It's hard to overemphasize the importance of having a Corolla Altis Hybrid in the Toyota line up.
For a decade now, they have been marketing the Prius in the Philippines as the logical first step towards driving hybrids. That's all well and good, but it's more than fair to say that the Prius didn't really click with our market.
In the times we've driven the previous generations of the Prius and its smaller derivative, the Prius C, we can assess that our market didn't understand it, didn't like the unusual liftback configuration, didn't like the looks, and more importantly, didn't like the price. Honestly, would you buy a hybrid that costs more than twice than a similarly-sized top-of-the-line compact car? Of course not. You'd probably go for a crossover instead.
Now Toyota wants to try something new, and so they surprised us (sort of) when they introduced the new generation Corolla Altis with two distinct powertrain options. The first is the 1.6-liter gasoline model, which is what we expected. It comes with either a CVT or a manual gearbox; again, expected.
What we didn't expect (up until a month before) was that Toyota would bring in a Hybrid variant. It uses the same powertrain (pretty much) as the Prius, meaning it's powered by a 1.8-liter engine as well as an electric drive system. That in itself is the key that makes it a hybrid: just like the Prius, it can run on the engine only, it can run on electric mode only, or run on a combination of the two. And based on our experience with the Prius as well as the hybrids in the Lexus lineup, this is seamless and very much worry free.
Now we were able to get a brief taste of the Corolla Altis Hybrid right after the launch, but that was in heavy traffic with sporadic rain showers in BGC. Not ideal for testing a vehicle and definitely not long enough to really develop an evaluation, but even then we were already seeing the genius behind Toyota's latest move. If there's a decent level of juice in the NiMH batteries, the engine can take a break, and you're now consuming zero liters but your A/C is working, your music is playing, and you're actually still driving.
Of course we wanted a longer drive, so the guys at Toyota invited us (at least most of us) to try out the Altis Hybrid again, this time for a much longer stint than an around-the-block drive. We were to take it from Manila to Tagaytay, and that would mean a mix of expressway driving, then a brief stint in the fast developing side of Santa Rosa, Laguna (or as the locals call it, Saint Rose), and onto an uphill provincial highway, and up to the ridge that has become Metro Manila's popular weekend retreat.
We wanted to do it our way though. We wanted to get realistic fuel economy data on this drive, and we also wanted to benchmark the Altis Hybrid against something. We asked for the 1.6-liter model of the current generation, but there was none available. So we asked instead for the 2.0-liter Corolla Altis of the previous generation, and lo and behold, they still had one. That should make for an interesting comparison: the current top-spec Altis versus the previous top-spec Altis. One is a 1.8 hybrid, the other is a 2.0.
Our duo gathered at the Shell station in Magallanes, just at the start of the South Luzon Expressway, and side by side, we can already see the difference in style between the two models. The 2.0 is no spring chicken; clearly it's had a hard knock life as a test car, but it's still in pretty good shape. And it looks good in that shade of red.
The new generation Corolla Altis, while preserving the overall saloon car profile, is definitely a cut above. Toyota seems to have wanted their compact to evoke a more Camry-esque degree of style, particularly with the front. There's nothing wrong with that, but we think it could use a bit more excitement in that department. This may be a eco-minded hybrid, as told by the extra emblems and the blue halo on the T logo, but they could have thrown in something to make it more appealing (apart from those handsome wheels) to the younger crowd.
We agreed that the two cars were to stick together at a reasonable speed of about 80 to 90 km/h on the expressway, and then drive up to Tagaytay. We wanted realistic data, and that meant no hypermiling, super fuel saving techniques of any kind. For both cars, we set the A/C to 23C, set the tire pressure to 33, and just drive casually, overtaking as needed.
On the expressway, the Corolla Altis Hybrid is really a cut above its predecessor, particularly in the department of driving ergonomics. The seating position, the angle of the steering wheel relative to the driver, the pedal placement and all these other nuances are simply spot on. If anything, it feels like it has a Mazda's ergos, and that's a good thing. And we're not just talking about driving excitement and all that; a well shaped seat and good ergonomics means less fatigue on long drives and hours in traffic.
We can, however, notice that the engine is doing most of the work on the expressway. At 80 km/h, the engine was pretty much the prime mode of propulsion; that's because the electric motor can only take over drive duties at about 50 km/h or slower. That's what makes the hybrid such a thrifty car to use in urban areas because the motor can do most of the work. It's not uncommon to get fuel economy that's north of 25 kilometers to a liter with a Prius, and we expect pretty much the same here... but that's in the city.
Toyota knows this, and that's the reason why the 1.8-liter engine isn't exactly the normal type. Most internal combustion engines run on the Otto cycle: intake, compression, power, and exhaust. It's easier to remember this: suck, squish, bang, blow. Your Vios, your Civic, your Terra, all these vehicles run on that cycle, be it diesel or gasoline. And the tachometer (RPM gauge) will tell you exactly how many times it happens in your engine in a minute.
The Hybrid's engine, however, does not run Otto. It uses the Atkinson cycle. How this differs is that the intake valves stay open a little bit longer as the piston comes up to compress it. This overlap between the intake and compression stages sounds odd, but the result is better fuel efficiency, but generates less power.
If you had two similar 1.8-liter engines from the same manufacturer with one running on Otto while the other on Atkinson with all other things being equal, chances are the former will have greater power, but the latter will have better fuel economy.
The result is an engine that makes just 98 PS; very low even when compared to the 125 PS in the 1.6-liter. While it may sound odd to put a weak engine in the Altis Hybrid, it has an electric drive system to compensate. The motor makes another 72 PS (or 53 kilowatts); at face value, it seems the Altis Hybrid has 170 PS total (72 PS + 98 PS), but Toyota states that the car only has 122 PS combined.
As for the reason, we don't know why; we weren't able to ask the engineer. But perhaps the most important part is that the motor gives 163 Nm of torque that's already available at 0 RPM. That's the key, especially for fuel economy at low speed urban driving and traffic.
Once most of the traffic on SLEX cleared up past Alabang, we were able to test out the new Toyota Safety Sense package. Only the Altis Hybrid has this in the Corolla line, and basically it enhances overall safety with a series of sensors and intelligent control bits and pieces. Really though, we just wanted to try the system's smart cruise control that will maintain a set speed on the expressway, automatically keeping a safe distance from the vehicle ahead, and even steers to keep itself inside the lane. And it can come to a full stop if need be.
You do have to be a bit careful with this system and stay alert. You can't just take a nap because your hand has to be on the wheel, and it will also deactivate if, for instance, the lane markings disappear. But on a nice expressway with well defined lanes, TSS can take over some of these tasks.
Once out of the expressway, we entered the backroads leading up to the main road up to Tagaytay. This kind of driving is more of the Altis Hybrid's thing, and that's because during most of the expressway drive, the engine had been charging up the 28 modules with 168 NiMH cells that make up the battery pack. Even when you let off the throttle, the engine cuts off and the motor becomes a generator for the batteries. And now, in lower speed driving, we can maximize EV mode.
That's a cool thing with the Corolla Hybrid, as you can activate EV mode to prioritize electric drive. You do have to keep the speed lower at around 50 km/h. It's smooth and ultra quiet in EV mode, but it doesn't last as long as we'd like; only a couple of kilometers.
Once the motor has consumed the charge, after which the engine will kick in again to recharge the batteries. All this happens without you having to actually think about it, though you can see how the Hybrid system is functioning via the Energy Monitor.
On the road up to Tagaytay, the Altis Hybrid really showed off what it can do. This may be an eco-friendly car with low emissions, but if you mash the throttle it will reward you with acceleration which is very useful for overtaking on a road like this. Remember that electric motor's torque? That comes in handy too.
Mind you, the Hybrid isn't being as efficient as it can be on the route up, because chances are the engine will be running most of the time. Sometimes it cuts out and lets the electric motor do the work, but the instances are too few and far in between on the uphill.
I won't say that this car handles like a dream or that you'll really enjoy it on a mountain road. This Altis Hybrid is really a compromise, and the complexity of the system adds a lot of weight. The steering isn't particularly exciting and neither is the braking feel anything to write home about.
If you want something more exciting, the Altis Hybrid may not be for you. Heck, we don't even like the 2DIN audio unit; it feels quite dated to be blunt. Toyota should have put in something much better.
But as we came to a stop in Tagaytay, we were finally able to check our fuel consumption. The average speed for our drive was 48 km/h, covering a total of 65 kilometers up to the gate of Highlands.
The 2017 Toyota Corolla Altis 2.0L was able to achieve 14.3 kilometers per liter; not bad for a car that has seen much better days. But the 2020 Toyota Corolla Altis 1.8 Hybrid clocked in 19.8 kilometers per liter; a 38% difference over the non-hybrid 2017 car. On our drive, the Hybrid consumed just 3.28 liters of gasoline. Considering the distance and type of driving we encountered, that's very respectable.
But that was the uphill. The downhill should be more fun, and I won't be surprised if we can keep the engine off for most of it because, since this is a hybrid, the motor should be able to do most of the work, and gravity will become the Altis Hybrid's best friend.
We'll save that for another time.