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First drive review: Which 2020 Toyota Corolla should you buy?

February 26, 2019

No-nonsense, dependable, durable: no matter which 2020 Toyota Corolla you mention, those words inevitably come up, and for good reason. The Corolla became a go-to choice of car shoppers decades before the device on which you’re reading this was invented.

For 2020, both the Corolla sedan and hatchback add some luster to the long-lived nameplate. The new sedan in particular is a great value, with its efficient power, compliant ride, and safety and infotainment high standards. It’s arguably peak Corolla, though we still save a smile for the ‘80s SR5s and FX16 hatchbacks.

MORE: Read our full 2020 Toyota Corolla review

It’s not as captivating as a Civic or as sweetly dialed in with the road as a Mazda 3, but the 2020 Corolla has made gains in handling and comfort and style, all ways in which it probably didn’t need to put much effort. It no longer puts its drivers on a bland diet.

The more important question for Corolla buyers than first-drive impressions is value. Now that every Corolla gets excellent safety equipment standard, and other nice things such as Apple CarPlay compatibility, it’s useful to figure out which version works best for you.

Which 2020 Corolla should you buy? Here’s our advice, in the order in which we’d sort them.

2020 Toyota Corolla XLE: The sterling value

If the appeal of a new car with a reputation for durability reigns over your mind, we’d skip right to the $24,880 Toyota Corolla XLE. It’s a sterling value. For that price—thousands below the average transaction price for new cars—the Corolla gets a 139-horsepower inline-4 and a CVT for moderate but smooth acceleration, well-rounded road manners with a hint of life in its steering, excellent fuel economy in the mid-30-mpg combined range, and touchscreen infotainment with CarPlay (but no Android Auto, though it’s said to be a high priority for future models). We’ve rated the 2020 Corolla based on this configuration, it scores a 6.2 before any crash-test data is available. (Read more about how we rate cars.)

The Corolla XLE is no stripper, either. In addition to the above gear, it gets synthetic leather upholstery, a sunroof, an 8-way power driver seat, 205/55-series tires on 16-inch wheels, and two USB ports. You can add wireless smartphone charging, satellite radio, and an 800-watt, nine-speaker audio system with in-car wi-fi and navigation.

2020 Toyota Corolla LE

2020 Toyota Corolla LE

2020 Toyota Corolla LE: Basic wheels with a warranty

For about $4,000 less, the $20,880 Corolla LE will cut that monthly payment while it still stocks a very good range of standard equipment. Take the same drivetrain, swap in narrower 195/65 tires, and you’ll still get LED headlights, power features, a fold-down rear seat, and an 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system with CarPlay and Bluetooth audio streaming. There are better warranties available on rivals such as the Hyundai Elantra. (Skip the base $20,430 Corolla L trim, which wears 15-inch tires and a lesser grade of cloth trim.)

2020 Toyota Corolla LE Hybrid

2020 Toyota Corolla LE Hybrid

2020 Toyota Corolla LE Hybrid: Stellar fuel economy

It’s the Prius without a penalty. The $23,880 Corolla LE Hybrid has 15-inch wheels but similar equipment otherwise to the gas-only Corolla LE. The major difference: Its 121-hp drivetrain comes directly from Toyota’s hallmark hybrid, 4-cylinder and nickel-metal hydride batteries and all. The batteries tuck under the rear seat, so no trunk space is lost. It’s $3,000 more expensive than the comparable non-hybrid Corolla, and low gas prices mean it will take a long time to pay that back—but if ever there were a clear-cut and attractive way to avoid the Prius’ oddball styling, this is it.

2020 Toyota Corolla XSE

2020 Toyota Corolla XSE

2020 Toyota Corolla SE hatchback or XSE sedan: For enthusiasts on a budget

The Corolla is no one’s idea of a sport sedan, but Toyota has boosted this generation of Corolla with a new, stiff body that helps handling tremendously. It takes advantage of that with the new Corolla SE and XSE sedan and hatchback, which share the company’s new 2.0-liter inline-4. Rated at 169 hp, it’s coupled to either a CVT with a fixed first gear, or a 6-speed manual transmission. In either case, the Corolla “S” editions also get better, heavier steering feel and stiffer suspension settings, as well as 225/40-series tires on 16- or 18-inch wheels. The $26,380 Corolla XSE has synthetic leather seats, automatic climate control, a sunroof, and navigation, and probably won’t reach many buyers at all—but the cheaper sporty Corolla SE hatchback boasts smart handling and good standard equipment, and better style, too.

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