The small sedan landscape is a varied one, ranging from classic econoboxes to bona fide sports car killers – but there isn’t much in between.
Sure, there are entries like the Honda Civic Si, Volkswagen Jetta GLI, and Hyundai Elantra Sport; but those err on the sportier side and, at least in the case of the Honda and VW, are priced accordingly.
For folks in search of something a notch or two below those, there’s the 2020 Toyota Corolla SE, a pseudo-sport compact that sacrifices some sportiness in the name of affordability.
Driving Feel: 8/10
Let’s just clear this up right now: This Corolla is far from a corner-carving thrill machine; for that, please refer to the aforementioned trio of turbocharged choices (as well as the Subaru WRX, should all-wheel drive make your list of must-haves). Instead, think of the Corolla SE – especially when equipped with the standard six-speed manual transmission – as a hidden gem of goodness that combines a surprising bit of sportiness with a healthy dose of ride comfort, all in a downright affordable package.
In many ways, it’s a Corolla like any other – a segment stalwart that’s been among the country’s bestsellers for what seems like forever. Drivability benefits from that fact in this new-for-2020 generation model, with the very platform it’s built on forming a foundation of comfort and engagement that’s hard to find in this class of car and beyond.
Balance is the name of the game here, with the Corolla rolling over rough roads without much fuss while remaining pleasantly firm, though not overly so, and ready to play along when pushed. The sport-tuned suspension is well damped while the steering is nicely weighted (if a little artificial-feeling) and gives a good sense of which way the wheels are pointed.
Again, this isn’t quite a sport compact, but it does a pretty good impersonation of one. Those looking for a smooth operator will be impressed with what’s offered here, with even the six-speed manual delivering some of the most buttery shifts you can buy. (For those who’d rather not row their own gears, a continuously variable automatic transmission is offered as a $1,000 option.)
While throws of the gear lever are a little on the long side and the lightness of the clutch takes some getting used to, the manual setup is as satisfying to use as it is easy, proving all but impossible to stall. Manual models also benefit from a button-activated auto rev-match system that brings with it an extra bit of playfulness by keeping engine speed in the meaty part of the powerband on downshifts – though it’s somewhat absent between higher gears.
While other Corolla models settle for a serviceable 1.8L engine, SE and XSE versions get a 2.0L four-cylinder under the hood that delivers an extra dose of power without suffering at the pumps. Making 169 hp and 151 lb-ft of torque, the output figures don’t exactly jump off the page, but they do provide a pleasant push when called upon.
The naturally aspirated engine really starts to wake up around 3,600 rpm, becoming increasingly playful as the torque climbs to its peak in the 4,500–4,900 rpm range – perfect territory for twisty roads. While the Corolla SE could benefit from the Sport button Toyota includes on the automatic-only XSE, planting your right foot with a little more firmness does a decent job of making up for its absence.
Fuel Economy: 7/10
Choosing to do so doesn’t hamper fuel economy too much, with Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) rating the 2.0L engine and six-speed combo at 8.2 L/100 km in the city, 6.5 L/100 km on the highway, and a combined 7.4 L/100 km – not far from the ratings given to the slightly smaller engine when paired with the same transmission.
It’s only on the highway that the difference is noteworthy, with the 1.8L sipping a miserly 6.0 L/100 km, but the city (8.0 L/100 km) and combined (7.1 L/100 km) ratings are rather similar to the more powerful of the pair. Given the disparity in output – the 1.8L makes a paltry 139 hp and 126 lb-ft of torque – the 2.0L is a worthy upgrade.
Of course, real-world driving conditions yield real-world results, and after just over 500 km the Corolla SE returned a combined rating of 8.2 L/100 km, respectable given much of that driving was done in the city and on winding roads over the course of a rather cold week.
Suspension damping and ride quality score high marks here, but the Corolla is still a compact car that’s made to be affordable first and foremost – something that’s felt inside. While the front seats are well-bolstered, a four-hour drive pushed the limits of their comfort. Similarly, the longer drive also uncovered an annoying amount of road noise on more porous pavement.
None of that is particularly noticeable during shorter drives and shouldn’t become problematic during daily commuting, but those doing lots of long-haul drives may quickly find these nuances becoming nuisances.
Despite the somewhat uncomfortable seats, the overall quality of the interior is second to none – something that should surprise few people who have driven a Toyota in recent years. Even in a lower trim grade like the SE, the Corolla delivers a nice blend of materials and a construction quality that isn’t exactly expected in this segment.
There’s enough equipment here to satisfy most shoppers in this segment, starting with smartphone interfacing. After a few years or resisting, Toyota has graciously given in to consumer demand and included Apple CarPlay compatibility.
Unfortunately – at least until the 2021 model year – Android Auto is unavailable in the Corolla despite being offered in most of the rest of the Toyota lineup for 2020. A Toyota spokesperson said the slow rollout of the service comes down to data privacy, and the Corolla just missed the cut for 2020, but it is in the pipeline for the popular compact.
Heated front seats are standard fare in the Corolla SE, as is automatic climate control, a six-speaker stereo with a host of hookups including Bluetooth, auxiliary and USB, and, of course, a government-mandated back-up camera.
The SE trim is also offered with an upgrade package that includes a sunroof, 18-inch alloy wheels, a wireless phone charger and a heated steering wheel, features that definitely help to elevate the otherwise ordinary offering.
Because it’s a Toyota, the Corolla – SE or otherwise – benefits from the brand’s suite of advanced safety features. While missing a few features offered on higher-end trims, this version of the Corolla gets a well-rounded package of in-demand features that help it earn a Top Safety Pick rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), including adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, and automatic emergency braking with pedestrian and cyclist detection.
While the adaptive cruise control on the top-of-the-line XSE model is a fully featured version that works in stop-and-go traffic, most drivers will find the simplified version included here to be more than adequate. It’s also noteworthy that lane-keep assist isn’t included here when it is part of the packages in the Civic Si, Jetta GLI and Elantra Sport, though the feature is included in the automatic-only Corolla XSE, for those who are so inclined.
Few would argue that the latest Corolla sedan, which underwent a complete overhaul for 2020, is anything but different. In a sea of sameness, the Corolla stands out for a design that’s modern and aggressive while remaining tasteful. While the automaker has long been accused of playing it safe stylistically, Toyota has in recent years pushed the design envelope in a new direction that’s downright dynamic.
Avoiding rental car colours like any of the monochromatics offered is the best way to make the most of the Corolla’s design, with red or either available shade of blue matching nicely with the body lines.
Inside, the Corolla is understated but attractive, with a simple layout that emphasizes the dash-mounted touchscreen – an upgraded eight-inch unit in the case of SE and XSE models. The dash is a bit on the deep side, an odd complaint about an area that feels like wasted space, but it’s a nicely put together cabin regardless, with excellent build quality for the class.
The Corolla SE with black interior gets some blue accents, including a subtle pattern on the seatbacks, a scheme that unsurprisingly looks best when paired with a blue exterior and adds a nice bit of colour inside.
User Friendliness: 6/10
The simplicity of the space inside means the layout of most buttons and controls is fairly straightforward – though there are some caveats. The heated-seat switches, for example, are located in the cramped area between the gear selector and available wireless charging pad, and are prone to accidental engagement when placing a smartphone in the cradle.
The location of the auxiliary and USB media ports, the latter of which handles the CarPlay connectivity, is clever but almost too much so. Stowed on the underside of the dash, they are somewhat hidden and hard to find the first time inside the car.
The infotainment interface is clunkier than what’s offered by rivals like Hyundai, Kia, and Subaru; though it’s vastly improved compared to previous versions of Toyota’s Entune while finding a way to feel familiar to those who have used older iterations.
Other idiosyncrasies include the auto rev-match and brake hold functions that default to off when the ignition is cycled. While these are more mild annoyances than anything else, having to re-engage these features each time you climb behind the wheel seems unnecessary.
As a compact sedan, the Corolla is friendlier to those in the front seats than those occupying the rear. Headroom is quite generous for driver and navigator, but the slope of the roofline makes the back seats feel somewhat claustrophobic.
The trunk, however, is surprisingly large and very usable. Listed at 371 L, it’s among the smallest in the segment. It looks and feels much bigger though, offering a space that’s deep and wide – adjectives that don’t exactly apply to, say, the Honda Civic sedan. The trunk is reminiscent of that of the Toyota Echo of old, with the surprising depth making it capable of swallowing a stroller with plenty of space to spare.
The Corolla’s best feature, at least in SE trim, may be its affordability. Priced at just $22,290 before freight and fees (don’t forget to add another $1,000 for the optional automatic transmission), it’s just $3,300 more than the base model but gets a more powerful motor, alloy wheels, heated front seats, that 8-inch touchscreen, and keyless entry with push-button start.
Add another $2,000 for the upgrade package that includes the heated steering wheel, etc.; and this Corolla comes in at $24,290 – a shade over $26,000 with delivery and prep fees tacked on.
Even the Elantra Sport can’t compete at that price, starting at $25,549 for a similarly equipped car. Yes, it generates more output, making 201 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque, and outperforms the Corolla by most measures, but in the end it comes down to where your priorities lie. Those seeking a sportier sedan will find what they’re looking for in the Elantra or any of the other options out there; but buyers shopping for an affordable small sedan that’s still fun will come away impressed with what this Toyota has to offer.
The 2020 Toyota Corolla SE can be surprisingly smile-inducing, filling a niche below the sportier offerings on the market – but it does so while retaining all the characteristics that have helped the Corolla earn its way into so many driveways across Canada over the years. Excellent build quality and effortless road comfort blend with predicted reliability and outstanding affordability to make this version of the Corolla a great option in the small sedan segment.
|Peak Horsepower||169 hp @ 6,600 rpm|
|Peak Torque||151 lb-ft @ 4,500–4,900 rpm|
|Fuel Economy||8.2/6.5/7.4 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb|
|Cargo Space||371 L|
|Model Tested||2020 Toyota Corolla SE (6M)|
|Price as Tested||$26,035|
$2,000 – SE Upgrade Package, $2,000