Detroit Free Press
Published 5:00 AM EDT Sep 13, 2019
A day driving the 2020 Toyota Corolla hybrid raises two questions: Why on earth did it take Toyota more than 20 years to get around to making a hybrid version of its signature car? And why, in 2019, does any automaker bother building a car that’s not a hybrid?
The Corolla hybrid checks just about every box: fuel economy, value and – with a couple of disappointing but unsurprising omissions – safety features.
It’s not remotely sporty, despite the generous torque that comes with electric power, but come on, it’s a Corolla. Don’t ask for miracles, although some would say the 57.2 mpg I got in mixed driving on highways and surface streets qualifies as one.
The Corolla hybrid is in dealerships now.
Prices for the Corolla LE hybrid start at $23,100. That’s in the middle of the range for compact hybrids and $3,500 up from the base gasoline-powered Corolla.
The front-wheel-drive hybrid has a 1.8L gasoline engine and electric motor. A continuously variable transmission is standard. The system’s total power is 121 horsepower, the same as in Toyota’s slightly larger Prius hybrid.
The Corolla hybrid has lots of standard features, including adaptive cruise control, pedestrian detection, forward collision alert and automatic braking, automatic high beams, lane departure alert and assist, 8.0-inch touch screen, Apple CarPlay, push button start, backup camera, LED lights, automatic climate control. Unfortunately, blind spot and cross-traffic alerts, my favorite advanced safety systems, were extra-cost options missing from my car, which stickered at $23,537. All prices exclude destination charges.
The Corolla hybrid competes with small hybrids like the Honda Insight, Hyundai Ioniq, Kia Niro and Toyota Prius.
The Prius costs a bit more and has more passenger and luggage space, despite being shorter than the Corolla. Chalk one up for hatchback over sedans. But while the Prius’ styling screams “Hybrid!” the Corolla looks like just another small car. Along with its slightly lower price, that should help it appeal to different customers. Anonymity suits some people to a T.
A simple interior, complicated infotainment
The Corolla is a roomy and practical small car. My test vehicle had cloth seats with manual adjustments that were comfortable over the course of a day behind the wheel. Big windows provide good sight lines, except, of course, when the little sedan is surrounded by SUVs.
An 8.0-inch touch screen rises above the center stack in the middle of the dashboard. The display is clear, though Toyota’s touchscreen and voice recognition system are unintuitive and slower than the best competitors. Adding a “back” button wouldn’t hurt, either.
The USB port to connect smartphones is very difficult to find, a black opening in a stretch of black plastic near the front passenger’s left knee. It’s harder to reach than the more central USBs most competitors design and lacks a nearby spot to hold your phone.
Apple CarPlay is standard. Toyota hasn’t made Android Auto available yet.
That’s not a typo, it’s my fuel economy
The Corolla’s hybrid system seamlessly combines gasoline and electric power killing and restarting the engine smoothly at stoplights and when cruising at a steady speed. The gasoline engine is a bit noisy under strong acceleration, despite its modest output. Torque from the electric motor steps in to provide acceleration around town and comfortable cruising at highway speeds.
The Corolla hybrid’s nickel-metal hydride battery is hardly cutting-edge technology, but it does the job, despite being heavy and less energy-dense than the pricier lithium-ion batteries most modern hybrids use.
The steering is light and numb. I found the lane departure assist a bit fussy and turned it off. Nothing else about the Corolla’s road manners draws attention.
The numbers on the fuel economy readout do, though. I averaged 59 miles a gallon running errands for 90 minutes in heavily built-up suburbs.
On a crowded, fast-moving urban highway, the Corolla kept pace easily with 80-mph traffic. I dialed back to the speed limit for fuel economy’s sake when I got to open highway for a 150-mile run.
I scored 57.2 mpg over the whole day, without really trying.
The Corolla hybrid’s not a compelling car to drive, but that was true of the millions of gasoline-powered Corollas Toyota sold, too. The hybrid’s fuel efficiency and value demand attention, whether you’re concerned about melting ice caps or your monthly budget.
Anyway, Porsche has proved you can build hybrids that are fun to drive. There will be plenty more.
Contact Mark Phelan at 313-222-6731 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mark_phelan. Read more on autos and sign up for our autos newsletter.