SAVANNAH, Ga. — If not for the Corolla, Toyota may not have survived in the American car market. It was small, fuel-efficient and reliable which was just what the driving public wanted.
More than 50 years later, 50 million-plus copies have been sold worldwide, making the Corolla the best-selling car ever. And despite a market that has turned sharply towards crossovers and SUVs, Toyota vowed not to turn its back on sedans as it introduced here the 12th generation of the Corolla.
Other than the wheelbase, which is still the same at 106.3 inches, everything else has changed. The car is wider. The front overhang has been shortened while the rear overhang has been lengthened; neither by much but enough to improve the overall balance of the car.
For 2020, the Corolla is shorter overall, the hood has been lowered by 1.4 inches and the center of gravity has been lowered. They also lowered the side view mirrors and attached them to the front doors. What all this “lowering” has done is create an open airy passenger cabin.
The front seats were redesigned and I found them very comfortable, sort of form-fitting, especially around my lumbar. Even the backseats, traditionally a cramped area in compact cars, were relatively comfortable. I had a good bit of leg room as well as ample headroom.
Toyota has created a Corolla for just about every driving appetite in the community. There were six trim lines and, for the first time, there is a hybrid.
The L, LE and LV HV are for entry-level consumers. The SE is for the sporty minded; it has two transmissions, a six-speed manual and a CVT with a first gear that gave it some snap. The XLE is, in a word, loaded. The XSE as Toyota put it represents the best of both worlds.
Count the hybrid and there were three engine offerings. The gasoline-electric version had a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine that made 121 horsepower and 105 pound-feet of the torque. It had a CVT, regenerative brakes and the Nickel Metal hydride battery was under the rear seat.
That gave it a lot of balance and the car didn’t see too heavy for the suspension. Toyota continues to stick with the nickel metal battery. Though heavier than Lithium-ion and more power dense, nickel metal cost less. Sometimes money does matter. This engine was rated 53 mpg in the city, 52 mpg on the highway and 52 mpg combined.
Well, this was a hybrid and it had all the characteristics of such an engine. On one hand, it was extraordinarily quiet, smooth and certainly fuel efficient, though we didn’t drive it that far. On the other hand, there was no power to speak of as with most small engine hybrid engines.
The 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine used in the gasoline-powered Corolla made 139 horsepower and 126 pound-feet of torque. With the manual, the L trim got 30 mpg in the city, 38 mpg on the highway and 33 mpg combined. With the CVT it got the same mileage. In XLE trim it got one mile per gallon less across the board.
The 2.0-liter four-cylinder made 169 horsepower and 151 pound-feet of torque. It had a combination of direct and port injection. It got 29 mpg in the city, 36 mpg on the highway and 32 mpg combined with the manual transmission. The CVT got 31 mpg in the city, 40 mpg on the highway and 34 mpg combined. The XSE got two miles less per gallon on the highway.
I didn’t get the chance to drive the lighter 2.0 engine but the staffers told me there was a big difference between it and the 1.8-liter engine, 30 more horsepower, to be specific. However, I did test-drive a Corolla hatchback with that engine upon my immediate return. It was waiting for me at the airport.
Anyway, the hatchback had a CVT, thus, not much oomph was gained through the increase of horsepower. That’s the problem with CVTs, their power is subtle.
However, the upside was that this car got 32 mpg in the city, 42 mpg on the highway and 36 mpg combined. The downside was that the hatch lost rear-passenger compartment space. That’s what happens when you lop off the trunk of a vehicle.
The Corolla’s strength derived from mechanics, equipment and reliability. An eight-inch touch infotainment screen dominated the interior, which was really clean looking. Toyota engineers went so far as to eliminate unnecessary lettering on switch gear to enhance the minimalist look.
Depending on the trim, the new Corolla was equipped with ambient lighting, but of course, during the day we didn’t get the chance to see the full effect. There was a 4.2-inch TFT multi-information display in front of the driver located between the speedometer and odometer.
They lowered the hip point almost an inch and moved it an inch and half reward. The result was a lot more space and that equaled more comfort. And the car drove lighter.
Everything about the 2020 Toyota Corolla was trimmer. They lowered the belt line, slimmed down the instrument panel, and slimmed down the A-pillars. Along with lowering the side mirrors, this created a car with elbow room and unobstructed visual sight lines.
Sound absorbing sealers, foams and silencers along with the new architecture rendered a really quiet automobile. Other than the engine under hard acceleration, I don’t remember hearing any road noise or wind noise.
It is all about connections in today’s car world. The 2020 Toyota Corolla has what you’d expect: satellite radio, voice controls and Bluetooth. But it also had Apple CarPlay, Amazon Alexa and Scout GPS. What’s more, a Toyota executive told us that Android Auto is on the way.
Oh, the 2020 Corolla has its own WiFi connection that can service five devices. It’s got a 24-hour live concierge service, remote connect, service connect and safety connect.
Standard is Toyota Safety Sense 2.0. It is comprised of a pre-collision system that includes pedestrians and bicycles, adaptive cruise control, lane departure alert with steer assists, lane tracing assist, automatic high beams, road signage assist, blind spot monitor and brake hold.
Prices start at $19,500 for the L, $19,950 for the LE, the SE with a CVT starts at $21,950, with a manual transmission the SE starts at $22,650, the XLE starts at $23,950, the XSE starts at $25,450 and the Hybrid starts at $22,950. Add a $930 freight charge to all base prices.
This is far beyond what was offered on the Toyota Corolla 50 years ago, but the car remains in the top tier of today’s compact cars.
Frank S. Washington is editor of AboutThatCar.com.