Along with a new exterior, new interior, and a new platform underneath it all, the 2020 Toyota Corolla is now available as a hybrid. It will be no spoiler to reveal that we’ve been pleased so far with Toyota’s new Corolla. It hits above all previous expectations in terms of driving comfort, safety and even style — not something we expected to be discussing in a Corolla review. Does the hybrid surprise and delight as well? We got our first chance behind the wheel in Savannah, Georgia, to find out.
Toyota has been adding hybrid models in many of its nameplates. Obviously there’s the Prius, but the Highlander, Avalon, Camry and RAV4 are all available as hybrids. It makes sense for Toyota to include the popular Corolla sedan in the gas-electric club.
For the Corolla, Toyota used the same drivetrain as the Prius: a 1.8-liter gas engine coupled to two electric motors and a continuously variable transmission (CVT). Not only does it have the same 121 horsepower as the Prius, but it also matches the Prius’ EPA-rated 52 mpg combined fuel economy.
What’s not the same is the way it looks. While the Prius resembles a wedge of future-cheese, the hybrid Corolla looks wide-set and low to the ground, with mini-flared fenders, delicate wrap-around headlights and a gulping trapezoidal grille. It’s a good combination of squinty-tough guy attitude and open, airy, practical promise.
Really, Only LE?
Inside, the hybrid Corolla puts the LE in “letdown” compared to the interiors of the SE and XSE trim levels. These pricier versions add a leather-trimmed steering wheel, moonroof, heated and multiway adjustable front seats, contrast dash stitching, and 18-inch wheels. Alas, the hybrid is only available in the midlevel LE trim and only with 15-inch wheels, which look noticeably small in the expanded fenders.
Even in the LE trim, there are still more soft materials and interesting textures than you’d expect in a car starting at $23,880 (including destination), but it’s nowhere near as lux as the $26,380 XSE. For many, the additional 16 to 22 combined mpg over non-hybrid models is worth the sacrifice.
The front seats are well spaced, with plenty of leg- and headroom. The rear seats are soft and comfortable, even in the middle seat, with plenty of legroom. Rear headroom is a little compromised by the sloping roofline, but it still counts as a proper and usable five-person sedan.
For the driver, visibility is improved thanks to a lower dash and hood, as well as the positioning of the side mirrors on top of the door — a move that frees up a triangle of glass just behind the now-thinner windshield pillar. Interior storage is minimal, with one cellphone cubby, two cupholders in the center console (plus two in the doors), and a small storage space under the armrest. It’s big enough for a mini-bottle or a wallet, but not a full-size container or a purse. If you’re planning to run a bodega out of your car, size up. If you just plan to drive to work, Corolla will do for you.
Safety Sense Makes Sense
No matter which Corolla you choose, from the base model L to the fully loaded XSE, safety features don’t need to be part of your budgeting. Toyota includes its Safety Sense suite of features as standard on every Corolla, and that includes a pre-collision braking system, pedestrian sensing, adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, lane keeping assist, automatic high beams and — this one is nifty — the ability to read road signs and relay their information on the digital dash display.
Also standard on Corolla is a very good backup camera with a clear picture, even in the wet weather we had during our drive. Toyota has been positioning the Corolla as an excellent first car, and having so much safety tech standard helps back up that claim. Speaking of, the warning chimes for unfastened seat belts, forgotten headlights, and lane crossovers are foghorn-level volume, so parents, have no fear of your children forgetting to buckle up, although they might come home with damaged eardrums.
These Are Not the (An)Droids
Every trim above the entry-level L model gets an 8-inch touchscreen. The Corolla supports Apple CarPlay and Amazon Alexa, but there’s not Android Auto. Toyota’s latest infotainment system is better than previous versions, although there’s still a fair number of redundant buttons and certain seemingly basic commands — like changing the navigation volume on CarPlay — require going deep into the controls.
All Whir, No Rocket
Around town, the hybrid Corolla wasn’t noticeably different from the standard versions. Those purring electric motors help get it moving from a stop, so if anything, it has a bit more zip off the line than the base 139-horsepower 1.8-liter engine and CVT combo. But once on the highway, you’ll be composing poems of longing and loss to the 169-hp 2.0-liter from the SE and XSE trims, to say nothing of the marvelous six-speed manual.
The hybrid’s net output is just 121 hp, and that takes a long time to get a 3,000-pound car moving. You could call your mom and get through the initial greetings by the time you got from the on-ramp to minimum freeway speed. If you keep it floored, you’d be all caught up on at least three cousins before you reach passing speed. This is similar performance to the Prius, and it doesn’t seem to stop people from buying them, but the acceleration is suited better for stop-and-go commutes and city escapades than it is for long stretches of fast-moving semi-trucks.
All the new Corolla models provide safety and a distinctive exterior styling. If you want to lean into that redesigned “fun” Corolla image, the manual transmission and the 2.0-liter engine are the way to go. If you’ve been looking at a Prius but don’t want to adopt the lifestyle, the Corolla will give you the same performance without danger of getting stuck in a Whole Foods parking lot talking about climate change. With a starting price of $23,880 (the car we drove optioned up to $24,129 including destination), the Corolla is also one of the most affordable hybrids in the midsize class.