Beyond the great experiment
This car used just 0.622 of a liter on my 17.8 kilometer route from my home to the office in fairly heavy to moderate traffic at an average speed of 18 km/h.
Think about that for a bit. That's not even two thirds of one liter because of a very high 28.5 kilometers per liter fuel economy figure with the A/C set for comfortable levels, yet still it only used up about 30 pesos worth of gasoline.
We could end the review right here, making this our shortest one ever, but that wouldn't do the 2020 Toyota Corolla Altis Hybrid the justice it deserves.
As automotive editors, we've had a fair bit of experience with Toyota's hybrids in the last decade. Our first time trying it out was with the second generation Prius 1.5L hybrid in 2008; Toyota didn't sell that model in the Philippines, so it really was just a test. We then tried out the 2009 third generation Prius, and this time, it was officially for sale... but not many did buy it. The story was the same for the fourth generation Prius 1.8L and even the more affordable Prius c 1.5L, otherwise known as the Aqua in Japan.
We can venture a three fairly educated guesses (we hope) as to why the Prius and its derivatives didn't sell well. We'll say that one was the look; while the Prius appeared to be practical and cleanly designed, it just didn't have widespread appeal. Priuses (or Prii?) looked more like Star Trek concept cars rather than everyday cars. We'll also say that the pricing was off as taxes and everything else in between made them prohibitively expensive; would you buy a compact car that's double the price of a similarly sized saloon car? The third was the fear of the hybrid powertrain; there's a general lack of awareness despite our best efforts to really dissect the car with words, but more than that, there was the fear of having to replace the batteries at great expense.
But we think this hybrid Corolla can address those issues, in one very neat package.
The very important thing about the Corolla Altis Hybrid is that it doesn't look unusually different. It's still a 12th generation Corolla, Toyota's best selling model in history. The car we get in the Philippines is the conventional saloon car three-box silhouette, lending a sense of familiarity.
Compared to its peers like the Civic or the Mazda3, the design is most certainly more conservative, but it also looks really good; quite distinguished, by my eye. The lines are very neat, the shape is familiar, and the details look properly premium and quite futuristic. It's not trying to be a fastback, though the rear deck is a bit raised. Moreover, Toyota's designers didn't try to do much to make the hybrid stand out too much from the rest of the Corolla crowd. The only real telltale signs are the blue halos on the Toyota T emblems and the subtle badging that indicates this doesn't run on purely internal combustion.
There's also a good sense of familiarity inside too. The examples of the Prius we drove before were remarkably unique, feeling part car, part space ship with different ergonomics, layout, and multitudes of screens. But in the Corolla, it's all conventional... albeit taken up a notch.
You sit inside, and everything just feels natural. The digital gauge cluster/screen is in front of the driver, not in the middle like the current Prius. The steering wheel has a nice contour and tactile buttons. The shifter is nice to hold; not that stubby little thing they use on the Prius.
The materials they used are of a very high quality too; this will undoubtedly last if maintained well. There's the electronic parking brake below the shifter alongside the auto brake hold feature; useful for traffic. There are buttons for drive mode, EV mode, the Toyota Safety Sense (more on that later), climate control, and more; but all in all the layout and features are not daunting.
The seats are very comfortable, and more importantly, has made a great improvement in terms of driving ergonomics. If you know Mazda models, then the driving ergos will feel very familiar. The rear seats are likewise very comfortable especially with the center arrest down and the presence of dual A/C vents on the central compartment. There's even a pull-up sunshade for the rear windshield for enhanced comfort.
The only real criticism I have for the interior is the audio unit. Clearly this 2-DIN system is already very dated in terms of looks, function and features. It doesn't even come close to filling up the space of the housing unit for it; yes, the whole thing is a bit of an eyesore in an otherwise nice and modern cabin. Toyota could have done the Altis Hybrid a solid and designed something much better, because as it stands, the audio unit is a generation or two behind the ones found in the Civic, Mazda3, and other similar models.
The true purpose of the Altis Hybrid, however, is the drivetrain. As we've learned from Toyota, there are many out there that don't understand the concept of a hybrid powertrain, so we'll break it down: a hybrid uses combination of an internal combustion engine and bolts it onto an electric motor drive system.
The theory is that by combining the two to form a hybrid powertrain, you can maximize the pros and minimize the cons of both. Combustion engines are convenient because they use existing infrastructure (the abundance of gas stations) and develop good power, but are noisy and have harmful emissions as fuel is burned. Electric drive systems generate no tailpipe emissions, very little noise and have great torque, but it needs to be charged somehow, and many would know that there are very few charging stations for electric vehicles in the metropolis, much less all throughout the country.
A hybrid drivetrain addresses the problems of both: you get independence from charging stations because the engine charges the batteries, you get excellent fuel economy because the electric system kicks in to provide power when the charge is good, there's very little noise when running on batteries, and your overall tailpipe emissions are reduced.
The hybrid drivetrain used in the Corolla Altis is a tried and tested one because it's basically the same as the one in the Prius. There's an efficient Atkinson-cycle 1.8-liter engine that makes 99 PS, along with an electric motor system that makes another 72 PS. Apparently the math for combining both isn't quite straightforward as Toyota says that the Altis Hybrid only has a combined 122 PS; no matter though, as we're more interested in how it drives as a unit with the CVT.
We've already taken the Corolla Altis Hybrid on a drive up to Tagaytay, and we found it to be a very competent highway cruiser and enjoyable to drive when the roads get twisty; far better than the older Prius models we've driven before. More importantly, it just consumed just 3.28 liters of gasoline for that drive; no special hyper-miling tricks, just casual driving.
What we're really interested in is the urban driving perspective. Previous experiences tell us that while hybrids are fantastic for fuel economy on long drives, in the city they are in a different league. Let us put it this way, if you're driving a Prius exclusively in the city and you're getting an average of under 20 kilometers per liter, the problem is likely you: the driver. It's an indicator that you're way too aggressive with the throttle.
We've already mentioned the urban fuel economy that we got with the Corolla Altis Hybrid: 28.5 km per liter. Of course that was on my daily route which could be different from yours, but if you're getting somewhere around 22-25 km/l, that should be about right. You'll learn how to be light with your right foot, and find ways to get the most out of the hybrid system by driving smartly to try to get your momentum to recharge the batteries for free, or even to maximize downhill gradients to do so.
One way you can monitor your progress is the power meter on the left side of the gauge screen: if you conscientiously keep the needle in the green zone just below the center line, you're doing well. That means the engine can take a break (if there's sufficient juice) and you can drive without consuming any fuel and use the ample torque of the motor to move. You can also adjust the climate control system's temperature to something more reasonable; if you keep it at 24 degrees, the electrically driven A/C compressor can take a break once in a while, preserving your charge.
But what we really liked about the Corolla Altis Hybrid is how it feels: normal. More often than not, whenever we step into a hybrid or even an EV, we get too geeked out that we forget we're driving a car, not a science experiment. That's how it should be.
The Corolla Altis Hybrid is comfortable on urban concrete, it manages bumps and potholes well, there's a good degree of noise suppression against the outside world (hybrid drivetrains generate little noise). The handling is actually pretty nice; it's not sportscar like, but its not heavy or unnerving when negotiating tight corners at speed. The Hybrid is a great grocery getter, as the battery system didn't eat into the trunk space. The seats even fold down for longer items, but not in a flat way; there's still a ledge. You'll feel safe in the car with all the features in it like the multitude of airbags, stability control, ABS, the smart cruise control, the parking sensors, the rear view camera, and more.
What we would have wanted Toyota to have done with the Altis hybrid is to have leveled up the hybrid system itself. It still uses NiMH (nickel metal hydride) batteries, which some of us know is already old technology. They could have used more modern lithium batteries instead. Also, we would have wanted a plug-in hybrid model; that way we'd have the option of plugging into our garage power outlets to give the batteries a full charge before setting off.
We do, however, understand why Toyota build the Corolla Altis hybrid with virtually the same powertrain as the Prius: they wanted to keep the pricing as affordable as possible. Remember what we said about the pricing problems of the Japan-made Prius? The most affordable version of that car costs PhP 2.289 million; while that Japan-made car benefits from a 50% reduction in excise taxes, the 1.8-liter engine doesn't qualify it for the benefits of JPEPA.
The 2020 Toyota Corolla Altis 1.8V Hybrid, however, is made in Thailand. That means it qualifies not just for the reduced excise tax, but the full benefits of being an ASEAN made car. The result is a hybrid priced at PhP 1.580 million; even with this optional white pearl paint job, the SRP of this test car is still at PhP 1.595 million.
As for the other issue regarding having to replace the battery, well, Toyota is standing by their hybrid system and said that they're implementing a 200,000 kilometer, 5-year warranty on it.
Toyota really delivered with the 2020 Corolla Altis Hybrid. There are some things we wish they changed, but all in all, the benefits outweigh the negatives; we were just nitpicking, really. We don't expect it to sell in great numbers because there are many options available for the same kind of money particularly in pick-ups, crossovers or even entry or mid-grade PPVs, but at least now we have a proper hybrid that can compete on price and on merit with the likes of the Civic RS, et al.