I drove a $29,000 Toyota Corolla to see if it rose above basic transportation — here’s the verdict

We tend to think of the Toyota Corolla as basic transportation, but after spending a week with the 2020 version, I'd have to say that, as with the excellent midsize Camry, Toyota as upped its compact game.

The Corolla is a damn good car. So good that I'd like to sample the available six-speed manual transmission, just to see if the engine — optimized for MPGs in my XSE tester, with its CVT box — could serve up some spirited fun for drivers who like to change their own gears.

OK, so everybody already knows the Corolla is a damn good car. It's been a damn good car for five decades.

What's impressive is how little time Toyota is spending resting on its laurels with the vehicle. It definitely could; Corolla sales have been declining relative to RAV4 crossovers. They remain strong, but since 2007, the sales total for the sedan has slipped in the US by 100,000 units. If Toyota wanted to, it could phone the Corolla in a bit more.

It most definitely hasn't. So while the Corolla remains excellent basic transportation and a fine entry point to the brand, if you move up to the XSE from the base L trim, you're getting a staggering amount of car for the money. You'll also spend only about $100 a month of gas — less if you don't drive 15,000 miles per year on average.

Is the Corolla XSE fun to drive? Sort of. Nobody really looks to a Corolla for sporty handing, although the "S" trim from the previous generation had those pretensions. My XSE tester was of course held back by the CVT, and the steering was vague, while braking wasn't anything I'd want to test under stress. But the motor has some punch for a no-turbo four, with nicely linear power application. A Honda Civic is tighter overall, but compared with other Corollas I've driven, including one I briefly owned, my tester felt peppy.

The interior wasn't exactly ritzy, but it was better than I expected — slightly nicer than what I have in my Prius and my RAV4 hybrid. Versatility is also good. But if you want better cargo capacity, then a RAV4 is a superior Toyota for you. Ditto all-wheel-drive, although there have been rumors that the Corolla could get four-wheel traction in the future.

The bottom line here is that the Corolla is a terrific choice — and a classic no-brainer if you don't want to think about your set of wheels. Legendary Toyota reliability means that a Corolla is unlikely to give you many problems, if any. The latest generation is also premium enough, the upmarket (yet still sub-$30,000) trim, to make a strong case for buyers who aren't in their twenties and who don't feel the need to look at Audis and BMWs.

That's what the Corolla has going for it: credibility. This car has a splendid reputation. And that's always worth investing in.

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