Considering the Prius‘ success, I can’t really blame Toyota for not stepping on its own toes and bringing the Corolla Hybrid to the US sooner. But since the Prius has become more polarizing (read: uglier) than ever, the Corolla Hybrid is a compelling alternative to Toyota’s bread-and-butter fuel-sipper.
With its excellent economy and bargain pricing, the 2020 Corolla Hybrid has proven to be well worth the wait.
50+ mpg without trying hard
The standard Corolla can pass 40 miles per gallon on the highway without too much effort, but the Corolla Hybrid looks at that figure and says, “Hold my gasoline.” Over my week with the hybrid variant, I saw a combined fuel economy of 53 mpg. While I don’t think I’d be able to top the EPA-estimated 56 mpg combined from the Toyota Prius Eco, I feel confident that those considering a Corolla Hybrid over the homely hatchback won’t feel like they’re missing out on too much thrift.
This fuel-sipping comes despite my usual fat-foot nature; it’s not hard to squeeze this economy out of the Corolla Hybrid. While the car almost always starts from a stop under the power of its electric motor alone, it’s hard to keep it running on electrons without accelerating so slowly that traffic behind me starts to get impatient. I find it’s best to lean a little harder on the accelerator when getting up to speed, using just a bit more of the 121 net horsepower that comes from the 1.8-liter I4 and electric motor. The continuously variable transmission emits some drone, sure, but it’s programmed for efficiency, and things like simulated gear changes only reduce its efficacy.
When I’m up to speed, I roll back on the throttle, trying to keep adjustments as minute and subtle as possible. That’s when the electric motor will usually take back over and let the gas engine either turn off or approach a more efficient part of the rev range. The nickel-metal hydride battery is small, so I may only get a few miles of EV operation, but I try to make the most of it. In the right situation (usually downhill), the gas engine can shut off at highway speeds, helping to eliminate the mpg gulf that usually comes with driving a hybrid on the interstate.
I’m amazed with the smoothness of it all, too. The gas engine cuts in and out with nary a peep or shudder. The only way I can truly tell the car’s changing operating modes is when I see the instrument cluster’s fuel economy meter taking a dive. I can earn a little more thrift by changing the driving mode to Eco, but I prefer to keep it in Normal mode for when I need to zip away from a slow-moving car. There’s a Sport mode baked in, too, but let’s not fool ourselves.
The rest of the ride is just as pleasant. Since this is a mass-market hybrid family sedan and not the latest corner-carving sports car, all you need to know is that the Corolla Hybrid has a steering wheel that will turn the vehicle upon request. The ride is surprisingly smooth, thanks to the chunky Yokohama Avid GT tires (195/65R15) absorbing most of the rough stuff. The tires also contribute very little road noise, and the body’s slippery shape keeps wind racket on the lower side, too. That’s good because the gas engine often falls silent, which can allow other sounds to dominate if they aren’t kept in check.
The most handsome Corolla yet
Almost a full year after I first saw it, the Corolla’s new face continues to grow on me. I think Toyota did a great job finding a way to engineer a front fascia that didn’t scrimp on either looks or aerodynamic efficiency. The new nose gives the car more character than it’s had in years. I can’t necessarily say the same for the rear, which is about as anonymous as every other Corolla, but it’s still fine. My tester looks just like any other Corolla, but with some slight adjustments to the bumper and big ol’ “Hybrid” badges on the sides and rear.
The story is the same inside, where things are pretty much identical to the gas-powered Corolla, eschewing any desire to add a touch of green-cred quirkiness. The only real difference lies ahead of the CVT’s gear lever, where two new buttons appear for vehicle mode switching, one of which is dedicated to EV-only operation (albeit for just a couple miles at a time). The rest of the first row is anonymous as can be, with some light sculpting on the mostly plastic dashboard and that’s it. It’s a Corolla. Avoiding b.s. is the name of the game.
The Corolla Hybrid’s cupholders are a little small for my taste and unable to hold my iPhone 8 Plus ($750 at Best Buy), but there’s an extra cubby ahead of the shifter that works just fine, especially since the primary USB port is directly next to it. The armrest cubby is deep enough for tchotchkes but not large enough for a purse, and the door-card storage will happily accept a bottle of water and as many receipts as you can muster into existence. The hybrid battery doesn’t eat into trunk space, which is good, because at 13.1 cubic feet, the boot is already less capacious than the Honda Civic and Volkswagen Jetta.
The battery actually lives under the rear seat, but it’s a small guy, which means there’s no effect on rear seat space. The Corolla’s second row is plenty spacious, with ample headroom and legroom for tall passengers sitting behind equally tall drivers. Even though the car lacks a sunroof, the whole cabin stays nice and bright by virtue of its plentiful glass, which confers good visibility on all sides of the car.
Good tech with some questionable omissions
The Corolla Hybrid only comes in a single trim, LE, and it offers no options, so what you see is what you get. From a tech perspective, that’s both good and bad. The de facto infotainment system packs an 8-inch touchscreen, and while the resolution is on the low side, the boot-up time is sufficient, and the responsiveness is about average. Apple CarPlay is included, but Android Auto is not, despite other 2020-model-year Toyotas picking it up.
However, in order to use CarPlay, I have to plug my phone into the USB port mounted under the dashboard, leading to awkward dangling cords hitting the passenger’s legs. There’s a second USB port under the center armrest, which charges at a decent 2.1 amps, but it doesn’t work with CarPlay. There are also no USB ports for rear-seat occupants, which is another technological letdown.
Embedded navigation is yet another notable omission, but then again, that’s what smartphone mirroring is for, and Toyota also offers a phone app with its own turn-by-turn system. Speaking of features that should be in the Corolla Hybrid but aren’t, there’s no way to get heated seats in this thing. Considering Corollas are bought everywhere, including cold climates, that seems like the silliest thing to nix, even if it’s for efficiency’s sake.
Toyota also replaced a large chunk of the gauge cluster with a 7-inch display. Underneath the large arched speedometer is an area that can display a few different things, whether it’s the status of safety systems or current and average fuel economy. It’s low-tech as far as screen-based clusters go, but it’s clear and bright and easy to read without distraction.
Safety is the name of Toyota’s tech game, so it’s no surprise to see the Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 driver-aid suite standard. It’s surprisingly stout at this price point, offering full-speed adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, lane-keep assist, automatic emergency braking, automatic high beams and road-sign recognition. The sign recognition works quickly, displaying the relevant info in the gauge cluster display. The lane-keep assist offers a light touch, never leaving me feeling like I’m not in control. And, bless its heart, the lane-departure warning only offers a single beep for each brush of dotted white lines, which I love.
Down to brass tacks
Even though the Corolla is offered in both traditional and hybrid flavors, the Corolla Hybrid’s setup pits it against dedicated hybrid models like the Honda Insight, Hyundai Ioniq and Kia Niro. All of them are excellent cars, but the Insight has a buzzy gas engine, while the Hyundai Ioniq and Kia Niro both possess slightly more polarizing looks than the ‘Rolla.
No matter what it’s compared against, though, the 2020 Toyota Corolla Hybrid shines. It’s efficient as all get-out, it packs a decent amount of technology and its ride is nice and sedate. With a base price of $22,950 and an as-tested price of $24,467 including destination, it’s about $10,000 less than the average new-car transaction price in 2019, making it feel like a serious bargain at the same time.