I tested a $24,855 Toyota Corolla Hybrid, from the 2021 model year — the US market has been denied this vehicle until recently.
Like the non-hybrid Corolla, the Hybrid version is just a few notches above basic transportation, and the LE trim level (the only one available) has low-key styling and a bland interior.
But the Corolla Hybrid has Toyota’s proven technology under the hood. The hybrid drivetrain is based on engineering that’s stood the test of time for two decades.
I own two Toyota hybrids, so I’m a tad biased, but the Corolla Hybrid makes a strong case for its inclusion in the unpopular sedan segment.
It’s almost impossible to argue, ethically, against the 2021 Toyota Corolla Hybrid. An affordable, comfortable sedan with the king of reliability behind it, a bulletproof hybrid drivetrain steadily improved since its introduction two decades ago, and a fuel-economy rating of 52 mpg combined, all for a $23,400 base price?
Don’t care for four doors? Fine. Favor SUVs? Sure, OK. Want more rear legroom or a larger trunk? Gotcha.
You can obtain all those things, but that doesn’t mean the Corolla Hybrid is losing any arguments. While the Honda Insight is predictably more fun to drive and slightly more stoutly built, and the Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid is priced nice ($23,200) and posts higher MPGs (58 combined), the Corolla joins the legendary crown nameplate with an equally legendary hybrid technology.
Simply put, the Corolla Hybrid is a majestic example of automotive engineering; all I could think about while driving it for a week was the privilege of experiencing this much ingenuity in one place. Few machines in human history embody the Japanese concept of “kaizen” — continuous improvement — more fully.
Good price on the sticker, great technology under the hood
My test car arrived in our suburban New Jersey test center wearing a handsome “Barcelona Red Metallic” paint job and with a stern test on its agenda: a pair of 200-mile-plus round-trips — a 412-mile challenge, in total. Would a single tank of gas be enough? On paper, yes, since the car is rated at close to 600 miles of range.
In practice, with some mundane everyday motoring also in the calculations, I’d have to find out.
The Corolla Hybrid comes in only one trim, the LE, which starts at $23,400 and is well equipped. This tester only had one $500 option, blind-spot monitoring, plus a $955 delivery fee to bring the sticker to $24,855.
A while back, I sampled the non-hybrid Corolla, a $29,189 XSE trim. As usual, the car made an impression.
“What’s impressive is how little time Toyota is spending resting on its laurels with the vehicle,” I wrote in my review.
“It definitely could; Corolla sales have been declining relative to RAV4 crossovers. They remain strong, but since 2007, the sales total for the sedan has slipped in the US by 100,000 units. If Toyota wanted to, it could phone the Corolla in a bit more. It most definitely hasn’t.”
Toyota has been selling the Corolla in the US since 1968, which means it’s been around almost as long as the Ford Mustang. The Corolla’s most recent US sales peak was 2006, when nearly 390,000 units were sold. Last year, that number was a still-impressive 304,850.
When I was fresh out of college in the late 1980s and early 1990s, one could assume that Corolla ownership was inevitable, at some point. It was that kind of grown-up-enough, entry-level four-door, now displaced by the RAV4 compact crossover SUV. I didn’t wind up with a Corolla in my driveway, but my mother leased one for a few years, proving that the value proposition wasn’t limited to young singles.
I do own a 2011 Toyota Pius and a 2017 RAV4 Hybrid, and to be succinct, I’m a huge fan of the high-MPG, low-emission drivetrain, which has performed flawlessly in both my vehicles.
The design has been around since the late-1990s introduction of the Prius Japan. It’s a masterpiece of technology, and it’s far from uncomplicated. It a nutshell, it solves several problems at once, improving the notorious inefficiency of the internal-combustion engine and reducing harmful greenhouse emissions while also extracting more range from every gallon of energy-dense gasoline.
But that isn’t the only perk. The Corolla’s drivetrain, if the battery has enough charge, can creep along at low speeds on electric power alone. The car also has regenerative braking, which restores the battery while driving.
Not a high-performance machine, but impressive in other ways
The basis of the Corolla Hybrid is a 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine; when coupled with the duo of electric motors and their 1.3-kilowatt-hour battery pack, it cranks out 121 horsepower with 105 pound-feet of torque.
It’s not much, but you don’t buy a modestly scaled Toyota hybrid to indulge a need for speed. Your motto isn’t “I can’t drive 55!” but “I want more than 50 mpg!”
The power, such as it is, is sent to the front wheels through a continuously-variable transmission. Love or hate CVTs, the gearless setup supports the fuel economy and enables the entire system to perform its intricate industrial choreography.
There are plenty of CVT critics out there, but I’ve taken out car loans to buy two CVT-equipped vehicles and they don’t bother me at all — and I get to drive cars that have four times the Corolla Hybrid’s power all the time, with transmissions borrowed from competitive auto racing.
The Corolla Hybrid has four drive modes: Normal, Eco, Sport, and EV. The last is only useful for bumper-to-bumper traffic or piddling around parking lots (still, it’s lovely to spare the atmosphere another few grams of CO2).
Eco is fine for almost everything, but Normal is the default and many of my fellow Toyota hybrid owners have told me they prefer it because it preserves more of the drivetrain’s limited torque than Eco. Sport brings the inline-four into the picture in a more robust way, and I tended to toggle between Eco and Sport while I tested the Corolla.
Is the Corolla a good-looking car? More than a few astute critics of car design have declared, “No.” And by that, I mean they’ve decided the Corolla is a sad stub of a vehicle — about as far from a Jaguar E-Type as it’s possible to get and still have four wheels.
I actually like the Corolla’s design, although I’d be lying if I said I was nuts about it. It looks deeply OK, and more importantly, it looks deeply Toyota.
Corollas have also been more boring in the past, and the hybrid version did provide an aesthetic alternative to the Prius, which has long been the punchline to too many jokes.
The bottom line is that the Corolla Hybrid, like the Honda Insight, wants to give you a hybrid sedan styled as a familiar example of the genre. The premise is prima facie conservative, with form not entirely following function but beauty definitely not following it.
You aren’t going to find anything to complain about with the Corolla’s build quality. It might not be quite a tight as the Insight (or a Civic), but that’s typical when considered the two biggest Japanese brands in the US market, each renowned for its commitment to quality. The Corolla Hybrid presents a pleasing shape, with no obvious flaws or evidence of corners cut.
Now for the bad news: only a single trim level, and it isn’t fancy
Headlights and taillights are LED units and in literally hundreds of miles of nighttime driving, the headlamps lit the path before me in a manner I would describe as “professional.” They weren’t as stunning as the lights on a Mercedes or Audi, but for the segment, they won’t let you down. And they have a nifty automatic high-beam feature that’s helpful on dark country roads.
Exterior plastic trim is restrained in its use, as is chrome, and the 15-inch alloy wheels on my tester were an attractive if not stunning choice. If the Corolla has a controversial feature, it’s the black maw of the grille, which does overwhelm the fascia and strike an oddly arrogant stance for a car that’s meant to have broad appeal.
The LE trim level isn’t the highest for the Corolla, but because the Hybrid comes in that trim and that trim only, you have to make do with an interior that’s crafted from what seems like a few cubic yards of recycled plastic.
My RAV4 has seats that are upholstered in a material I liken to neoprene, so I’m used to the vibe, but even in a fetching “Graphite” color scheme, one knows Toyota can do better. My Prius’ interior, for instance, is tan leather and it’s aging gracefully.
The positive here is that you can beat up an interior like this and not beat yourself up about it at the same time. These seats were conceived to be destroyed, and the absence of anything that resembles a material found in nature on the dashboard implies that this car is prepared for a life of duty and not angling to blow anybody’s mind with its appointments.
I used the Corolla Hybrid to haul around a decent number of loads during the course of a week, including not one but two acoustic guitar cases, testing the 13-cubic-foot trunk capacity and forcing me to drop the rear seats.
People who need to schlep around a lot of stuff aren’t the target market for compact sedans, so I pushed the envelope. Otherwise, the Corolla Hybrid is perfectly adequate for the usual grocery runs or occasional trips to Home Depot or Target.
While it seats five, allegedly, it can handle four perfectly well — so long as the journey isn’t too arduous.
The best thing I can say about the Corolla Hybrid’s interior is that it demands you don’t think about it. A traditional Toyota value!
And for me, after plenty of test drives in sedans larded with real-wood trim, elegant brushed metal accents, and supple leather seating, getting back to the basics was somewhat refreshing.
The Corolla Hybrid’s infotainment system runs on an eight-inch touchscreen — supplemented by buttons and knobs — that is far, far from the auto industry’s finest.
That said, it gets the job done. I was able to pair my phone through Bluetooth, connect devices via USB ports, tune in to SiriusXM satellite radio, and make use of the navigation setup. I could have fallen back on Apple CarPlay or Android Auto if I had to.
Fuel-economy raised to engineering art
Ultimately, the Corolla Hybrid is an awesome piece of fuel-sipping basic transportation. As the owner of Toyota hybrids in both hatchback and crossover form, I can say that in my heart, there is certainly still a place for the sedan despite the market turning against the segment and toward SUVs.
Plus, the 53 mpg in the city and 52 mpg on the highway provoked a flutter in my chest whenever I gazed up the nearly stagnant fuel gauge. Two runs from the New Jersey ‘burbs to the East End of Long Island, with many errands in between, and I still gave the car back with a quarter tank of gas.
These days, you can obtain great fuel economy even in non-hybrid cars. But hybridization reduces fill-ups and moves the cognitive needle, as far as ownership of this type of vehicle goes. And after testing a car as thrifty as this, I always ask myself why every single living person with a clean license isn’t driving one.
Well, I’ve put my own money where my mouth is, but other folks can make up their own minds. The Toyota Corolla Hybrid is anything but luxurious, but it drives … fine. True, there’s no power — the 0-to-60-mph time gets you to 10 Mississippi, and there was no drawl in my counting — but I held my own on the Long Island Expressway once I got up to speed, and the ride was neither jangly when driving straight ahead nor jittery when cornering.
The Corolla Hybrid is thus a darn good little car with a legacy of satisfied customers, and a whole package centered on hybrid technology that’s in the automotive hall of fame. Cheap to buy, cheap to operate, and it could last for 20 years. I’d say that merits a test drive.
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