You can have style and fuel economy in the same vehicle.
Last year, Toyota introduced a hybrid version of the Corolla Hybrid. While we've had a few brief opportunities to drive it at events, CarBuzz finally had a chance to test the 2021 Toyota Corolla Hybrid for an entire week. So, why were we so excited to drive a Corolla? Well, upon first inspection, the Corolla Hybrid may not seem much different than any other model. But if you dive a bit deeper, you may start to see why this car is so vital for Toyota.
Following a peak sales year in 2012, when the Prius family sold 236,655 units, sales have steadily declined, reaching fewer than 70,000 sales in 2019. So what happened? Gasoline prices play a factor, as does consumer preference towards crossovers. We think Toyota itself may deserve part of the blame here. The company's other hybrid products like the Camry and RAV4 Hybrid are so fantastic that no one wants a Prius anymore. In fact, we think the latest Corolla Hybrid is such an essential addition to the Toyota lineup; it now renders the Prius completely unnecessary.
The Toyota Prius is the automotive equivalent of broccoli; good for you, but it looks weird and tastes terrible. With the Corolla Hybrid, Toyota took broccoli and disguised it in a candy wrapper. The Corolla may not turn any heads in traffic, but it's far from an unattractive vehicle. We enjoy the styling of the latest generation Corolla, especially with its aggressive front fascia and dynamic headlight shape. The 15-inch steel wheels look pretty basic, but we know Toyota included them to save cost and weight.
Under the hood of the Corolla Hybrid sits a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine paired with two electric motors connected to a 1.3 kWh battery, driving the front wheels. If this setup sounds familiar, that's because the Prius uses the exact same combination. Like the Prius, the output numbers are less than stellar, with 121 horsepower and 105 lb-ft of torque. The Corolla Hybrid was not built to hit 60 mph in under 10 seconds; it was built to achieve outstanding fuel economy.
In EPA tests, the Corolla Hybrid achieved 53/52/52 mpg city/highway/combined, which is just off the pace of the most efficient Prius trim level. During a week of driving, we bested these estimated by averaging 55.5 mpg. We even observed over 60 mpg when hypermiling the car on the highway.
Anyone who has ever driven a Prius knows there is nothing sporty about it. The steering is dumb, the body control is atrocious, and there is not enough power. Although the Corolla Hybrid doesn't improve on the performance, it does fix some of the other issues. It drives, perhaps not surprisingly, like a Corolla. It might not light your hair ablaze through the corners, but it handles as competently as you'd expect of a compact sedan. The steering offers some decent feedback, and the body lean is far less pronounced than in the Prius. You still get skinny eco tires with less grip than an old piece of tape, but we had a fun time driving the Corolla Hybrid.
The Prius doesn't just look strange on the outside, the interior is funky as well. We've always disliked the strange dash design in the Prius, which places items like the speedometer in the middle of the car rather than in front of the driver. Higher trim models, including the plug-in Prius Prime, are even worse, thanks to a massive touchscreen that eliminates the volume and tuning knobs. We appreciate that the Corolla Hybrid comes with a normal cabin that looks like any run-of-the-mill modern Toyota.
In terms of rear space and cargo capacity, the Corolla Hybrid impressively does not lose out compared to its standard counterparts. The rear seats offer 34.8 inches of legroom, and the trunk opens up to 13.1 cubic feet with the ability to fold the rear seats. In the Prius, you only get 33.4 inches of legroom, making the Corolla Hybrid the better ride-share vehicle.
Admittedly, the Prius has more trunk space thanks to its hatchback design, with 24.6 cubic feet behind the second row and 50.7 cubic feet with the seats folded. If you need more space than the Corolla provides, Toyota offers hybrid versions of the larger Camry and Avalon sedans, plus the RAV4 and Highlander SUVs.
With the Corolla Hybrid (and Toyota's other hybrid models) taking over as the efficient options for mainstream buyers, it allows the Prius to fade away after 20 years of iconic status. Toyota could retire the Prius name altogether, or it could give it the Mirai treatment. The Mirai was once even uglier than the Prius, but the next-generation model goes in a completely different direction with a new rear-wheel-drive platform borrowed from Lexus.
We'd love to see Toyota give the Prius the same styling overhaul, but with a hybrid or electric drivetrain instead of the Mirai's hydrogen fuel cell. If Toyota listens to this suggestion, the Prius could go from one of the least attractive vehicles ever made, to an absolute stunner.