I’ll be honest with you: Sometimes I ask for review units of cars I’m pretty sure I’m not going to like. The new Toyota Corolla Cross Hybrid was definitely one of those cars. I’d seen one on the street and could barely even place it ,and I thought to myself that, in an era where even the worst cars are at least fine, maybe I’d found something I could truly rant about. I was correct. I can rant about the Corolla Cross Hybrid. I can rant about how fundamentally good it is.
This was a shocker to me. I am in shock. A fairly nondescript Toyota crossover hybrid should be a car that I, as a car enthusiast, find despicably boring. I should find it to be yet another offensively average product shuttled out for rental fleets. I shouldn’t have even asked for it but, for some reason, a couple of members of our Discord picked it out of a list of cars that were available to review and I thought to myself: Here comes another in a long line of forgettable crossovers.
Well, dear reader, here I am with my hat in my hand begging for forgiveness, planning to convince you that this thing is actually good and that the hybrid system here is exactly the right idea for a huge portion of the population. That this only costs around $33,000 in the good trim and in the good color is also almost galling to me.
Look, electric cars are the answer for many people but, for me, a person who lives in a building and doesn’t have a parking space with charging available I’m pretty much set on getting a hybrid to replace my ICE-powered Subaru. A freakin’ pudgy Corolla hybrid was nowhere near my list of cars I’d consider. Now it’s near the top. What is going on here?
And let me be clear, right off the bat, this is not a perfect car. The pink-hued Porsche 911 Carrera T I’ve got in my parking lot right now? That’s a perfect car. But even a stripper version of that 911 Carrera T is still about $100,000 more expensive than a Corolla Cross Hybrid and the one I have doesn’t even come with a back seat. For all its little imperfections and annoying bits of design, I’ve come to realize the Corolla Cross Hybrid is a good value for many people and I hope that Toyota uses this layout in more vehicles.
Good, affordable cars are so hard to come by and this, THIS, is a good car that’s reasonably affordable and offers a ton of value.
This Is The Ideal Hybrid Layout For A Small AWD Crossover
I had a surprising amount of difficulty finding a good illustration of the Corolla Cross Hybrid’s layout. There’s an illustration in the vehicle itself that attempts to show the driver, in a simplified manner, where the power is going (front wheels, rear wheels, generator, all of the above). Though illustrative, the diagram is actually a bit of a fib. Here’s what it looks like:
This shows the 2.0-liter inline-four motor, the battery pack, a front-mounted motor somewhere near the middle of the car, and a motor over the rear axle. That’s almost true. In reality, the Toyota hybrid drive unit for the front wheels utilizes a motor that’s integrated into the eCVT in the front of the car and the very clever system decides if it wants to power those wheels using the gas engine, the motor, or some combination (while also deciding if it wants to generate power for the battery pack). The rear motor is, in fact, over the rear axle.
Here’s a diagram from a guide for Toyota technicians who need to know how to take the car apart to service it. This is more accurate.
The packaging here is super smart, and what you end up with is a car that’s front-wheel-drive when it makes sense, all-wheel-drive when it makes sense, and even rear-wheel-drive under certain circumstances.
Here’s another little graphic from that system guide that explains how it decides to use power:
I was surprised when I first started driving this thing that it utilized only the rear motor for slow acceleration in city driving up to about 20 mph. While the small lithium-ion battery pack [Update: my corrected math is 4.08 amp hours at 220 volts = about 0.9 kWh – MH], it’s enough to scoot you around town without using much gasoline so long as you put it in EV Mode and you’re willing to stay at Changli speeds. Under fast acceleration or in “sport” mode the gas motor kicks in and you get a combination of electric motor and gas motor for the front wheels and the electric motor on the rear.
Is the Corolla Cross Hybrid fast? No. The rear-mounted powerplant in the Carrera T is fast, this is merely adequate. But it’s a great kind of adequate you don’t appreciate if you’re not in different cars all the time. The modern CVT transmission is popular because of its theoretical long life and its ability to efficiently keep a car in a desirable/efficient power band. In reality, CVTs are annoying because they are not instantaneous and, unfortunately, keeping a car in its ideal powerband means a lot of engine drone when that power is coming from a small gas motor and not a big honkin’ V8.
Here’s where the Corolla Cross Hybrid also excels. Toyota has been building these types of hybrid drive systems since the original Prius, and they’ve gotten very good at it. The eCVT is not really a CVT in the conventional sense like the one found on the non-Hybird Corolla Cross. Instead, it’s the latest version of what Toyota sometimes calls the “synergy drive” that uses, essentially, a planetary gearset to shift power between different modes. This offers something like the capability of a CVT without the most annoying sounds and behaviors of this common transmission setup.
Driving around town I was consistently impressed by how darn smart this system is. Granted, it was mostly dry and my guess is that the rear electric motor doesn’t have enough grunt to replace your WRX as an ice racer, but that’s not with this car is meant to do. I’m sure it’ll get you up your driveway with no issue in the snow and a combined 196 horsepower and 136 lb-ft of torque add up to a 0-60 mph time in the low 8.0-second range, which isn’t bad for an economy car.
Here are the more important numbers: 42/45/38. That’s 42 mpg combined, 45 mpg city, and 38 mpg highway. In my time driving it with the reckless abandon of an automotive journalist I could scarcely get the estimated fuel economy to dip below 40 mpg and, trust me, I tried.
This Is Quite Nice For The Economy Car
I had the loaded-to-the-hilt version of the Corolla Cross Hybrid, which is the XSE trim with the nicer stereo and moonroof, which cost $35,565 with a $1,335 delivery fee. I didn’t think the sound system was all that great and I don’t really care about a moonroof, but I liked the digital gauge cluster that came on the XSE trim.
Out of a concern that maybe I’d buy one, I spec’d my own and it ended up being a little less than $33,000 (I selected the two-tone paint, I’m a sucker for two-tone paint). Damn, that’s actually a good price. An even better price is the sub-$30k Hybrid S, but I think air vents for rear passengers is sort of a must if you have a kid.
This is an economy car more than anything and, yet, it doesn’t really feel like an economy car. In AWD spec the Corolla Cross features independent suspension at all four wheels and the ride is blanket-on-a-blanket soft. It feels almost luxurious. Luxury cars are soft. How does Toyota do this?
Crank the wheel too hard under speed in any direction and it becomes clear that the softly sprung suspension does a great job of absorbing bumps but any twisty backroad is going to be a chore. That is how they do it, but it’s a completely fine choice. If you want a sporty crossover get a Mazda.
It Doesn’t Look Or Feel Cheap
On the inside the Corolla Cross Hybrid is pretty much like the regular Corolla or, well, just about any other Toyota. It’s nice. There are actual buttons and knobs for some of the controls and there’s a large, pleasing screen that will pretty much always show CarPlay and nothing else for most drivers (maybe Android Auto). The seats are well-supported and comfortable, the materials don’t feel that cheap, and the steering wheel buttons are logical in a way so few are these days.
Does it have some piano black in the interior? Yes. Yes it does. Most pianos don’t even have piano black on them. This is a travesty, but I’m willing to overlook it because it’s not everywhere.
You can’t even buy a new Tesla in a good yellow color. For whatever reason, CEO Elon Musk is averse to people having the good colors. The Corolla Cross comes in the good colors. There’s a good red. A good blue. And this good yellow, with a two-tone black top.
I don’t think anyone looking at this car would naturally assume it’s an “economy car” or that the person who purchased it was hoping to save a little money on a subcompact crossover. Other than some shiny black trim, the contrasting colors give the car more presence than the more expensive and bigger Forester.
There are a lot of creases on the exterior, which help define the protruding arches. There’s a little bit of Dan Flashes in the extra shapes (the patterns are so wild!), but I don’t hate it. The rear of the car is so generically Toyota that Jason and I, while walking down the street in Los Angeles, could not figure out which Toyota it was. It’s not bad, it’s just not anything.
This Is A Great Value By Modern Standards
This is a subcompact crossover so it’s not particularly large. The rear seat gives you about 32 inches of rear legroom with just shy of 22 cubic feet of storage area in the back with the seats up. If I were to step down from the Subaru Forester I purchased in 2016 for $25,000 I’d be gaining a lot in terms of fuel economy and overall niceness, but I’d be losing a lot of size and storage.
No other automaker in the United States currently uses quite this setup in a small AWD crossover, with a rear-mounted lithium-ion battery and a motor over the rear axle for extra power (the Jeep Renegade 4xe in Europe), but it’s quite clever. I’m still tempted to buy a Ford Maverick, but I wish Ford would consider tossing a motor back there to give me all-wheel-drive.
The novel struggle of modernity is that, with places like Wikipedia at your fingertips, one is constantly reminded of what the past was actually like. Before the internet, you could passively wonder about whatever happened to the dad from Seventh Heaven and move on before looking it up and finding out the awful truth.
It’s a pretty awful game to play to look at the MSRP for older models and realize that everything has gotten too expensive. There was a time when $33,000 would get you a lot of car. Hell, just ten years ago, a 2013 Toyota Highlander, which is two classes up in size, stickered for about $33,000. Now that same money gets you something significantly more efficient, but also significantly smaller. Americans buy more space than they need and not everyone has two kids and three dogs. But it still hurts.
Still, in this one case, I think Toyota has absolutely nailed it. Whether in S trim or loaded up to XSE, what Toyota has created is a vehicle that’s way more affordable than the average new car, offers no real penalty in terms of style or luxury, and with a powertrain that’s as clever as it is miserly.
It doesn’t set my heart on fire. I will not write poems about it. It’s just a great idea, executed well, at a price point that’s hurting for choice. Actually, you know what, I relent? It’s iambic pentameter-worthy.