Mountain Wheels: Toyota’s Corolla hybrid delivers 50-plus mpg in a subtle package

Anyone looking for Prius mileage in a less awkward package might consider the attractive and equally efficient Corolla hybrid.
Courtesy photo

An indicated 54 mpg is a pretty enviable number in any automotive universe where it is also attached to a reasonably sized, well-sorted vehicle with a sticker price of just over $25,000.

As a result, the 2020 Toyota Corolla hybrid I drove was an interesting alternative to the load of high-dollar, moderate mileage SUVs and supercars you often see on these pages.

Could it be possible to adapt to a barest-boned, front-wheel-drive sedan and live happily, getting the same mileage as a Prius but with less of the dorktastic looks of the most recent models of the king of the hybrids?

After a week in mixed snow conditions and one very long outing from Lakewood to Avon and Beaver Creek (and back) on dry roads, I have to admit that I’m quite impressed with the rudimentary but fully functional and pleasant motoring the Corolla offered. That and the fact that it cost about $10 to get almost a full tank again later in the week — Greeley gas prices, sadly — suggested to me that this simple but pleasant automobile has a lot of potential.

Two spoiler alerts: First, the last time I had a Corolla, about three years ago, I was violently rear-ended by a driver in an old Cadillac SUV. The front end of their car absolutely disintegrated, and while the Corolla suffered serious external damage, I was uninjured and pleased by the little Toyota’s crashproofing.

Secondly, Corollas of the 2011 to 2019 vintage are indeed involved in a gigantic safety recall initiated by the company regarding electronic crash controls for the airbags and seatbelt tensioners. They’ve been very vocal and proactive about making the fixes.

Safety is a big deal as Corolla is absolutely at odds with your average full-size pickup and SUV on today’s highways (I swapped mine for a Chevy Silverado 2500, about as quantum a leap as possible), so Toyota is quick to mention the presence of its Safety Sense 2.0 package, even on this $25,233 LE level Corolla.

The package offers a precollision system with pedestrian detection, lane departure alert and steering assist, dynamic radar cruise control, automatic high beams and even electronic spotting of road signs — all features that were once ahead-of-the-curve offerings on very high-end imports.

Andy Stonehouse, Summit Daily News
Andy Stonehouse

Happily, my outing in the Corolla hybrid was incident free and earned the car as much as 55 mpg in steady cruising over those two high-altitude passes. Yes, you’ll get a bit of whine and buzz as the electronic continuously variable (one speed) transmission tries to eke all of the power it can at the steepest points on the road, but it’s pretty reasonable, with none of that “wait a moment” delay older hybrids used to offer.

Power here is provided by a new 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine and a pair of motor-generator units, developing an awe-inspiring 121 horsepower. Awe-inspiring is correct: If the Corolla can cruise at highway speeds over nearly 11,000-foot passes at highway speed with just 121 horses, your 400-horsepower SUV should be able to go 400 mph. Point here for Corolla.

A super-compact, nickel-metal hydride battery pack lives under the rear seat, meaning a full-size trunk with 60/40 split rear seats that comfortably allowed a ski bag and gear to be loaded.

The battery allows both very short, low-speed all-electric cruising and, as I found while flying along at highway speed, full EV mode when there is a light acceleration load. If you want to immediately harness more of the power, you also can click it into Sport mode: the mode and EV buttons are practically the only controls on the Corolla’s plain-Jane console, plus a downhill braking gear.

The car’s so light that the braking gear comes in handy, otherwise you might hit 90 mph heading down from the tunnel. Regenerative brakes also might seem heavy on your first outing in the car, but they’re manageable and effective at recharging the battery while underway.

Yes, you get cloth seats with zero lumbar adjustment at the LE level, but they were just fine. The eight-inch Entune touchscreen display seems like a bit of dash-filling overkill when not pre-loaded with navigation but will easily sync with Apple CarPlay or other apps to replicate those services.

I like the rimless rearview mirror and the simplified heating and air conditioning controls with two real fan and temperature knobs and plenty of settings for summertime energy-efficient air recirculation.

I guess the best part is that the promised 52 mpg happens very easily and does not involve the weird rear glass, goofy gear controllers or assorted oddities of the Prius. It’s just a regular car with astounding mileage. There’s not much wrong with that.

Andy Stonehouse’s column “Mountain Wheels” publishes Saturdays in the Summit Daily News. Stonehouse has worked as an editor and writer in Colorado since 1998, focusing on automotive coverage since 2004. He lives in Golden. Contact him at

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