Road Test – 2020 Toyota Corolla XSE Hatchback (6MT)

When we last met the Toyota Corolla hatchback, it was a welcome blast of fresh air into Toyota showrooms. The sedan had valiantly held steadfast in the compact segment for over 20 years, and is still the undisputed sales benchmark for a segment that is currently under siege by compact CUVs. But while the CVT equipped car held its own in our original review, we wanted to experience what it would be like to row through the gears ourselves, and whether it could help inject more fun into the hatchback’s game plan. To find out, we gave the Toyota an opportunity to return and see what new changes are present for the new model year.


Blue Flame is back in the mix:

Exterior expression is not too often associated with the Corolla, with the sedan having a reputation for being a bit stale and bland. The hatchback makes good use of its new lease on life, and comes equipped with a look that is exciting, fresh, and distinctive. The Corolla will certainly need every ounce of design mojo it has, especially since it’s facing a rapidly declining list of rivals. The Ford Fiesta flew the coop over a year ago, and the Chevrolet Cruze bit the dust at roughly the same time. Even the smaller Sonic hatchback is living on life support, so the quest for survival has never been so important. Our tester also arrived with it’s trademark Blue Flame exterior paint, and while the hue was temporarily unavailable in Toyota’s online configurator during our tester’s visit (due to the COVID-19 pandemic.) It appears that Toyota has managed to resolve the issue, with the color resuming regular availability for customers. The black contrast badges that were added to our tester offered a welcome dash of contrast, but we really wish that Toyota designers would’ve blacked out the front Toyota emblem to go along with the rest of the car. That decision inadvertently created a bit of clumsiness especially when going from the front to the back. Along with the fore-mentioned emblem, the smaller bits of badging also get blacked out, and further add to the subtle aggression created by the sleek tailights and the small but tidy roof mounted spoiler.

The bold suit of clothes also makes the Corolla look like a mini hot hatchback, and our tester certainly garnered a number of compliments from visitors to the office, especially fans of the fore-mentioned Blue Flame hue. The look is also miles ahead of the Sonic, and the rear in particular has a strong and welcome resemblance to some hatches that are currently sold in the European market only (even if the dual exhaust tips are here just for show versus being functional in any distinct way.)


Interior shines in versatility and technology, but more storage please:


With the exterior styling projecting a strong youth presence, the interior manages to wow buyers with its own take on coddling passengers. It’s not a luxury car by any stretch of the imagination, but rather than go the opposite way and adorn it with budget basement components, Toyota designers went out of there way to make sure that even the littlest things generate a big amount of impact. When you slip inside, you are immediately surrounded by a strong atmosphere of quality, with splashes of soft touch plastics being used in select areas like the area above the gauge cluster, the center arm rest, and the broader dash pad itself. Handsome white contrast stitching runs all over the cabin and that includes the comfortable leatherette seats which offer good amounts of long haul support and allow taller drivers to formally stretch out on long hauls. The rear seat is a bit tighter and lacks any features to speak of, but fold them down, and they do their part to expand the amount of cargo room on hand.

Our tester also offers a very impressive suite of technology to buyers, with the 8.0 inch infotainment system finally arriving with both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto capability baked in for the new model year. This is a welcome development, and ends Toyota’s experiment with having the clunky and aging Entune system being the primary software for mobile capability. the screen also houses a number of easy to access menus, which is also an improvement over older Entune equipped systems.


The only gripe we had centers around the lack of storage space that the hatchback offers to buyers. While Toyota designers did equip the car with a decently sized cubby in the sliding center arm rest, there aren’t any other places to store your gear beyond the glovebox, cup holders, and door pockets. With all the storage trays and cubbies that the bigger RAV4 and the Highlander bring, it would have been cool to see some of that magic trickle down into the hatchback. Our tester did arrive with the optional Qi wireless charging mat that is ahead of the shifter, but the space itself is shallow, and as a result, not much will fit in there besides a few small items when it’s not being used for charging phones.


A manual and a surprise addition help spice things up:

Performance for the 2020 Toyota Corolla hatchback comes from a 2.0 liter four cylinder engine that’s good for *169 horsepower. You might have noticed the asterisk, and that’s because our tester had a surprise lurking under the hood, a TRD accessory air filter. Changing the air filter to free a few extra ponies is nothing new in the car world, with K&N being the most notable example of this with their lineup of products. While the available TRD air intake was not present here, we suspect that the engine in our car was making around 172 horsepower with the new filter alone. This subtle infusion of power might not be noticeable to most buyers, but they will notice the slight enhancement in torque, which made the hatchback a joy to launch when leaving traffic lights.

The other piece of the puzzle is the six speed manual gearbox that covered shifting duties for our tester. While the CVT will undoubtedly be the more popular choice for Corolla buyers due to its focus on fuel economy, the manual is the key to getting the most fun out of the Corolla hatchback. While the clutch is a bit vague, your feet easily get used to it, and the stick does a good job making full use of the commendable amounts of torque that’s on hand in the lower portion of the rev band. The stick also allows the Corolla to be a truly playful offering, and we were continuously impressed with the amount of spunk it had when tackling the daily commute. While it’s unknown how long the six-speed will last in the Corolla lineup? We highly recommend equipping it, and if you are a newcomer to manuals, the Corolla is a great platform for a beginner to learn on.


Value Quotient:

Pricing for the Toyota Corolla hatchback reflects the budget minded buyers that the model is trying to appeal to, with 2021 models starting at $20,465. Our 2020 model used the old pricing ladder, with those models starting at $20,290. Our XSE model had a base price of $23,240 which is firmly in the crosshairs of some of the segment’s best. Our tester had $1,766 worth of options with highlights including the $415 adaptive headlights package and the $375 rear roof spoiler. These additions and the included $930 destination fee helped push the final figure to $25,686. The Chevrolet Sonic in Premier trim is roughly $3,000 cheaper at $22,395. Meanwhile, the Honda Civic in EX and EX-L guise are in lock step with the Toyota in pricing, but they offer a more powerful engine and slightly better interior materials.


Toyota is keen on making the Corolla in all of its forms a viable contender in its segment, and will be unleashing some welcome updates for the 2021 model year that aim to further enhance its credentials. They include an all new Special Edition model that is adorned in red paint, and channels some of its inspiration from custom aftermarket vehicles. But if you can still find a 2020 manual equipped model out on dealer lots, it’s definitely a must have item on your automotive shopping list.