If you exclusively drive in the city in lots of stop-and-go traffic, even a very thrifty car like a Toyota Corolla might not return great fuel economy. Until now, Toyota shoppers who wanted a fuel-sipping urban car would end up looking at the Prius, but this year there’s a new choice: the 2020 Corolla Hybrid. It marks the first time a Corolla Hybrid has been sold in the US and, on a brief drive around Savannah, Georgia, proves to be a perfectly nice way of saving gas.
A familiar hybrid system
The Hybrid is based on the , but fitted with the gasoline-electric powertrain from a Prius. The powertrain is essentially identical to that in a Prius: a 1.8-liter inline-four gas engine produces 121 horsepower and 105 pound-feet of torque and an electric motor offers 71 hp and 105 lb-ft. Net output from the entire system is 121 horsepower. A nickel-metal hydride battery pack sits beneath the rear seats and, importantly, doesn’t reduce interior or cargo space compared to a standard Corolla.
With EPA ratings of , the Corolla Hybrid is only a little less efficient than a Prius. It’s also Toyota’s most fuel-efficient sedan in the US market. Key competition includes the Honda Insight, which is rated for as much as 55 mpg city, 49 mpg highway and 52 mpg combined. Or there’s the Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid (up to 57/59/58 mpg) and Kia Niro Hybrid (up to 52/49/50 mpg).
Styling, both inside and out, is pretty much unchanged from other versions of the new Corolla, with various Hybrid badges, unique 15-inch wheels and active shutters hiding behind the front grille. Within the cabin things are quite normal, highlighted by the fact the Corolla Hybrid doesn’t use a silly shifter (like a Prius) but instead the same one as other Corollas. There’s an EV Mode button, which allows for all-electric driving at low speeds over short distances, as well as a Drive Mode button to swap between Normal, Eco and Power modes.
Smooth, efficient operator
Driving the Corolla Hybrid is simple and relaxing, with silent and smooth acceleration thanks to the electric motor. When the gas engine kicks in, it does so without much noise or vibration, so although it is discernible, it is not unduly noticeable. Acceleration around town is more than adequate, the Hybrid benefiting from the instant low-end punch that is a key virtue of all electric motors.
Unlike some older hybrid cars, the Corolla doesn’t have any other weird habits than make it stand out. Its steering and brake pedal feel basically the same as other versions of the 2020 Corolla, and while my short drive didn’t entail any dynamic cornering, the ride over mottled city streets is quite calm.
The only surprise is a whirring, pumping noise that occurs when braking the Corolla Hybrid to a stop, which becomes annoying in frequent stop-and-go driving. As it usually only happens when coming to a full stop, I surmise it’s related to a booster for the friction brakes. But Toyota representatives didn’t have a clear answer about the cause. If you own the car, turn the radio up and you’ll probably never notice the noise.
As on most hybrids, functions within the touchscreen infotainment system provide a detailed breakdown of energy flow between the motor, battery and engine, as well as fuel-economy information. Choosing the Power drive mode does, yes, result in zestier acceleration off the line, but it’s still all relative when you have only 121 net horsepower. Eco mode tames throttle response considerably. For me, driving around in the default Normal mode is the best of both worlds.
When the battery is adequately charged, you can hit the EV Mode button for a short stint of engine-off motoring. As I alluded to before, accelerating at more than a pedestrian’s pace or driving in EV Mode for more than a block or so will force the gas engine to kick in. But perhaps teens sneaking in (or out) after curfew will appreciate the ability to power out of the driveway silently.
Because trunk and interior room aren’t compromised by the hybrid powertrain’s battery, there’s really no obvious downside to driving the Corolla Hybrid. With no weird exterior styling (see: Prius and many other hybrids) and no huge decline in driving performance, going hybrid doesn’t feel like much of a sacrifice. I just drive it like any other car and watch as the fuel-economy readout steadily climbs into the high-40-mpg range. We’ll wait for a more thorough ride on our home turf before doing a proper fuel-economy test.
The 2020 Corolla LE Hybrid starts at $23,880 with destination, or $3,000 more than the non-hybrid LE. That’s an affordable price — following , it’s Toyota’s cheapest hybrid. But some quick back-of-the-envelope math suggests you’d still have to drive tens of thousands of miles to save enough gas to pay off the purchase price difference.
Standard equipment on the hybrid includes push-button start, an 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system with Apple CarPlay, a Wi-Fi hotspot, Amazon Alexa integration, automatic climate control and a 7-inch digital instrument cluster. As the Hybrid is offered only in this one LE trim, though, there are plenty of things you can’t get: No heated seats, no power seats, no built-in navigation, no blind-spot monitoring.
With good fuel economy and a pleasant driving demeanor, the 2020 Corolla Hybrid makes a strong case for itself as an urban commuter. Toyota hopes the Hybrid will make up about 10 percent of all Corolla sales, which seems like a goal that will be easy to reach. Especially for somebody who doesn’t want the unique styling of the Prius, it’s a great way to save lots of fuel without much additional effort.
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