All Photos Credit: Raphael Orlove
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The 2020 Toyota Corolla Hybrid is not a perfect car, nor is it a car without its quirks. But there is no doubt in my mind that it stands at an inflection point, it on one side, the Toyota Prius on the other.

I’ll say this right away: I’m a fan of the Prius. It was a bond that I made years ago, and one that strengthens every time I end up driving my parents’ old 2004, in blue. The car has room for a family of five and all of our stuff, it cruises comfortably and quietly on the highway, and it sips gas while doing so. They bought it when gas was cheap, kept driving it when gas got expensive, held onto it when gas got cheap again, and they’ll ride it out through when gas gets expensive again, I’m sure.

(Full Disclosure: Toyota wanted me to drive the 2020 Corolla Hybrid so bad that it flew me down to Georgia, a fine state of many peaches, where I dined on some things that were not, in fact, peaches. I also slept in whatever hotel they put me in.)

Right now we’re in the sedanocalypse. It’s a crunch time for small, efficient cars. Gas is extra cheap, pickups are holding the Big Three aloft while they cancel entire lines of cars and sedans in favor of crossovers and SUVs.

That means it’s tough right now for a car like the Prius. It’d be tough enough if its new baby brother didn’t drive as well, feel as nice, and return as good fuel economy without looking weird or coming with any cultural baggage.

I was thinking about the Prius a lot when I got to drive the new Corolla Hybrid, the first hybrid ‘rolla we’ve ever gotten in the States, now the cheapest hybrid Toyota offers at about $22,000, or about a three grand markup on the gas version.

The specs will tell you that it’s rated at 53 mpg city, 52 highway. What the specs don’t tell you is what’s hilarious about driving it, what’s rewarding, and what’s missing. But I’ll get to that in a minute.

What Is It?

This is the sedan version of the surprisingly fantastic Corolla Hatchback we got here starting last year.

Together they represent a genuinely new Corolla generation, which I don’t know if that’s exactly something I could say back in 2014.

This generation is on modular architecture, something that Toyota was a bit behind the times on. But it has played catch-up and the TNGA platform gives us a car with a nice low center of gravity, a nice low hood, and nicely thin a-pillars.

Weight is about the same as the last generation at around 3,050 pounds, and interior and exterior dimensions are virtually identical versus the old car, down to the inch. Full specs for the outgoing car are here, and the specs for the new car are here, if you’re curious.

The new platform means more shared components with other models. That means that Toyota can afford to spread costs around, so the Corolla gets some nicer parts than it had before. The hybrid system, for instance, is the same as in the Prius, also on the TNGA platform.

There’s also some high tech involved with the Corolla’s bigger engine, as well. That’d be the “Dynamic Force” family of four-cylinders, with 13:1 compression. (Tuners of old Nissan SR20s are drooling over that figure, dreaming of importing rare cylinder heads to get that kind of efficiency and response.) The hybrid gets a 1.8, but oddly we don’t get the more powerful 2.0-liter in the hybrid here but Europe does.

Similarly, while this is the first time we’re getting a hybrid Corolla in the United States, other markets have gotten a hybrid Corolla for a few years now. Japan got the first in the end of 2013.

On top of that, we only get the hybrid as a sedan here in the U.S., but you can get it as a hatch or wagon elsewhere. I guess we’re not worthy of room.

I could type out all the pricing info, but you know what, here’s the pricing sheet straight from Toyota:

So yeah, $22,950 is the sticker price for the hybrid one.


Specs That Matter

While I’m here, I’ll also drop in the full dimensions and specs of this thing straight from Toyota, but I’ll break down what’s interesting in just a second:

The Corolla Hybrid does at least keep its battery completely under the rear seats, so it loses no interior or luggage space versus non-hybrid models.

What’s only odd is that the Corolla Hybrid still uses a Nickel Metal-Hydride battery, which is old tech compared to Lithium-Ion, like you’d find in a Tesla, or in your laptop. The normal Prius uses Li-Ion, but the AWD model uses Ni-MH, like the Corolla Hybrid.

I tried to get a straight answer out of Toyota as to why the Corolla seemingly gets outdated battery tech, but Corolla Chief Engineer Yasushi Ueda explained to me in an interview that Toyota didn’t see it as obsolete, and that it was a matter of a global supply issue. I would figure that this is just a way of saying “cost” without spelling it out, but the Prius that has this battery is the most expensive.

In any case, Toyota claims the system provides 71 HP and 105 lb-ft of torque, combining to make 121 HP and an identical 105 lb-ft of torque in conjunction with the gas engine.

What’s Great

The highest and most direct praise I can give for the new Corolla is that it feels like a car. A car and not just a Corolla.

I remember driving the 2014 Corolla (the last big generation change before this one) and it was fun and a huge step up from the version it replaced. But that 2014 car still felt, I don’t know, like a Corolla more than anything else. Cheap, with that mix of disposable and dependable. All I could look at was how many fingerprint smudges showed up on the gloss black plastic on one part of the dash, and how many blank switches were still sticking out of the grubby matte plastic elsewhere.

The new Corolla, by contrast, just feels normal. Nice even. The seats are especially pleasant, and the dashboard is well-trimmed, in low spec and high. Upper models get a full digital dash, lower models get physical dials that aren’t deep but don’t look bad.

The ride is even well-controlled without feeling floppy or stiff.

While cars like the Mazda 3 go from independent rear suspension back to torsion beam, the Corolla has done the opposite. Toyota switched from a simple, crude torsion beam at the back to a more complicated but controlled independent multilink layout.

Toyota set up journalists on a series of driving routes around Savannah, Georgia to test the car, all of which glided from private development to private development, all on perfectly-finished roads.

It did not take me long to detour in search of a good lunch spot (try Linda’s Seafood Market on Wheaton) and get myself on the more realistic roads of Savannah, with ruts and bumps and railroad crossings.

The Corolla ate it all up and felt like a quality machine. You can only get the hybrid on 15-inch wheels, which probably helps.

What’s Weak

It is slow.

Well, that’s not entirely fair. It is not by any stretch of anyone’s imagination, a powerful car. Even the sportiest, most powerful manual car had to introduce the gas pedal to the floorboards to keep up with traffic merging onto a highway up a bridge. The Hybrid with its CVT groans against any serious effort to go anywhere quickly.

Add to that that every 2020 Corolla I drove on the day I had with them had more wind noise than I would have expected, even for a Corolla.

Where the Corolla makes good is in standard Apple CarPlay, which sends to a seven-inch touchscreen. The stereo is... not fantastic, but it only gets clippy and harsh when you go to “HOA complaints” levels of volume.

And that Apple CarPlay is great, but Android Auto is not only not even available, but a Toyota representative couldn’t even give a date for when or if it would ever come to the Corolla.

Casual Driving

All new Corollas have a full driver-assistance suite that includes emergency braking, radar cruise control (somehow even on the manual), pedestrian detection, and it can read road signs and displays what the limit is on your instrument cluster. Useful.

There’s also a lane keep assist in addition to the normal warning systems you’re probably used to. The system is supposed to actively steer you back into your lane if it detects you veering over the line.

I tried testing this on an empty two-lane on one of the islands about a half-hour drive from Savannah itself and was very much able to let the car drift out of my lane without the car reacting to it through the wheel. Sometimes it would intervene, sometimes it would just give me beeps, sometimes just a display that I was out of my lane.

The system always knew where the lane was and when I was breaking out of my own, it just didn’t always react predictably to it. Sometimes, also, it would tug at the wheel when I didn’t want it to, when I didn’t think anything was wrong. Were it my car, I would have turned it off the moment it started acting weird.

Aggressive Driving

Trust that I tried to drive the hybrid Corolla as hard as I could, but I only got limited time in the car. High-speed track testing was off the menu, and low-speed stuff was as well, given that this car doesn’t have a physical handbrake.

With the traction control button set to “off,” the front wheels would shudder on hard acceleration, but I could never get it to smoke the front tires. I sort of hoped that instant torque from the hybrid assist would let me get a little bit of sour tire smoke into the cabin, but no luck.

I tried. I tried for you.

But aggressive driving in a hybrid really means how “eco” can you drive it, and for that there is an entertaining, maybe entertainingly bad “EV Mode.”

Press the little button above the shifter and the Corolla will let you drive off using only battery power alone. Do you want to guess the range of the Corolla Hybrid in EV Mode? The Chevy Volt is 53. The plug-in Prius Prime is 25. Maybe something around those?

Nope! It’s 0.6 miles.

I was able to get the Corolla Hybrid as far as from a stop and into an intersection on electric power alone, but not through the intersection, as the mode turns off once you use too much throttle. There is a little bar that shows you how much throttle you’re using and how much you have left before ohhhhhhh it’s off.

It doesn’t re-engage if you lift back off the gas, either.

Also, after an hour’s worth of driving, I parked for pictures, and when I went back to drive off the car claimed the battery was too low to even attempt EV mode at all. The battery was at least charged up by the time I had done the route in reverse.

Value

Here’s what academic types love to talk about when it comes to fuel economy. The gains at the bottom of the scale are so much bigger MPG by MPG than at the top of things. If you switch from a truck that gets five MPG to one that gets 10, you’ve halved your fuel costs. If you go from a Corolla Hybrid that gets 52 MPG combined to a Prius Eco that gets 56, you’ve only changed your fuel consumption by a minute fraction.

So keep that in mind when talking about the two things people care about for the hybrid: mileage and cost. The Feds rate the Corolla at 52 MPG combined, with 53 city and 52 highway. That is the same as the Prius in ordinary trim, though the Eco model nips it with 56, as we detailed last week.

The Prius is slightly more expensive, though, starting in the mid $23s and going up into the $27s, per Toyota. Where the Prius makes its gain is in rear seat room, where it’s meaningfully wider. Hip room at the rear is 43.9 inches in the Corolla, 51.9 in the Prius.

Contrasting to the other Corollas is a trickier budget question. Non-hybrid 2020 Corollas all have various combined EPA ratings in the mid-to-low 30s, but they were showing low 20s when I drove them at the launch. The manual 2.0-liter car I was in averaged 21.7 mpg over a day of testing. The hybrid was at 50.

You’d be recouping the cost of the hybrid drive in a few years, as we noted last week.

Verdict

It’s a good 15 years since my parent’s Prius came out, and a hybrid Corolla seems like a car we should’ve had here, well, years ago. It makes other cars feel deficient, wasteful. It should pull buyers from everything else in the gas range, without question.

All that it’s lacking against a Prius is room. And even then, Toyota could sell us a hybrid hatch, or even bring a Corolla wagon to the States.

But those are details. What this car means is there’s no longer any real advantage to having a hybrid that looks strange. Past “normal” hybrids have boasted plain car looks, but were always down in MPG versus the dedicated eco cars. No longer.

The Prius’ strangeness is now something that people have to willfully choose. It’s a choice. A niche product. It is welcome to become as strange as it likes, satisfying the most ardent hypermilers if they choose.

In a way, the hybrid Corolla killed the Prius. In another, it has set it free.

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About the author

Raphael Orlove

Raphael Orlove is features editor for Jalopnik.