First drive: 2020 Toyota Corolla and Corolla Hybrid

Toyota's best-seller is new from the wheels up.

Finding new ways to tell the same story. That's automotive development in a nutshell. When you have a successful product (which the Corolla inarguably is), a major redesign presents the unenviable challenge of improving upon the formula without alienating repeat customers, potential conquest buyers, or critics--in that order.

For evidence of the delicacy of that balance, look no further than the numerous online discussions of the 2019 Chevrolet Silverado's interior. Or don't, if you prefer to keep your sanity intact.

Toyota, at least, has a pretty healthy track record when it comes to its recent product updates. While the new Camry has since been eclipsed by the Accord, the gap between it and Honda's midsizer is not nearly as wide as hyperbolic comparison language may lead you to believe.

Normally, we'd say that when it comes to nameplates as well-recognized as Corolla, leapfrogging the competition isn't as important as one might think, but in a sales environment which borders on hostile for compact sedans, nobody can really afford to drop the ball right now.

Fresh start

Purely by chance, we recently got some seat time in a 2019 Corolla. A brief drive through the suburbs was enough to give us a baseline. The outgoing car, while a thoroughly adequate appliance, is objectively lacking in refinement and excitement--two things Toyota made demonstrable efforts to address for 2020.

While the 2020 Corolla Sedan is the product of a clean-sheet redesign, it's not actually the first look we've gotten at Toyota's new compact architecture. The small-car variant of the TNGA platform underpins the existing Toyota C-HR (and its sister, the Lexus NX), the Prius and, most significantly, the Corolla Hatchback.

That's right. We've already driven the new Corolla; it just didn't have a trunk. The sedan also expands on the Hatchback's feature offerings by bringing two additional powertrain configurations to the table. A conventional 1.8-liter four-cylinder making 139 horsepower and 126 lb-ft of torque joins the 2.0 (which puts out 169 horsepower and 151 lb-ft). The 1.8 is only available with a CVT, while the nifty rev-matching manual transmission from the Hatchback can be had on 2.0-liter sedans.

Green power

The other addition to the Corolla's powertrain portfolio actually stretches the definition of an engine option. It's a hybrid (surprise, surprise) and that makes it unique enough that Toyota refers to it almost as if it's a distinct model.

Prius commands universal recognition as a distinct model (and for a time, even a complete model line) within Toyota's lineup. Trying to paint a Corolla Hybrid as anything but a variant of the base car would mean stretching Toyota's green-car branding mighty thin.

We can't fault Toyota for not doing what Honda did when it replaced the Civic Hybrid with the new Insight (though the name is strictly a badge-marketing job). What we may end up faulting Toyota for, however, is venturing into the compact hybrid space with a vanilla nameplate like Corolla. As Honda and Volkswagen have proven, it's not a strategy that has really paid big dividends. Time will tell.

The execution itself seems perfectly valid. The Corolla Hybrid produces 121 total system horsepower and 105 lb-ft of torque. Those figures don't set it apart in even the relatively tepid lower end of the compact sedan space, but considering it weighs almost exactly the same amount as a CVT-equipped, 1.8-liter car and benefits from TNGA's electrification-friendly packaging, it actually looks pretty good on paper.

The trade-off for that performance hit is decent. The EPA has rated the hybrid at 53 MPG in the city, 52 highway and 52 combined. The L and LE models with the 1.8-liter and CVT combo are rated at 30/38/33; the XLE's extra heft and larger wheels bump those down to 29/37/32. The 2.0-equipped SE is rated at 29/36/32 with the six-speed iMT and 31/40/34 with the CVT (yes, that highway figure bests the 1.8's.). The XSE splits the difference at 31/38/34.

Based on that, you've probably picked up on Toyota's handy-dandy powertrain indicators. If there's an "S" in the trim, it has a 2.0. "L" models get 1.8s. Hybrid models get biturbo, seven-liter V8s. Simple, right?

Bigger picture

There's more to the new Corolla than fresh engines. We won't dive too deep into the influences of the new TNGA platform, but suffice it to say that the 2020 Corolla is a little bit shorter overall despite riding on the exact same wheelbase as the car it replaces. As you might expect, this means the front and rear overhangs are shorter than they were previously.

The 2020 Corolla inherits its styling themes from the larger Camry and Avalon. Some sportier, more-aggressive elements had already filtered down to Toyota's compact before the full redesign, but the new look is far more coherent.

The differences inside are even more drastic. Like the Prius, the new Corolla's interior feels far more open and airy. The dash has a more pronounced rake and from the driver's perspective feels much more cockpit-like than the very upright dash of the old Corolla. Toyota's Safey Sense suite of driver aids is standard (though the fancy full-speed-range dynamic cruise control is not available on manual-equipped models) as is Apple CarPlay. Android Auto is not yet available, but we expect it will be within the next couple of years.

The most significant mechanical highlight of the new car is a multi-link rear suspension. Toyota probably could have easily gotten away with carrying over a torsion beam setup, so we have to give them credit for aspiring to more than the status quo, especially when companies like Volkswagen and Mazda have been moving in the other direction for their cheaper cars.

Toyota was kind enough to bring along a smattering of each for us to test out. We got our hands on a manual-equipped SE model, an XSE, an XLE and a Hybrid. Let's dive in.

We wanna go fast

Our approach to choosing vehicles was simple: Walk by them until we found one we hadn't yet sampled. We were greeted immediately by a Celestite (blue-gray) XSE model with the standard CVT. Big engine first? Don't mind if we do.

SE and XSE models get some sporty exterior treatments to differentiate themselves from the "L" line. SE models get gray-painted rockers and 18-inch wheels with lower-profile tires. Going up to the XSE gets you a gray spoiler as well. They're subtle highlights (lowlights, technically, against this exterior finish) and not unattractive.

These models also have re-tuned dampers for a sportier ride and unique sport bucket seats up front. Between the larger wheels, thinner sidewalls and stiffer tuning, there's a surprising amount of feedback coming in from the outside world. Potholes and railroad crossings are noticeable, to say the least.

We weren't greeted by lightning-quick reflexes or precision feedback, but the XSE offered a pretty solid first impression. It's quick enough, but not fast. It's quiet enough, but not serene. It proved sure-footed when pushed even on the damp roads of Savannah, Georgia, and we were never hurting for power.

Rowing our own

The next car available to us was an SE model with the six-speed "iMT." Toyota loves to stick "i" designations on its fancy transmissions to indicate that they are somehow intelligent. In this case, it means it comes with a button that toggles automated rev-matching between shifts.

We played around with it a bit, but ultimately found that it wasn't really necessary. This transmission isn't a world-beater, but there's enough feel both in the shifter and the clutch pedal that it's very intuitive to drive. In fact, Toyota was so sure of this that they brought out a couple of manual-equipped Hatchbacks to let some of the less-experienced members of the crowd shake some rust off.

This experience was part of a larger driving school theme which made up one-third of the available driving routes for the preview. Called "Corolla Motor Vehicles," it comprised a DMV-like counter, a full driving course, and a brief foray onto the old Grand Prize of America circuit on Hutchinson Island.

Yes, the driving test was scored. Your author passed.

The on-track portion was far from demonstrative, with an instructor sitting side-seat to make sure nobody ventured much beyond the "recommended" speed of 35 miles per hour. Novel? Sure. Useful? Not really. Toyota also neglected to bring along a last-generation Corolla for direct comparison purposes.

Dialing it back

The XLE we sampled next was spec'ed out nearly identically to the XSE model we sampled first, less only the bigger engine, the 18-inch wheels and the sportier version of the CVT. Honestly, we didn't really miss the extra power, and over the broken pavement of industrial Savannah, we welcomed the XLE's taller sidewalls and softer damping.

This left only the Hybrid. We set out with our expectations appropriately tempered, but we again found ourselves pleasantly surprised. Our brief, 20-minute mix of 55-mile-per-hour highway and surface streets yielded an average of better than 45 MPG (a good 50% improvement over what we saw in either gasoline-powered car), which may not be Prius-beating, but it's not bad for a car that starts under $24,000 after destination.

Leftlane's bottom line

Overall, the 2020 Toyota Corolla is a significant improvement over the car it replaces, which is exactly what we expect from something six years newer. Each example we tested met or exceeded our expectations, and our general impression of the car was positive.

It is not without its faults, however. While it is quieter than the old Corolla, it's still a bit boomy over bumps and still feels a bit lacking in noise isolation. The new interior is a significant upgrade, but Toyota's stubbornness with regard to Android Auto seems foolish and shortsighted now that many OEMs have multi-year head-starts in that regard.

Aside from those and a few other head-scratchers--a center console with soft-touch material in the center, but not on the driver's side where a knee would naturally rest, for example--we found the new Corolla to be a respectable effort indicative of a brand that believes in the staying power of the four-door sedan.

2020 Toyota Corolla base price, $19,500. 2020 Toyota Corolla Hybrid base price, $22,950; Destination, $930

Photos by the author.

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