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Start of a Revolution: 2020 Toyota Corolla First Drive

In 1966, Toyota introduced the world to the Corolla. It’s safe to say Toyota’s small car and customers hit it off. Over the past 53 years, Toyota has sold more than 46 million Corollas around the world. There’s a good chance you or someone you know has owned or owns a Corolla. Everyone has their reasons for buying one, whether it’s the Corolla’s affordable price, wallet-friendly fuel economy, or legendary reliability.

The 2020 Corolla sedan offers even more reasons to drive one home. It’s not just a new model of what Toyota calls the “World’s Best-Selling Car;” it’s the product of an entirely new approach to making the Corolla. Think revolution, not evolution.

Like its 2019 hatchback counterpart, the Corolla sedan rides on the new Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) platform and features bold new styling. It’s available in a variety of trim levels to meet the needs of a multitude of buyers. For more traditional customers, there are the Corolla L, LE, and XLE models. Those who want a small car with big attitude can get the Corolla SE and XSE; as a bonus, they also get an all-new engine. The LE Hybrid – the first ever Corolla Hybrid – uses a new Hybrid Synergy Drive system to help those who value fuel economy delay their next trip to the gas station.

Designers overhauled the interior to give it a more premium feel. New infotainment tech, including available JBL audio, and safety features make the 2020 Corolla the most advanced one yet.

Toyota was kind enough to fly me out to Savannah, Georgia so I could drive pre-production versions of the all-new 12th-generation Corolla. This is just some of what you can look forward to when the 2020 model rolls into AutoNation Toyota dealerships later this year.

2020 Toyota Corolla

2020 Toyota Corolla Exterior

The Corolla has never looked bolder or more aggressive than it does now. Part of that is due to minor dimensional changes. Although the 2020 model has the same 106.3-inch wheelbase as the outgoing model, it has wider front and rear tracks, a shorter front overhang, a lower hood, and a lower center of gravity – all of which make the new Corolla more visibly and physically athletic than before. The rest comes from the Corolla’s sharp LED headlights, massive lower grille, and pronounced fender flares. The sportier SE and XSE models take things to the next level with unique design elements, such as a metallic gray mesh front grille, 18-inch wheels wrapped in P225/40R18 rubber, smoked LED tail lights, and an exhaust finisher with dual chrome tips.

2020 Toyota Corolla

2020 Toyota Corolla Interior

Toyota took a different approach to the Corolla’s interior and designed it to be simpler and more upscale. Once I got behind the wheel of an XSE, I made sure to touch different spots around the cabin. The steering wheel and shifter were wrapped in stitched leather. Everything else was either decorative trim or covered in soft-touch materials. The Corolla has developed a reputation for being a budget-friendly car, but my test vehicle made it clear it doesn’t have to feel that way.

2020 Toyota Corolla

The Corolla is available with two center screen sizes. The L comes standard with a 7-inch unit; all other models get an 8-inch screen. All of them are compatible with Wi-Fi connectivity, Amazon Alexa, and Apple CarPlay.

The Corolla’s standard audio system has six speakers. A 9-speaker, 800-watt JBL setup with a 10-inch subwoofer is optional on XLE and XSE models. I’ve experienced JBL systems in other Toyotas before and have always stepped out impressed by their power and clarity. I was expecting the same out of the Corolla’s JBL audio package. It delivered, whether I listened to the quick and delicate plucking in one of Lindsey Buckingham’s acoustic guitar concerts or Boston’s classic power anthem “Peace of Mind.”

After driving the LE, LE Hybrid, SE, and XSE models, I got a good idea of their dynamics. The steering was nicely weighted and had a solid on-center feel. The brakes were progressive and easy to modulate. All of the models I tested were comfortable, spacious, and user-friendly in the front row.

2020 Toyota Corolla

I also sat in the back of the XSE. Although it offered enough legroom for all 5’10” of me and the headliner had carved-out sections in it to fit taller occupants, I would’ve been more comfortable with a little extra headroom in the back seat.

2020 Toyota Corolla

2020 Toyota Corolla Performance

The 1.8-liter I4 from the outgoing Corolla is the sole power plant in the 2020 L, LE, and XLE models, but it’s more powerful and fuel-efficient than it was in 2019. Output is now 139 horsepower and 126 lb-ft of torque. That’s routed through a continuously variable transmission (CVT) with a physical first gear that gets the Corolla going, then hands off shifting duties to the CVT hardware. It’s at its most fuel efficient in the L and LE, which offer EPA ratings of 30 city, 38 highway, and 33 combined mpg (subtract one from all of those figures for the XLE).**

An all-new Dynamic Force 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine powers the Corolla SE and XSE. It produces 169 horsepower and 151 lb-ft. A CVT is standard, but the SE is available with a 6-speed manual transmission (aka iMT – Intelligent Manual Transmission). I made sure to get some seat time in a manual SE. The shift throws were a little long, but the clutch was forgiving and easy to use smoothly. I didn’t have to worry about rolling backwards at stop signs because the brake Auto Hold feature kept me in place until I was able to power away. If I had wanted it to, the gearbox would’ve even rev matched during downshifts for me.

The SE with the CVT gets the best fuel economy out of the two sport models. According to the EPA, it’s capable of getting 31 mpg in the city, 40 mpg on the highway, and 34 mpg combined.**

2020 Toyota Corolla

The LE Hybrid uses the combination of a 121-horsepower/105-lb-ft 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine, 71-horsepower/105-lb-ft electric motor, 600-volt nickel-metal hydride battery pack, and CVT transmission. Total system output is 121 horsepower. The LE Hybrid may not be the most powerful Corolla, but it’s certainly the most economical one. It can go 53 miles in the city, 52 miles on the highway, or 52 combined miles on one gallon of gas.**

To showcase how nimble and maneuverable the 2020 Corolla is, Toyota set up a DMV-style series of driving tests at the Grand Prize of America Circuit that included parallel parking, a reverse slalom, and an emergency lane change. The Corolla’s tidy dimensions, outward visibility, and rearview camera enabled me to ace them all and earn my “license.”

2020 Toyota Corolla

2020 Toyota Corolla Safety

Toyota took the amount of safety features in the 2020 Corolla to an all-time high. All models are equipped with eight airbags, a backup camera, and Toyota’s Star Safety System, which includes anti-lock brakes, traction and stability control, Electronic Brake-force Distribution, Brake Assist, and Smart Stop Technology. Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 is standard equipment across the entire Corolla lineup, too. It’s filled with a variety of features designed to make driving easier and safer, such as a pre-collision sensing system with automatic emergency braking, Dynamic Radar Cruise Control (with full-speed capability on CVT models), Lane Departure Alert with Steer Assist, Lane Tracing Assist (for CVT-equipped Corollas) to keep the Corolla centered in its lane, automatic high beams, and Road Sign Assist that can read speed limit, Stop, Yield, and Do Not Enter signs and warn the driver about them. Blind Spot Monitor is optional on certain Corolla trim levels, but standard on others.

2020 Toyota Corolla

2020 Toyota Corolla Overall

Toyota has revolutionized the Corolla as we know it. Luckily, it hasn’t forgotten that it’s supposed to be affordable. Prices for the 2020 Corolla start at $19,500 with the L model.* The XSE has a starting price of $25,450.* The LE Hybrid sits in the middle with an MSRP of $22,950.* Expect to see those and the other Corolla trim levels in AutoNation Toyota dealerships this spring.

*MSRP excludes tax, license, registration, destination charge and options. Dealer prices may vary.

**Based on EPA mileage ratings. Your mileage will vary depending specific vehicle trim, how you drive and maintain your vehicle, driving conditions, and other factors.

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