The Toyota Corolla has served as a punching bag for automotive enthusiasts for years. Its ubiquity, its boring driving dynamics, and, more recently, its oddball design, have not made it a driver's darling. That message hasn't made it to compact car buyers, however, as they continue to snap up the things undaunted. A 2020 redesign for the sedan model (a new Corolla hatchback debuted for 2019) left us with hope that the Corolla could continue to appeal to its core audience while transcending its boring station. The new hybrid version undercuts that optimism.
This is the first time Americans have been sold a Corolla hybrid. Like the regular Corolla, it rides on the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA platform), has a more sophisticated multilink rear suspension in place of a torsion beam, and looks sharper both inside and out than Corollas gone by. The hybrid gives few outward clues that it is, in fact, a hybrid, even though beneath its hood sits the same hybrid powertrain Toyota uses in the ubiquitous Prius.
The 2020 Corolla hybrid also is cheaper than the Prius, starting at $23,880—a base 2019 Prius runs $24,700—but is also available in lowly LE trim. That corresponds to the mid-level trim in the non-hybrid sedan’s lineup. It shares most of its engineering with the non-hybrid Corolla, but it’s powered by the same 1.8-liter Atkinson-cycle inline-four and pair of electric motors that motivates the Toyota Prius. There’s also a 1.3-kWh battery stored beneath the rear seats. The system as a whole produces 121 horsepower and 105 lb-ft of torque. And it isn’t as though the Corolla hybrid LE is sparingly equipped. It comes standard with automatic climate control, an 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system, and LED headlights and taillights. Our test car tacked on optional body side molding, floor mats, and mud guards, bringing the total to $24,467, still less than the least-expensive Prius.
By the time we got our hands on a hybrid test car, we’d already spent time with other Corolla variants. The hybrid’s general driving demeanor matches that of its siblings: acceptable, with improved ride and handling compared to previous models, yet still nothing you’d consider taking out for a pleasure cruise. We noted some reduced sharpness relative to the non-hybrid Corolla, thanks to the LE trim’s narrow, tall-sidewall tires, too. (Also, Toyota hopes you’re cool with steel wheels with plastic hubcaps, because that’s the only option for the Corolla hybrid.) The interior feels much larger than you’d expect in a car this small, and while the 11-cubic-foot trunk is not the largest in this class, it’s plenty spacious for day-to-day tasks, with a decently shaped opening.
Performance Where It Counts
Toyota has had plenty of time to work out the kinks of its hybrid powertrain, so the switch between battery and gas propulsion is smooth, and the Corolla can easily pull away from a stoplight under electric power alone. The powertrain occasionally makes grumbling and whirring noises at stop lights when the driver information display claims that neither the motor nor the engine is running, but otherwise the Corolla hides its electrification well.
It is, however, painfully slow. A 2.0-liter, 169-hp gas-only Corolla can get from zero to 60 mph in 8.0 seconds and through the quarter-mile in 16.3 seconds. The Corolla hybrid needs a glacial 10.7 and 18.0 seconds to reach the same marks. Our test car's 195-foot stopping distance from 70 mph also is pretty poor, and we noticed moderate fade after repeated hard stops. The Corolla is so reluctant to accelerate that after driving it for a few days you’ll forget that quick starts or left-lane passes were ever a viable option. Those looking for a smidge more driving satisfaction may want to consider the Corolla hybrid's main rival, the Honda Insight, which we recently evaluated in a head-to-head comparison test with the Toyota.
The Corolla may indeed have its shortcomings, but the hybrid accomplishes arguably the only task it needs to: delivering exceptional fuel efficiency. Our example returned 46 mpg over the course of two weeks with us in mixed city and highway use. While that’s significantly below its EPA’s estimates—52 mpg combined, 53 city, and 52 highway—it's still quite good given our staff’s aggressive driving styles. Even more impressive is the 56 mpg the Corolla returned on our 75-mph highway fuel-economy test, which works out to a highway range in excess of 700 miles. Consider that the Corolla hybrid costs only $3450 more than the comparable gas-only model but is estimated at nearly 20 mpg higher on the combined fuel-economy scale (and beat that car’s efficiency by 16 mpg on our highway test), and this car makes a strong case as a fuel-sipping appliance for a penny-pinching commuter. Consider it, then, the ultimate Corolla, if not the best showcase for the latest Corolla’s aspirations beyond bland reliability.
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