Mention the name Toyota Corolla to most drivers and you can expect a bunch of damn-with-faint-praise remarks on the return: dependable, sturdy, reliable. Fast, spirited, exciting? Not so much.
To those folks, we present the 2023 Corolla Hybrid XSE AWD. Wait, what? All-wheel drive? In a Corolla?
Yes, and it transforms the typical Corolla experience.
The all-new Corolla Hybrid, in addition to a front-wheel drive model, adds all-wheel drive for the first time — in LE, SE and XSE models.
As a front-driver, the hybrid offers less-than-inspiring total power output of 121 horsepower. However, put a third electric motor driving the rear wheels and you not only get a capable foul-weather sedan, you also get a sturdy kick to the backside every time you kick the go pedal.
A 1.8-litre Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder motor under the hood is mated to two electric motor-generators through a planetary gearset continuously variable transmission. In all-wheel-drive models, a third 30 kW electric motor at the rear adds additional but unspecified horsepower, and of course, more torque.
It provides a surprising amount of acceleration for a car that has traditionally not been known for speed, at least not since the AE86 models of the 80s. Unlike most performance upgrades, however, this one comes with a fuel economy benefit, not a penalty.
It’s also the first all-wheel-drive Corolla since the E90 variant in the late 1980s.
All-wheel drive isn’t the only news for the Corolla Hybrid. All models now use a fifth-generation hybrid system with a compact and lightweight transaxle and a compact PCU (power control unit) directly above it. The 1.8-litre gas motor is unchanged. The new transaxle and motor-generator combination increases power output to 70 kW from the previous generation’s 53 kW.
At its thirstiest, the Corolla Hybrid burns fuel at a rate of 5.7 litres per 100 kilometres. That’s on the highway, in the SE and XSE models. The most parsimonious model, the base, front-wheel-drive LE, delivers 4.4 l/100km city, 5.1 highway and 4.9 combined. As is typical for hybrids, city fuel economy is best, since that’s when drivers get the most benefit from electric propulsion. On the highway, drivers very quickly run out of electric assist since there’s little opportunity to slow down and thus recharge the battery.
Blame the added weight of the rear electric motor, plus some upmarket amenities, for the fuel economy penalty on the all-wheel-drive models. Based on a 40-litre tank for the all-wheel drive models (that rear motor eats up some of the available space for the fuel tank), and a 43-litre tank for front-drivers, expect a range of 700 to 843 kilometres, depending on model.
Power can be split from 100 per cent front-drive to 50 per cent front and 50 per cent rear.
The customary location for Toyota hybrid drive batteries is under the rear seat, and sure enough, the tell-tale air vent at the driver’s side of the rear seat bottom is a sure sign that’s where it is. That, of course, translates into a very stable ride: the heft and location of the battery helps equalize the weight split from front to rear and helps lower the car’s centre of gravity.
That all not only translates into very good handling, it also means hybridizing the Corolla doesn’t cost a cubic centimetre of trunk space.
The Corolla Hybrid offers a variety of drive modes: Eco, Normal and Sport. Sport mode more aggressively maps the throttle reaction, plus taps into the gas motor more, so expect a slight penalty in fuel economy. Sport mode should be renamed Fun mode: it provides a fast launch and a smooth but urgent return to power when exiting a corner.
All models also get an EV mode for short travel in electric-only mode. Drivers can activate it with a push button forward of the shifter, but it will also cut in automatically when driving and battery conditions permit.
New for 2023 is the SE trim on the hybrid. SE is Toyota speak for a sport model, though the differences are all either cosmetic or in amenities. SE adds Toyota’s multimedia remote connect (provides access to vehicle status, maintenance schedules, as well as offering remote start, door lock and unlock, vehicle location and guest driver monitor), 18-inch alloy wheels, a seven-inch digital speedometer, sport fabric upholstery, push-button start and heated steering wheel. Heated front seats are standard in all models.
The XSE is the luxury sport model, though its additions also don’t change the mechanicals. It adds an eight-way power adjustable driver’s seat, heated rear seats, heated steering wheel and Softex synthetic leather-like upholstery.
The interior of the Corolla doesn’t change much from the 2022 models, which is to say the interior is quite good. A large infotainment screen dominates the centre of the dash, but there are also actual buttons for the most-used features, such as heating and ventilation, heated seats and, when equipped, heated steering wheel. Many functions are also operable via steering-wheel controls and by voice commands.
Going hybrid with the Corolla doesn’t break the bank, either. While pricing for the 2023 Corolla gasoline models won’t be released until early November, for reference, the 2022 gas model starts at just more than $19,000. The 2023 hybrid, in two-wheel drive trim, starts at $26,090. All-wheel drive base models start at $27,590, the SE AWD at $29,890 and the as-tested XSE AWD at $34,290.
The 2023 Corolla Hybrid is on sale now, though Toyota Canada’s website warns inventory is limited.