Each month we receive letters chastising us for our wanton glorification of impractical, expensive, ridiculously overpowered, and inefficient vehicles. Where are the real cars, you say? Well, here's one for you: the 2023 Toyota Corolla Hybrid SE AWD. It costs $27,610, gets an EPA-estimated 44 mpg combined, and will probably still be running when the sun is but a cold gray orb in darkest space. It's also slow, hitting 60 mph in 9.0 seconds—except when its hybrid battery is depleted, in which case we're talking more like 10.2 seconds. The Corolla Hybrid's pleasures are cerebral rather than visceral. It's like the opposite of a Ram TRX. Please keep reading.
While this review concerns the all-wheel-drive Corolla Hybrid, which is new, we should also mention that the front-drive Corolla Hybrid is back and positioned to appeal to those miserly types who find an all-wheel-drive Corolla just too indulgent. In LE trim, the 2023 front-drive hybrid, at $23,810, is priced $1250 lower than the 2022 model and earns a 50-mpg EPA combined rating. The all-wheel-drive LE, by comparison, costs $25,210 and gets a 48-mpg EPA combined rating. Despite its extra motor on the rear axle, the all-wheel-drive hybrid is no more powerful than the front-drive car. Both are rated at 134 net horsepower and 156 lb-ft of torque. That's up from last year's 121 horsepower and 105 lb-ft, but a RAV4 Prime this is not. Still, the last Corolla Hybrid we tested was considerably slower, at 10.7 seconds to 60 mph.
Our SE all-wheel-drive test car earns the lowest EPA-rated combined fuel economy of any Corolla Hybrid, notching a still impressive 44 mpg. And on our 75-mph fuel-economy loop, the Corolla returned 40 mpg, very close to its EPA highway figure of 41 mpg. But in real-world driving, we tended to be more aggressive with the throttle, as it's difficult to practice restraint when, for instance, a trip from 50 to 70 mph requires 6.4 seconds of Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder fury. The 2ZR-FXE 1.8-liter four tries its best to stay in the background, but accelerating at any rate higher than tepid requires rpm to meet CVT for an unholy battle in which there are no winners. The Corolla Hybrid begrudgingly dispatches the quarter-mile in 16.9 seconds at 80 mph.
Much better, then, to take it easy and allow the Corolla to lean on its electric side as much as possible. The lithium-ion battery stashed under the rear seat is new, replacing the previous nickel-metal hydride unit, although it still doesn't allow for much EV range. But the three electric motors (93 horsepower and one with unspecified output in front, 40 horsepower rear) are muscular enough to keep the Corolla Hybrid moving at highway speeds if the battery has sufficient charge. Climbing the long grade up to the Natchez Trace Parkway outside Nashville, Tennessee, required all hands on deck from both sides of the powertrain, but the drive back down was silent and serene as regenerative braking refilled the depleted battery. A Corolla Hybrid driver would, we hope, derive satisfaction from banking energy on the way down the hill instead of just warming up the brake rotors (everyone has a different definition of thrills).
Besides the upgraded powertrain, Toyota bestowed a few other tweaks upon the 2023 Corolla. A revised front end features headlights that evoke an evil jack-o'-lantern instead of a Volkswagen GTI, and all grades get an 8.0-inch Toyota Audio Multimedia system that includes wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Like in other contemporary Toyotas, the stereo's interface offers a knob for volume but not one for tuning. If the touchscreen frustrates that endeavor, you can always bellow “Hey, Toyota!” and summon the voice-activated assistant to do your bidding. As the cool kid of the Corolla Hybrid lineup, the SE model offers the $600 option to belt out the tunes with a nine-speaker, 800-watt JBL system that uses a 10-inch subwoofer.
The SE also wears 18-inch wheels with 225/40R-18 Dunlop SP Sport 5000 tires, which probably explains why its fuel-economy rating is lower than that of the LE, with its modest 16-inch wheels and tires. The SE's low-profile rubber looks sporty, but doesn't really justify its beefed-up sport seats with their prominent bolsters—we measured 0.80 g on the skidpad. A nonhybrid 2020 Corolla XSE sedan returned 0.82 g, so if you want more than that, you'll need a Corolla of the GR variety.
Speaking of which, the Corolla lineup is now genuinely bewildering, with a sedan and a hatchback, hybrid and conventional powertrains, front drive or all-wheel drive, and LE, SE, XLE, and XSE trims. Then there's the GR, the SE Hybrid Infrared Edition, and probably some regional niche models yet to come (Ray Bourque Is a National Treasure Boston Edition, D.B. Cooper Northwest Value Pack). So allow us to make a suggestion for you all-wheel-drive Corolla Hybrid intenders: Go for the base LE rather than our $28,615 SE.
The tarted-up SE is pretty, but the LE is honest: 16-inch steel wheels and just enough frills to satisfy. Winter isn't quite here, but we can already picture the Corolla Hybrid with the wheel wells caked in slush, cruising past a gas station because it doesn't need to stop. You'll be reminded of the gloriously low cost per mile every time you turn the metal key in the not-push-button ignition. Hey, if you're going pragmatic, go all the way.
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