I’ve said many times the Toyota Corolla is a great car for grandmothers. Before you give me grief, hear me out. It’s actually a complement to grandmothers. The Corolla is durable, affordable, efficient, roomy, well equipped, and with a footprint that’s easy to drive and park. There’s much to like, but usual vanilla styling won’t set sexy hearts aflutter. The redesigned 2020 edition in sporty XSE goes from matronly to macho. Well, kinda.
Exterior styling would appeal more to the Little Old Lady From Pasadena than my own grandmother. It looks pretty handsome with its large gray mesh grille, angry LED headlamps, gray rear spoiler and twin chrome exhaust outlets – all placed over 18” wheels. Look closer, and you’ll see a lot of expert sculpting in how the hood curves into the front fenders, rising bodyline that runs from the front fender to rear deck for a cab-forward attitude, and lower door sill extensions that add attitude. It would not look out of place with Lexus logos.
Grandmothers and their little gay grandkids will appreciate the interior. It starts with the comfy leatherette and cloth sport seats with heated cushions and extends to the thick leather-wrapped steering wheel, touchscreen infotainment screen with proper volume/tuning knobs, and softly-padded dash/doors. Automatic climate control, power sunroof, and JBL audio system with 800w amplifier add enjoyment.
Look deeper to find multi-generational technology. Smartphones charge wirelessly and connect via Bluetooth, Wi-Fi hotspot, and Apple CarPlay. Auxiliary gauges are analog, but the speedometer and safety systems are monitored via flatscreen in the cluster. Navigation plots courses while all ages benefit from safety tech like forward collision warning with pedestrian detection, radar adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist, blind spot warning, and rear cross path detection systems.
If you’re looking for excitement behind the wheel, put your drive into neutral, though this car is certainly more enjoyable to pilot than previous generations. Motive force is conjured from a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine delivering 169 horsepower and 151 lb.-ft. of torque – whirred to the front wheels through a continuously variable transmission. That’s about as vanilla and uninspiring as a powertrain can get, though not as uninspiring as the Corolla’s base 139 horsepower 1.6-liter four-cylinder, but is exactly the right combination for a compact sedan with few sporting pretentions and a focus on fuel economy. Enjoy 31/38-MPG city/highway.
Driving the Corolla is a perfectly pleasant experience, even if it doesn’t encourage afternoon delights. The four-wheel independent suspension and tight steering like to play on smooth roads, but the sport tuning tends to thump over bumps rather than glide over them. The CVT revs like a weedeater, but drivers can use paddles to shift through pre-set gear ratios themselves. A Sport mode makes the throttle more sensitive for livelier acceleration, but adds no horsepower.
The Corolla XSE is no sports car, but it’s no longer just for grandmothers either. It’s a car all generations and persuasions can appreciate. And, it remains affordable with a $19,600 base price, rising to $28,794 as tested. Competitors include the Mazda3, Subaru Impreza, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, and Nissan Sentra.
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