The Toyota Corolla enjoys a sterling reputation in the compact sedan class. Yet in recent years, that reputation was available at some of the segment’s lowest prices. That is a tempting combination.
But the Corolla was backing up its budget-friendly price with a budget-grade interior, a budget-grade driving experience and a low-tech engine with merely acceptable fuel economy. There were clear reasons it cost many thousands of dollars less than its historical archrival, the comparatively high-tech, fun-to-drive Honda Civic.
The newly redesigned 2020 Toyota Corolla is a big improvement over its predecessor in several key ways. Its interior goes from dour and low-tech to modern, inviting and up-to-date. It is quieter on the highway, and less prone to wandering back and forth. Its steering feels more natural. Its exterior design is crisper and more modern.
And, impressively, it remains one of the least expensive cars in its class.
The 2020 Toyota Corolla has a base price of $20,555. In itself, that does not make it a budget leader. Several competitors have cheaper starting prices.
But Toyota brings extra standard features that can cost quite a bit extra on other models. These include an automatic transmission, a suite of advanced safety and driver-assistance features, and a touchscreen infotainment system with Apple CarPlay smartphone integration for iPhones. Toyota also provides two years or 25,000 of free scheduled maintenance.
Furthering the car’s value play, data on real-world Corolla sales suggest that Toyota dealers offer a bigger discount off the sticker price than most of its competitors which is about $2,500 after you have haggled. Notably, not only do the Civic and some other key models have a higher sticker price than a comparably equipped Corolla, but their dealers have not been as flexible with the sticker price.
This means you can buy a well-equipped compact sedan loaded with advanced safety equipment for less than $20,000 out the door. While that was also true of last year’s Corolla, this one is a better vehicle in important ways.
That said, there are also some lingering downsides to the Corolla, along with some fresh ones. While its interior ambiance, driving dynamics and overall experience have improved dramatically, they still don’t reach best-in-class status. And its interior is less spacious than before.
The base 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine — as equipped on our tested car — makes 139 horsepower, which is low by today’s standards, and you feel it when you accelerate. The engine makes a racket without tremendous forward progress, and even its fuel economy is unremarkable at an EPA-estimated 32 to 33 miles per gallon in mixed driving. The engine largely carries over from the 2014-2019 Corolla model, and it is why the Corolla gets worse mileage than the quieter, more powerful Civic.
A more powerful 2.0-liter engine is also available in select Corolla models, even bringing a slight fuel economy advantage at about a $2,000 premium over comparably equipped 1.8-liter models. (The Corolla is also sold as a five-door hatchback that’s available only with the larger engine.)
And you can buy a gas-electric hybrid model of the entry-level Corolla LE, which brings a stellar fuel economy that exceeds 50 miles per gallon, but you cannot get it with all the extra goodies available on other Corolla trims. It costs a premium of $3,000 over the gas-only Corolla LE, starting at $24,055.
Moving behind the engine, the Corolla has some areas that feel unappealingly cheap. The center console bin slams shut with great force, and the exterior door handles feel flimsy.
It does not offer features like heated rear seats, rain-sensing windshield wipers or even an automatic-dimming rearview mirror. Its infotainment system, while supporting Apple CarPlay, lacks the equivalent Android Auto for Google-based smartphones. Nothing disastrous, to be sure, but reminders of why the Corolla cost less than the competition.
Another downside is that the new Corolla is less roomy than its predecessor. The rear seat loses its generous legroom, becoming serviceable for two adults rather than truly comfortable. The center-rear position is a true squeeze. We know we’re talking about a small car, but the Civic and Nissan Sentra have significantly more room.
On the budget side of the compact sedan class, the Corolla’s closest rivals are the Sentra, the Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte and the Volkswagen Jetta.
The Sentra is much like the old Corolla — underpowered, insubstantial-feeling on the highway but affordable and spacious — though recent updates bring it a superior infotainment system to the old Corolla. The Elantra and Forte are closer to the current Corolla, feeling more substantial than the Sentra but less roomy. The Jetta delivers the best driving experience of the budget lot, though its interior can feel even humbler than the Koreans.
Lastly, if $20,000 seems too dear for a budget car, we are scheduled to test the promising redesigned 2020 Nissan Versa later this month. This subcompact sedan is priced from $15,625 and has historically offered more interior space than even many larger vehicles.
That means if you are interested in a small, decently affordable sedan, you have many compelling options today. The Corolla may no longer be a leader for Uber drivers who want maximum rear legroom for their patrons.
It still doesn’t have the sporty performance or cushy luxury found in some of its peers. But the 2020 Toyota Corolla promises a blend of affordability and dependability, all with improved user-friendliness, aesthetics and ride and handling.
Brady Holt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association.