Can the Altis Hybrid do what the Prius couldn't?

We've been talking about how hybrids make sense for the Philippine setting for a decade now, if not more.

But in that decade, the widespread adoption of hybrids -something that looked like a sure thing given the technology's benefits- simply didn't take.

Honda tried with their IMA, or Integrated Motor Assist, but they didn't have much success, save for some very loyal CR-Z owners. Mercedes tried with the S-Class a few years back, but that didn't gain traction either. Toyota was one of the earliest when they started offering the Prius 10 years ago, and expanding more into Lexus with hybrid tech. But really, how many Priuses (or Prii?) or Lexus hybrids do you actually see on the road?

Owning a hybrid is a rarity here, and it's not hard to see why. Many were apprehensive about the technology, primarily because many didn't understand it yet, and the packaging wasn't exactly familiar. Some were scared of the prospect of having to replace the batteries down the line; that was a big concern. But mainly, hybrids were just prohibitively expensive: the Prius and Prius C were both respectively and nearly (if not actually) double the price of similarly sized non-hybrid cars.

Toyota Corolla Altis Hybrid image

Toyota needed something more acceptable to the market, something that makes a bit more sense. And that's where the all new Corolla Altis came in.

Last week, Toyota Philippines launched the new generation Corolla Altis: their compact car contender. Truth be told, they don't really need the Corolla Altis in their lineup simply because the Vios is now their prime model in the smaller passenger car segment, whereas prospective Corolla and Camry buyers were already gravitating towards crossovers, PPV-SUVs and pick-ups.

Toyota wanted to make a bigger statement with the new generation Altis, and so they chose to do something differently. They launched it with two powerplants: one has a 1.6-liter engine with either a manual or a CVT, while the other option had the same 1.8-liter hybrid system as the Prius. And we got a chance to try out both after the launch itself.

Walking up to the Corolla Altis at the driveway, it's clear that the styling of both cars is undeniably neat. Toyota resisted the urge to be aggressive with the looks of the ASEAN-market Corolla; instead it looks like a more conservative Camry, albeit in a slightly smaller scale.

Toyota Corolla Altis Hybrid image

The Altis 1.6G has a clean cut look about it. The shape is familiar: a 3-box compact sedan, though it's really unusual to still call this class of car a “compact” given how much bigger they've become over the years. Still, the design is subdued somewhat, even though the front end does have that wide intake for the radiator and the slim strip that connects the two sharp and tapered headlamps.

We do like the applique of the cut that appears to slash through the foglamp bezels; it's very modern, yet keeps with the overall theme. The rear is nice too, complementing the look with a Toyota “flash” design on the lights. Perhaps the only thing of real interest is the migration of the wing mirrors to pillars that stick out from the doors, not on the windows; it's a Lexus-ish touch.

Toyota Corolla Altis Hybrid image

The 1.8 Hybrid model (as well as the 1.6V, which wasn't present) has a few exterior enhancements over the G and E versions, and it's more noticeable with the extra application of chrome on certain accents and panels. The headlights are also LEDs, which is a nice upgrade over the 1.6G. The major difference though is the striking set of two-tone 17-inch wheels (the 1.6G has 16” wheels). There is something on the hybrid that is exclusive to it: apart from the obvious HYBRID badges on the fenders, the Toyota logo has a blue halo. They use that same halo on models like the Prius as well as the hybrids from Lexus.

The interior of the 1.6G is nice. Clearly Toyota invested into stepping up the feel of quality of the Corolla; not that the previous one was low, but they do believe in continuously improving their stuff, so go figure. What we really saw were swathes of well-made soft touch surfaces which speak of high quality, as well as a fit that is impeccable for gap consistency.

The design of the dash is very forward and is reminiscent of more recent concept cars rather than a production car. I do like the shape and the modernity of it all, though feelings are still a bit mixed for that massive audio unit the juts out from the leading edge of the dashboard. I still think the execution that Honda did with the Civic is better overall.

Toyota Corolla Altis Hybrid image

A quick drive in the area revealed a Corolla that's really at the top of its game. The 1.6-liter engine has dual VVT-i, and it makes 121 horsepower and 153 Nm of torque; it's not a lot, but it's more than enough for a daily commute. We're not big fans of CVTs overall, but in traffic and at low speeds, it's really ideal. And the slimmer A-pillars do make a big difference for overall safety given the enhanced visibility.

One thing you won't notice from the pictures is driver ergonomics. You can easily adjust and find a very natural seating position in relation to the pedals and the steering wheel. If anything, it's reminiscent of how Mazda does their driver ergo, and they do it very very well. Toyota did the same. Now it may sound inconsequential or trivial, but having good driving ergo is a great thing not just for long drives or sporty drives, but it's something you'll enjoy in traffic; good ergo reduces the stress on a driver's back and shoulders.

Now we weren't able to really go for handling or speed given the traffic (and weather) that day, but already we can tell that this Altis 1.6G is a smooth operator all around. We also want to see how that new, lighter, and more rigid TNGA platform performs, but we'll have to wait for a more comprehensive drive to really see what the new Altis 1.6G can do.

Toyota Corolla Altis Hybrid image

Then came the hybrid. Inside, the hybrid Corolla Altis pretty much has the same interior, but it's leveled up somewhat. The seats are leather, and there's also some synthetic leather on the door panel inserts, among others. The driver's seat also has power adjust functions and lumbar support; perfect for people that don't fit the 95 percentile man's body shape.

But the changes aren't just cosmetic. The gauges look better, and there's a 7-inch screen instead of the smaller multi-info display. Gone is the hand brake lever; instead you get an electronic parking brake, and it has a brake hold function which is perfect for traffic. The rear view mirror is of the auto-dimming electronic variety and the key is the smart type, so no need to pull it out; just keep it in your pocket, step on the brake, and push the ignition. Simple.

Basically, all of those features we spoke of (and more) are available in the Corolla Altis 1.6V too. But where the Corolla Altis hybrid has a serious level up is in terms of safety. Now, Toyota has been embarking on a safety revolution. They have been outfitting their new generation models like the Vios, the Rush, and more recently the Hiace with loads of safety equipment like the maximum number of airbags they can put in, anti-lock brakes, and stability control as standard across the board. In the Altis, the same has been applied as all variants come with 7 airbags, ABS, EBD, and VSC (stability control) for all variants. But the Hybrid has more thanks to Toyota Safety Sense.

Toyota Corolla Altis Hybrid image

With TSS, that means the hybrid has a pre-collision system that warns the driver if he/she doesn't react to an obstacle ahead (i.e. if the vehicle in front comes to an abrupt stop). There's also a lane departure alert, which warns the driver if the vehicle is veering from the lane without activating the indicators. There's also a lane tracing assist that can actively steer the vehicle on the highway to follow the lane. We're also interested in the dynamic radar cruise control which, as the name states, is a smart type of cruise control. What did catch our eye is the automatic high beam system; that allows you to drive at maximum high beams on, say, a wet mountain road. When an oncoming vehicle approaches, the Corolla Hybrid will dim the beam automatically so as not to blind the oncoming driver. That should be useful.

Press on the ignition and the Hybrid doesn't actually start the engine; instead an indicator light pops up indicating that it's ready to go. The shifter is basically the same as the one on the Prius, meaning you just pull it down to D, and then you step gently on the accelerator to get moving. Now here's where it gets different: unless you mash the throttle, the Corolla Hybrid will move forward gradually using battery power alone. For those unfamiliar with how hybrids drive, this will feel and sound weird because there's no vibration from the engine nor is there any noise.

Toyota Corolla Altis Hybrid image

You have an electric motor that takes the low speed loads so long as you have charge in the NiMH batteries. That means you don't have to consume fuel if you're sensible with how you use your accelerator pedal. Once the battery charge gets too low, don't worry because the 97 horsepower 1.8-liter engine will then kick in, and it has two tasks that it can perform: it can also drive the vehicle, and it charges the battery at the same time.

That's the beauty of the Corolla Altis Hybrid's drive, it gives you the ability to drive on electricity, but you won't have to rely on our almost non-existent (yet) electric vehicle infrastructure because it has the engine which runs on the more efficient Atkinson cycle (hence the unusually low horsepower rating) to take care of charging. Like the Prius, the Corolla Altis hybrid also has regenerative engine braking, meaning if you're driving downhill you can pop the shifter to B (engine braking mode) and that practically turns the electric motor into a dynamo to charge the battery... thanks to gravity.

Now we don't have enough time to really test the hybrid system (or even Toyota Safety Sense), but in city driving we've clocked in fuel economy figures in excess of 20 km/l in the Prius, so we expect more or less the same from the Corolla Hybrid which shares the same drivetrain.

Being a Thai-made car, that means the Altis Hybrid can be much more affordable thanks to the ASEAN free trade area than the Japan-made Prius that doesn't qualify for JPEPA. The result is a hybrid Corolla that's priced at PhP 1.58 million, which is a lot less than the similarly-sized Prius which is well over 2.2 million. By comparison, the Altis 1.6G comes in at PhP 1.115 million, and the top-spec Civic RS is already at 1.6 million. That means Toyota has an interesting and different proposition with the Corolla Altis Hybrid.  

Truth be told, we miss the 2.0-liter Corolla Altis that was phased out in favor of this hybrid, but that doesn't mean we have reduced expectations of it. If anything, we expect great things from the Corolla Altis Hybrid. It's basically the drivetrain of the Prius, but in a much more familiar package to our market and its customers.

And when it comes to introducing a new technology to a market, having a sense of familiarity is a good thing.