2020 Toyota Corolla SE 6-Speed Manual Sedan – Review by Ben Lewis

If I tell you there’s a 4-door compact sedan that’s got hot styling, some real attitude, and is lots of fun to drive thanks to a 6-speed manual transmission, what would you say? Civic? Mazda 3, Elantra?

How about a Toyota Corolla? Yes, the Corolla.

Okay, we can’t blame you if it didn’t pop in your mind. Although there have been the occasional performance versions including the hot-hatch 1988 Corolla FX16, and the 2005 Corolla XRS sedan (8,000 rpm redline!), most of the model’s reputation has been built on solid, sensible and reliable transportation over flash. And it’s been a successful formula – over 46 MILLION(!) Corollas sold since 1966.

But as we’ve seen with the Camry, RAV4, heck, even the Avalon, Toyota is on a tear to make their vehicles more exciting, appealing, and involving.

A Hot Corolla

The first thing that grabs you about the looks, is…well, the looks. While it rides on an all-new platform Toyota calls TNGA, it actually shares the same 106.3-inch wheelbase of the previous model – which is a hard to believe – since the new model looks longer, lower, wider and meaner.

Design teams always have catchy names for their models and the new Corolla wore the moniker “Shooting Robust” because they were aiming for a confidence inspiring stance. While the name is a little goofy, the intention was spot on.

Being an SE grade, ours is the sportiest of Corollas, and it starts with J-shaped LED headlamps that give a tough look, sitting above the large sport-mesh grille. There’s a prominent hood bulge, and muscular, rounded fenders.

‘Rolla been to the gym. ‘Rolla swole up!

The profile is handsome too, thanks to the SE’s Gray Metallic sport side rocker panels, and most important, gorgeous 18-inch machined alloy wheels with dark gray painted accents – the largest ever on any Corolla. The rear also gets the LED light treatment with cool smoked lenses, and a bold rear fascia with a cool lower cut-in that looks inspired by the LFA Supercar and the new Supra. Good stuff.

Our tester was a bold Blue Crush Metallic, that would do justice to any of BMW’s M series cars.  Toyota’s getting some cool colors now, and the Corolla’s new highly iridescent Celestite Grey Metallic would probably be our choice.

First Cabin

Well, those pesky designers had a motto for the interior too – “Sensuous Minimalism”. Which we partially agree with. On the sensuous side, this is a lovely interior. If you’re expecting a hard, sporty edge to go with the exterior, not going to happen. What you do get is a very premium feel with high quality materials and tasteful design. This is a Corolla? More like a baby Avalon!

Okay, you do get a nod to driving fun with premium sport seats with a sporty fabric and blue piping, but the eye is immediately drawn to the contrasting white trim on the door panels that sweeps across the dash in a long, languid wave.  Add in silver accents and piano black trim, and it’s a nice place to spend time.

There’s a nice fat leather-wrapped steering wheel that feels great to the touch and behold! A 6-speed manual transmission. (More on that later). Behind that wheel is a large analog speedo and tachometer, with a customizable 4.2-inch TFT info display on the right, that serves up loads of info including odometer, trip meter, temp, fuel economy, range, elapsed time, mode indicators – it even reads speed limit signs and posts them. Pretty advanced tech.

There’s more tech in the center stack with a large 8-inch display with standard Entune 3.0, including (at last) standard Apple CarPlay & Amazon Alexa compatibility, Siri Eyes Free, two USB ports, Bluetooth streaming – even a 6-month trial of Wi-Fi Connect by Verizon.

Visibility is improved with a slightly lower seating position, and lower beltline, slimmer dash and skinnier A pillars. It feels lighter, brighter and friendlier. The rear seats are adult friendly for two, with a 60/40 split fold rear seat for carrying larger items.

Performance to Match the Looks?

That depends on how sporty you’re looking to go.

On paper, the Corolla SE and XSE look good with an all-new 2.0-liter engine that pumps out a strong 169 horsepower and 151-lb.-ft. of torque. Toyota says the engine is designed both for performance and fuel efficiency, but we feel they were more interested in efficiency. You can expect an easy 30 mpg. Don’t get us wrong, the motor pulls well once it’s on the boil, but it never really feels very enthusiastic about the prospect.

Which is a shame, because Toyota did us drivers a solid on the  SE and include a 6-speed manual transmission. This is a light, easy gearbox to use. Throws are a little long-ish, but the clutch is also light – you can drive this transmission in stop and go traffic and it’s no sweat.

Worth mentioning, the transmission features down-shift rev matching, that will automatically put the engine at the perfect rpm to give you a supremely smooth downshift – even first timers to a stick shift will be driving like a pro. This is really incredible technology for a car in this price range. The tech started with the Nissan 370Z, and Porsche and Corvette were quick to pick it up. But on a Corolla? Wow!

Along with the new powertrain, the new TNGA platform is vault-like strong. It creates a rock-solid impression and the ride is silky smooth and whisper quiet with no quivers or rattles, even over large bumps. Part of that is due to a new multi-link rear suspension that’s much more supple and responsive than the old torsion beam.

The handling is good, too. Again, not really sporty, but rewarding to drive, with good steering feel that makes it easy to place. This is a very comfortable car to drive – luxurious even – with a manual trans that adds to driver involvement. Toyota has also invested a lot of time and effort to improve the Corolla’s CVT transmission – we’ll report when we get some time behind one.

It may not be an adrenaline rush, but there is plenty of satisfaction in the Corolla, with the confidence of standard Toyota Safety Sense 2.0, which includes Pre-Collision System that looks forward for vehicles, pedestrians or bicyclists, Dynamic Radar Cruise Control – on CVT automatic models it includes full stop and go capability – Lane Departure Alert with Steer Assist, Lane Trace Assist, Automatic High Beam, and Road Sign Assist.

That is impressive, the only down side – Blind Spot Assist is available on select models, but not our SE.

Corolla Value – Some Things Never Change

Considering all that’s new and massively improved, the price hasn’t increased much at all. The entry level Corolla L starts at $19,500, and includes a 1.8-liter, 4-cylinder engine, LED headlights and taillights, Toyota Safety Sense 2.0, Apple CarPlay, Amazon Alexa Connectivity, even Wi-Fi. Safe, smart and as loyal as a Saint Bernard, this is a great first car for kids, families, seniors…. just about everybody.

We’d splurge at least for the LE for $19,950, which adds niceties like automatic climate control, remote keyless entry, larger 8-inch touch screen. It also opens the door to the LE Premium Package ($2,000) with smart key and pushbutton ignition, alloy wheels, moonroof, heated outside mirrors and the all-important Blind Spot Warning.

You can also opt for the Hybrid LE at $22,950 that has an impressive 52 mpg combined EPA fuel economy. For those wanting the ultimate luxury Corolla, there are also the XLE at $23,950 and XSE at $25,450.

The SE model is in the middle ground of the lineup, and gets the added sporty looks inside and out plus the larger 2.0-liter engine. The CVT model starts at $21,950, while the 6-speed manual like our tester comes in at $22,650.

Competition in manual form comes in the Civic Sport, a solid value at $21,150, and the turbo powered Elantra Sport at $22,600. If you’re looking for a true sport sedan, the Civic and the Elantra are probably the better choice, but if you’re looking for a luxurious, stylish ride with the added fun of a stick, the Corolla SE would be the way to go.

The all-new 2020 Corolla is the best looking, nicest driving Corolla yet. Go ahead and join the other 46 million happy owners – you won’t be disappointed!