You Want the Engine Upgrade
The more fun engine for the Corolla — which you can have only in the sportier SE and XSE trims — is a 169-horsepower, 2.0-liter direct-injection four-cylinder that made its debut in the hatchback. It puts out 151 pounds-feet of torque, and its acceleration is reasonably strong and smooth — much better than the base engine.
As in the hatchback, this engine is mated to a “smart” six-speed manual (but only on the SE) or a new-design continuously variable automatic transmission. The CVT does a good job of cutting CVT drone, and it also has a physical 1st gear to add pep and a more conventional feel off the line. Paddle shifters let you click through artificial gear steps once the CVT’s steel belt takes over. The stick has an Intelligent Manual Transmission mode that adds sports-car-like rev-matching on downshifts, unusual for a compact sedan. It also helps match engine and transmission speeds for smoother upshifts and mitigates stalling at launch. My main criticism is the engine’s limited availability; the rival Civic sedan puts its 174-hp, turbocharged 1.5-liter in all but the two lowest trim levels.
I was not able to drive the SE sedan with the six-speed manual, but I found that transmission made the hatchback a lot more fun. Cars.com’s L.A. Bureau Chief Brian Wong reports similar magic for the sedan, unlike the previous model’s sloppy and vague manual. He found that the downshift rev-matching doesn’t have “Porsche or Chevrolet Corvette levels of responsiveness, but it does a fine job of blipping the throttle slightly so you ease into downshifts. Another benefit is that it helps out on launches, especially for beginners, by adding a bit more throttle if you come up on the clutch without giving it enough gas” to avert a stall. “There’s a touch of vagueness in the gates between the gears, and the throws are a tad long for really vigorous driving. But predictable clutch feel, a shifter in the right spot — so you’re not stretching for any gears — and easy use go a long way toward an enjoyable stick experience.”