On the Road Review: Toyota Corolla SE

Every couple of years, Toyota is generous enough to share an edition of its compact class Corolla sedan with the New England media. This prudent exercise benefits all and serves as an appropriate reminder of what the world’s best-selling car — ever — is still like.

Automotive enthusiasts surely will not exalt in the Corolla’s performance; it’s not that kind of car. However, drivers who want (need) reliable, affordable, efficient transportation will trumpet the small Toyota’s virtues. This car is a solid as a rock.

Previously, the Corolla’s styling could be considered staid. Blend-in introverted works too. But for 2020, Toyota gifted its Corolla with several exterior enhancements that create a much more attractive four-door. The wheelbase and overall length remain the same as last year — 106.3 inches and 182.5 inches, respectively, about the same as a 15-year-old Camry — while the interior continues to pretend it has midsize accommodations for any family of five.

Unfortunately, what we don’t have is the new Corolla Hybrid, the long-awaited dual-power sedan that owners are snapping up as quickly as they arrive at dealerships as they brag about their 60-mpg fuel economy in a car that is better in every way than its originator sibling, the Prius. Better looking, more space inside and more peak power with equal or better fuel economy — what’s not to like?

Our SE-trimmed Corolla ($24,224 as shown, $19,600 for base L model) is now the “sportiest” model in the lineup against XLE and LE trims. Featuring handsome alloy wheels, twin-exhaust tips and a smooth six-speed manual gearbox, the Corolla is filling a tiny niche in the market — those drivers who still know what to do with three pedals. Several commentators claimed that could be the best anti-theft device yet in a car, as the majority of today’s drivers have no idea what the third pedal does, or, how to use it. With barely 4 percent of new cars available with a clutch and stick shift, one could reasonably deduce why.

Rowing the Toyota’s gearbox requires little effort. Clutch action is light, shifting is quick and smooth, yet old-timers might lament the lack of any tactile feedback from each shift. No grinding, no notchy engagement, no hang-ups between gears, just greased gear changes even when flogging the poor transmission. Fuel economy came back at 34 mpg — almost at the top of the car’s EPA ratings; 29/36/32 mpg.

The driver’s seat has manual adjustments, including height, the lights are LED all around, plus a push-button start control expedites start-up. The electric parking brake didn’t impress — it is setup to be automatic every time you stop, so turning it off activates a constant idiot light in the dash, as well as adding unnecessary complexity. You hear an electric motor activating the brake (something else to worry about?), an act you used to do with your hand. And, the car’s interior is awash in too much hard plastic, yet controls are Toyota concise, including the buttons and knobs that complement touchscreen acts. At this price point, I think Toyota is remiss to leave out satellite radio. Heck, at any price point, satellite radio should be standard.

Forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking are standard. So is a back-up camera with a large screen. Ride dynamics and driving control are hallmarks here; nothing exciting, just predictable manners that 98.9 percent of drivers take for granted.

Two engines are offered. Base models come with a 1.8-liter, 139-hp in-line four, while SE and XLE feature the 169-hp 2.0-liter engine. Neither is a torque monster, lacking the turbocharging that is fast becoming common even in small, family-friendly sedans. That’s why a CVT automatic is the most common gearbox sold here.

The 1.8-liter engine is mated to the hybrid battery and electric motor to actually produce the most power. It comes only with the CVT automatic.

No longer wrapped in vanilla packaging, the new Corolla retains the benign attributes that make it the dependable stallion that millions of drivers all over the world have valued for decades.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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