2020 Toyota Corolla Altis Review: Core Strength

Derryn Wong

All-round improvements mean Toyota’s Corolla Altis is no longer content with defining the standard for mainstream cars in Singapore, but raising it

A new Toyota Corolla is here – but can it rise above just being the standard at last?
Sex sells, but practicality rules the roost, and the Toyota Corolla is practicality distilled into four-wheels – nothing screams ‘normal car’ more than it does.
Sure it’s not the most exciting approach, but the ‘car as reliable appliance’ concept has meant at least 44-million units sold over more than six decades, and that’s unassailable proof of concept.

The drawback to this is that the Corolla has, at times in the past decade-or-so, felt content to define the middle line and fall behind the curve due to its incremental engineering improvements, especially when in context with its Japanese and (very hungry) Korean rivals.

WATCH MORE: The Corolla and four other of the most important cars from the 2020 Singapore Motorshow

It used to be that you could count on a Corolla to be, well, a Corolla: Predictable, reliable, smooth, safe, and most definitely boring.

That changes with the new 12th-generation model, which made its local debut at the Singapore Motorshow 2020 (see our The Most Important Cars Of Show story for details), which brings the Corolla to the leading edge of things.

Left: The 11th-gen 2014 model, and on the right the 11th-gen facelift model

The most recent model prior to this was the facelift of the 11th-gen model in 2017, which helped bring the Altis up to a truly modern level, adding seven airbags as standard and LED headlights, and a slightly improved engine.

Left: The 12th-gen 2019-2020 model next to the original 11th-gen on the right

Minor improvements to be sure, but not insignificant ones – keep in mind that the 11th-gen model had only two airbags and no electronic stability programme (ESP) when it debuted in 2014, which was a minor blot on its scoresheet then, and an eyebrow-raiser now.

The 10th- and 11th-gen cars carried on with the same platform, which helped with its consistent drive experience but again – a peek at contemporary Koreans and Japanese competitors, especially the 2016 Honda Civic, left the Corolla looking a little stodgy comparison.

WATCH MORE:  Our video review of the new Toyota Corolla Altis and Altis Hybrid. For more video reviews check out our YouTube channel!

Central Perk

Corolla fans are a quiet legion, like Singapore’s very own and very enthusiastic Altis Club, but the new model’s styling will help add to the ranks of that club since it likely makes the biggest design push forward Corolla history has ever seen.

There’s no longer a conventional between-the-headlights grille, the full LED units (replete with sharp LED daytime running lights) are joined by a neat black-and-chrome line.

Like the Camry, there is instead a large, ‘gilled’ lower air-intake section, and it implies a spindle-grille and a Lexus connection, something the rear end similarity to a Lexus ES also brings to mind.

Past Corollas never rocked the boat, but it also meant they aged quickly, fashion-wise, and this one looks much more contemporary from the start. EVs, after all, do the same thing ‘no-grille’ trick, and it’s perhaps no coincidence this 12th-gen model debuts the first Hybrid variant for Singapore too (we’ll have a test drive of that up on site soon).

Inside, the cabin is a similar leap forward. Past Corollas always made it clear they were mainstream cars built to a cost. This one, not so much. It’s still the sort of cabin anyone from a learner driver to the elderly could use without a second thought, but the ambience is much improved now.

Material quality has increased tremendously, the black gloss and satin chrome buttons of the climate controls for example, the intuitive and quiet-click steering wheel controls, the smoothness of the AC vents, wipers, and window buttons.

To be sure, smoothness has always been a Corolla hallmark, but fancy presentation not so much. Like the Mazda 3, the cabin design has been simplified and looks more elegant for it, and it helps vastly that there are no hard plastics within easy touch or glimpse.

Ergonomically there are no quibbles, and driver’s view is even better thanks to new windows at the corner of the A-pillars. An enlarged 7.0-inch driver’s active instrument panel gives you all the info you need, and it’s very useful that touchscreen infotainment system is now high-mounted to detract less from your view of the road.

It’s mixed in terms of usefulness. It’s not particularly slick-looking or sharp, but it’s brighter and thus clearer to view than the previous unit.
There’s Bluetooth and screen mirroring via Kenwood JVC’s T-Link app, but the latter is hobbled by the fact that you can only see your phone’s screen when the vehicle is in P and the parking brake is engaged. A simple smartphone mount would still be the choice for those who want to use on-phone navigation.

We haven’t obtained official boot space figures yet, but it does appear to have a wider aperture than before, although it narrows towards the rear seats, which can be folded down for more stowage.

Rear passenger room is good, somewhere between the Civic and Mazda 3, although there also appears to be slightly less headroom than before.

TNGA Bazinga
Good news is, the 12th-gen model carries over the engine and has the same basic footprint (size, wheelbase, width) as the previous model, but that’s where the similarities end.

Toyota’s New Generation Architecture (TNGA) comes to the Altis – the same platform that underpins the Prius, RAV4, Camry and C-HR – and it soars low. The new car is 35mm shorter than before, the most significant variance between 11th and 12th gen cars, and that’s a clue to the improved drive.

On the road the Corolla is smoothness personified, it’s probably the most fuss-free car in the class now. Improved visibility makes it easier to judge in tight spots, while any sort of driver input is translated into easy, predictable movement.

The drivetrain is the same known quantity as before – intensely linear but sounds like a vacuum cleaner at high revs – but the ride and handling are very obviously improved.

The ride quality is decent, not Lexus superb, but the car (on 17-inch wheels) does a good job of shrugging off Singapore’s bad tarmac patches, and notably it doesn’t ‘thunk’ over speed humps, and stays very composed over the worst of it – thank the new rear suspension which is a double-wishbone replacing the old torsion beam setup.

That shows TNGA in action, as one of the platform’s principles is improving driving dynamics by lowering the overall centre of gravity (hence the drop in height). It doesn’t magically turn the Altis into performance car, but it does raise the car’s dynamic capabilities up a notch to match the sweet-handling Civic and Mazda 3, and the car has an enthusiasm for fast cornering that was totally absent before.

Tech The Wheel 
While the Corolla makes leaps forwards in its essential effectiveness as an automobile, what’s perhaps most significant is the addition of Toyota Safety Sense (TSS) to the Corolla (see box below).

Sidebar: Why Toyota Safety Sense makes sense

Toyota Safety Sense (TSS) is standard on the Elegance model, in essence it’s a S$7k upgrade from the base model to get TSS onboard your Corolla. 
Should you get it? Definitely yes. 
The ‘I don’t want more complex things on my car because there’s more to go wrong’ argument sounds logical, but isn’t, since it’s highly likely that human error is the cause of car accidents at least 90 percent of the time.  And if anything does fail you have five years of getting it replaced for free under warranty (seven if you opt for the extended coverage). There’s also the fact that drivers in other countries get insurance discounts if their cars have active safety systems – why we don’t here in Singapore is a bit of a mystery too.
I remember the first time these features appeared in Singapore – adaptive cruise control on the 2009 Mercedes-Benz S-Class, and autonomous braking on the 2008 Volvo S60 – and they were memorable enough that I made it a point to note the day they reach the mainstream – now that they’re on the Corolla, the day has come.  Now that they’re standard on the Corolla, it means you have to cast a critical eye at any other car that doesn’t have similar. 
TSS includes: 
– Dynamic Cruise Control: Though it’s not a true stop-n-go system and only works to a minimum of 30km/h so it’s mainly for highway/A-road use.
– Lane Departure Warning with Steering Assistant: Warns you (by tone and visual indication on the instrument panel) back into the right side of the line and corrects steering if you don’t react.
– Pre-Collision System (PCS), which is in a nutshell, autonomous braking.  This preps the car for braking if you are approaching an obstacle fast (it also detects pedestrians and cyclists) and brakes if you fail to. 
While not officially part of TSS, the Corolla also has the ever-useful Blind Spot Indicator System, extra helpful since the Corolla now has rather thick B-pillars. 

Most of the equipment on the Elegance model is also on the Standard car. As mentioned in our news story, the Standard model has halogen headlamps with LED taillights, keyless, a 4.2-inch digital instrument display, reverse camera, auto dimming mirrors and headlamps, a powered driver’s seat, manual wipers, and air-con with Nano-e purifier system. Safety features include seven airbags and the usual basic systems to expect, including ABS, brake assist, ESP, hill start assist.

The Elegance adds an electrically-adjustable driver’s seat, LED headlamps, a larger 7.0-inch active instrument display, auto wipers, paddle shifters, Toyota Safety Sense, and Blind Spot Monitoring.
Luddites can still buy their Corollas without any newfangled whatsits – the Standard model lacks TSS, though it still has a reassuring number of airbags (seven). But a clever buyer will simply stump the S$7,000 for the Elegance model.

As for the competition, the Koreans are less expensive (both the Kia Cerato and Hyundai Elantra are under S$98k for their most well-equipped variants, the GT Line and Elite) and have more stuff, like air-con seats. Honda’s Civic 1.6 is similar, but still boasts a colossal amount of rear space, and has a slight edge in driver fun. But neither it nor the Koreans have active safety onboard (other than BLIS).
Thus the Corolla’s closest rival now is the Mazda 3. Arguably the latest seventh-gen model already did some of the dramatic yardstick-raising on what we should expect from a mainstream car back in 2019.

READ MORE: Why the Corolla’s chief rival is now the Mazda 3 Sedan

The Mazda 3 Elegance sedan goes for S$100,888 with COE and it has mild-hybrid tech, an active safety suite with even more features, and the poshest feeling interior of any car below S$110k with COE. Its weaknesses are a slightly harsher ride, and less rear space.

Still it doesn’t have quite the monolithic Default Appeal of the Corolla, and it’s Toyota’s bringing the game forward that will really give its rivals an ‘Oh shit’ moment.
Toyota brand aside, You buy a Corolla because it has everything you expect from a car right now, and with the improvements the new car has, it has far more than just core strength alone.

Toyota Corolla Altis Elegance

Engine 1,598cc inline 4
Power 129hp at 6400rpm
Torque 159Nm at 4200rpm
Gearbox CVT
0-100km/h 190km/h
Top Speed Not revealed
Fuel Efficiency 6.4L/100km
VES Band / CO2 B / 145g/km
Agent Borneo Motors
Price S$102,888 with COE
Availability Now


4-door 5 seat Corolla Altis Elegance petrol sedan Toyota

About the Author

Derryn Wong

CarBuyer's former chief editor was previously the editor for Top Gear Singapore, and a presenter for CNA's Cruise Control motoring segment. An avid motorcyclist and photographer, he is the Chief Slave of two cats. Follow him on Instagram @werryndong

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