Second Drive

2020 Toyota Corolla Hybrid Second Drive | So close, so far

A better Corolla and Toyota hybrid to be sure, but that's not enough

toyota-corolla-hybrid-f34-1 / Image Credit: James Riswick
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  • Trim
  • Engine
    1.8L I-4 + Electric motor
  • Power
    121 HP / 105 LB-FT
  • Transmission
  • Drivetrain
  • Curb Weight
    3,050 LBS
  • Seating
  • Cargo
    13.1 Cu-Ft
  • MPG
    52 MPG Comb.
  • Base Price
  • As Tested Price

When the Toyota Corolla Hatchback was introduced, it didn't take long behind the wheel to know that it was an entirely different and better brand of Corolla. Actually, you didn't even have to drive it – its expressive, coherent styling told the story. Yet, in the back of my mind was a little voice saying, "The sedan probably won't be this good." The styling would be toned down (it was), and as the version for the masses, it wouldn't be as sharp and borderline fun to drive.

Well, surprising as it is, the Corolla XSE sedan actually does match its hatchback sibling. The 2020 Toyota Corolla Hybrid, on the other hand, does not. Driving it on my mountain road evaluation route wasn't particularly enjoyable, acceleration is merely sufficient, and the XSE sedan and hatchback remain the superior driving machines. Aesthetically, this Hybrid suffers for its dorky door guard trim, big poofy tires and a cabin bereft of the richer materials found in the Hatchback. So no, the hybrid sedan is not as good.

That said, it is still so much better than the Corolla it replaces. Though driving it on a mountain road wasn't particularly enjoyable, it handled the task ably. The 2020's suspension is so much more poised, especially in mid-corner bumps, and the result is a higher degree of composure and competence. By contrast, the old car was dreary and depressing. I remember driving on my previous mountain evaluation route in Los Angeles, and partway through the portion of Mulholland Highway known to locals as "the snake," saying to myself "this is hopeless" and just finishing the route going at a granny's pace. I might as well have been asking it to navigate the Marianas Trench.

The improvements in the new Corolla have everything to do with the change-over to Toyota's new TNG platform, which has transformed everything from the RAV4 to the Lexus ES into a substantially better vehicle to drive. The Corolla Hybrid is certainly one of the least engaging applications, but you can absolutely feel through your hands and seat of the pants that the bones have been given a serious upgrade. That goes for the ride quality too – it's still comfortable, but the damping is superior and the Corolla no longer bounds about.

2020 Toyota Corolla Hybrid
2020 Toyota Corolla Hybrid
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Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive has also been upgraded from past iterations. The gas engine engagement is so much smoother and quieter, while throttle response is quite good and consistent with what you'd get in a good electric car. Yet, it was also pretty easy to keep that gas motor off, or at least purring near idle, while driving it normally (you know, as in everywhere but a mountain road).

Shared with the Prius, the powertrain consists of a 1.8-liter four-cylinder and a 53-kW electric motor that together produce 121 horsepower. That's a far cry from the regular Corolla 2.0-liter's 169 horsepower and every other compact sedan. Off the line, you might not notice it given the extra jolt provided by electricity, but charging onto the highway requires patience and acceptance of a loud, droning engine. That said, the exact same thing could be said of the old, non-hybrid Corolla, and it didn't have that extra jolt.

It also didn't get the same fuel economy – few vehicles on the road do. The EPA rates the 2020 Corolla Hybrid at 53 mpg city, 52 mpg highway and 52 mpg combined. That's basically the same as most Prius trim levels. According to the in-car fuel economy meter, which makes this admittedly less-than-scientific, I achieved 51.4 mpg over the course of 121 miles. The EPA ratings therefore seem accurate enough, and the typical Corolla Hybrid buyer could certainly do better as they're unlikely to venture into the mountains as part of their typical driving week.

The Corolla Hybrid is only available in one trim level, the LE, which starts at $23,880 with dealer-installed accessories (like those door guards) the only options. The LE is only one rung up the ladder from the Corolla's basement, and equivalent to the most basic Prius, the L Eco. Feature content is therefore modest, but you still get Toyota's Safety Sense accident avoidance and driver assistance tech, alloy wheels, LED headlights, automatic climate control, proximity entry and push-button start, an 8-inch touchscreen, one USB port, Apple CarPlay and a six-speaker sound system. So it's far from a stripper, but if you want more equipment, you'll have to get a gas-only Corolla or cover your eyes and get a Prius.

The Corolla Hybrid also has lower-quality interior materials than upper Corolla trim levels, including every Hatchback. The padded and stitched vinyl that wraps their dash and front doors isn't present in the Hybrid. Instead, there's perfectly fine padded rubbery plastic on the dash and regrettably hard, cheap plastic on the doors. Why car companies choose to make a thing your elbows never touch soft (the dash) and a thing they frequently touch hard (the door panel), is absolutely nonsensical. Besides degraded touchpoints, the Hybrid's interior just doesn't look as good as a result.

On the other hand, the Prius never looks or feels particularly premium, either, and many will prefer the Corolla's more traditional look and control layout to the Prius' typically bizarre and, well, Prius-like cabin. Yet, if we're talking hybrid cabins, it's impossible to ignore the Honda Insight. The materials and ambiance of even its most basic cabin compares quite favorably to a top trim level Prius, and is notably superior to the Corolla Hybrid's. You can also get the Insight in higher trim levels with more equipment, and crucially, it gets basically the same fuel economy while delivering superior handling and generally greater refinement.

Once again, then, a car named Corolla must make do with the verdict that it's substantially superior to the vehicle it replaces, but ultimately not as well-rounded, well-executed or just plain desirable as a competitor – in this case, the Honda Insight.

Toyota Corolla Hybrid Information

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