-hp, 151 lb-ft 2.0-liter I-4 is respectable but not class-leading, with 0–60 measuring 8.2 seconds. The quarter mile effectively doubled that, with a 16.3-second, 86.4-mph (139-km/h) run. Road test editor Chris Walton thought traction control hindered those times. “Not a chance of tire scratch on launch, though it sounds like it wants to,” he said. The turbocharged Honda Civic is more powerful, with 174 hp and 162 lb-ft. While a naturally aspirated engine is still offered on lower trims, the higher-trim turbo has a 6.8-second 0–60 and a 15.2-second, 92.9-mph (149.5-km/h) quarter mile.
The new Corolla has a novel automatic transmission that could be described as a hybrid: It uses a physical first gear to get moving then shifts to a CVT to maintain velocity. Paddle shifters allow selection of 10 simulated speeds. They react quickly, but after each pull there’s a distinct pause—then kick—of power. It’s as if Toyota wanted to mimic the feel of a sequential gearbox. Look, I enjoy manual control over a vehicle, whether it has two pedals or three. But this is more becoming of Aventadors than economy cars, and I switched back to auto.
The Corolla’s 60–0 braking distances are middling, with a 119-foot best; the Mazda3 stops in 112 feet, the Hyundai Elantra Limited in 125. Nose dives accompanied hard stopping, and the brake pads smelled after four tests. Walton noted “lots and lots of ABS noise and vibration” on the track. On the road, too, ABS was troublingly easy to initiate, possibly owing to the efficient-rolling but low-grip Yokohama tires.
That rubber doesn’t want to stick in curves, either, contributing to the Corolla’s figure-eight result of 27.8 seconds at an average 0.59 g. Comparatively, the Volkswagen Golf posted 27.4 seconds at 0.62 g, and the torsion beam–equipped Mazda3 26.7 seconds at 0.66 g. Still, the new independent suspension setup is an advancement. Although it allows a good amount of body roll, once the corner is set, “it’s very stable and predictable,” testing director Kim Reynolds said. The linkage keeps undue body motions under control, and the 106.3-inch wheelbase feels tight and easily placed through corners. Nevertheless, it’s far from sporty.
I exited the canyons disappointed that the Corolla’s fun hadn’t lived up to the hype. But I had to check my reality: This is a Corolla, after all. Settling into real-world Los Angeles driving, the Corolla found its element—and, indeed, became somewhat enjoyable.
The car’s responses weren’t sharp, but there was no delay in how my inputs altered the vehicle’s motion. Acceleration was sufficient to keep up with traffic or grab a gap. The transmission is only unusual on paper; in operation, it’s innocuous. More sensitive drivers may notice the first-to-CVT shift, and although the variable gearbox felt a bit rubber-bandy, it was a good reminder that geared transmissions aren’t necessary in all applications.
Changing direction required light effort on the wheel, which didn’t provide any meaningful feedback. What felt good, however, was the ride—it’s firm without being harsh, and I could tell what cracks and bumps the tires were passing over. It’s not plush, but it’s a huge improvement over the previous Corolla’s brittle jerkiness. Combined with its aforementioned stability, the ride was comfortable and communicative.
Fortunately, I never had to test the car’s panic-stop capabilities, but if I’d needed to, Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 (TSS) would’ve helped me out. Standard on all Corollas from the base-trim L to my range-topping XSE, this driver assist suite provides what must be the closest experience to self-driving for the least amount of money to date. If only I and the old Corolla in that cutoff bind both had it. Blind-spot monitoring, lane departure warning, and active corrective steering might have helped the other driver not breach the lane line. For me, automatic emergency braking might’ve brought my speed down more quickly. These features, plus good crashworthiness ratings and cars with the Advanced Lighting package, earned the Corolla a 2019 Top Safety Pick designation from the IIHS.
TSS’ adaptive cruise control, combined with active steering, does a good impression of similar systems on cars costing double or more. It ably adapts to the pace of traffic, though it behaves cautiously in braking and acceleration. More assured is how it stays centered in a lane or even actively steers through a bend, only faltering when one lane splits into two. As a whole, TSS inspired confidence for me to use in all freeway driving situations.
Ten years ago, a system like TSS would have been an expensive option on a high-end car. That it’s standard on this mainstay of inexpensive, reliable transportation is a boon for everyone on the road. The 2020 Corolla won’t excite enthusiasts, but its technology is a valuable ally for anyone who cares less about driving—making this Corolla the best yet. Will it help usher in a cutoff-free future?
|2020 Toyota Corolla XSE Sedan|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$29,168|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, FWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan|
|ENGINE||2.0L/169-hp/151-lb-ft DOHC 16-valve I-4|
|TRANSMISSION||1-speed + Cont variable auto|
|CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST)||3,114 lb (61/39%)|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||182.3 x 70.1 x 56.5 in|
|0-60 MPH||8.2 sec|
|QUARTER MILE||16.3 sec @ 86.4 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||119 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.83 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||27.8 sec @ 0.59 g (avg)|
|REAL MPG, CITY/HWY/COMB||29.7/44.3/34.9 mpg|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||31/38/34 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||109/89 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.57 lb/mile|