Doubling Down on The Compact Hybrid Theory

We all have choices…

It's true. Customers like choices. They want to know if they made the right one. Sometimes, yes. Other times, it's back to the store they bought it from.

In the automotive business, rarely do you get a set of choices that offer almost the same kind of specification in two different packages. Toyota has plenty of these vehicles that offer the same driveline in multiple models. You can choose three different Toyotas with the 2.5-liter four-cylinder Hybrid driveline. In each one of these vehicles, you drive away with one of the best gas-electric combinations in the industry.

Now, Toyota is offering two vehicles with the smaller 1.8-liter gas-electric Hybrid driveline. This is not just any driveline, but the one that has sustained the Prius through the second to the current fourth generation. They have just added a Hybrid version of the new 2020 Corolla to sell alongside the venerable Prius.

In Europe and Asian markets, they sold a Corolla Hybrid model. This makes it the first time a hybrid version of the 46 million units (and counting) juggernaut have been sold in North America.

Why offer a Corolla Hybrid? Some demographic studies in the USA showed that some customers want the economy of a Prius in another package. We're not talking the Prius V, but a completely different vehicle, period. That same study showed that these customers would rather buy a Corolla with the Hybrid driveline instead of a Prius.

It makes sense. The 12th generation Corolla has been vastly improved. The Hatchback we received late last year served as a preview of coming attractions. Sure enough, the new 2020 Corolla Sedan wowed my colleagues with its handsome looks, improved quality and comfort, and the wider variety of drivelines available to Corolla customers.

2020 Toyota Corolla Hybrid LE

Toyota did not ignore the Prius entirely. For 2019, the pioneering Hybrid hatchback got a mid-cycle refresh that addressed some design quirks. They also reshuffled the model line with new trim level designations. Perhaps the biggest change was the addition of an all-wheel-drive system to the Prius.

The latter had a few heads scratching. However, there is a justification because of the popularity of the Prius in northern climates. By adding all-wheel-drive, Toyota figured to give people in the Northeast, Rocky Mountain states, and the Upper Midwest a Prius with better winter driving management. A novel idea, which puts Toyota further ahead of the pack in terms of offering products with a form of electrification.

Over consecutive weeks, Toyota sent up a 2020 Corolla Hybrid LE and a 2019 Prius XLE AWD-e for my evaluation. I figured a comparison is in order.

To begin, I must talk about the similarities. Both the Corolla Hybrid and Prius offer the same 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine with an electric motor, an electronic continuously variable transmission, and a sealed Nickel-Metal Hydride battery pack. The combined motor unit yielded a net rating of 121 horsepower for both models. Also, both models are equipped with a four-wheel disc brake system, as well.

This is where the similarities end. The obvious differences come into play for consumers who have been polarized by the overall design of the fourth-generation Prius. Rest assured, Toyota did some work to soften some of the quirks, such as a new set of headlamps and taillamp clusters. Gone are the 1950s "tail fins" from the back of the non-Prime Prius models.

However, a survey of potential customers indicated their preference for a Corolla with a hybrid driveline than a Prius. This actually happened, as part of the debut of the 2020 Sedan. You can have the same driveline of a Prius in a much more conventional – and vastly improved – car.

That is exactly what the Corolla Hybrid represents – conventional wisdom. You have an actual shifter to work the CVT. You have logical controls and the instrumentation right in front of you. The Prius is still designed as an advanced vehicle for an electrified age. My XLE AWD-e tester did have a head-up display, putting the speedometer in front of my face, but the rest of the instrumentation pod is dead center on top of the instrument panel. At least the Corolla's information screen is larger and with more screens to glean information from, compared to the Prius.

2019 Toyota Prius XLE AWD-e

Speaking of the infotainment screens, it is worth noting that not only the Corolla Hybrid is connected to the latest Entune 3 and Scout GPS navigation apps, it also gets Apple CarPlay. The Prius gets neither of these. A shame, really…

If there is another advantage that the Corolla Hybrid has over the Prius, it is about 160 pounds worth. That is how much lighter the Corolla Hybrid is compared to the lowest priced, front-drive Prius.  The result is another advantage – a rather important one: Fuel economy. The Corolla averaged 59.9 MPG, while the Prius AWD-e turned 53.1 MPG. It may seem like an unfair advantage due to the latter's all-wheel-drive system, but fuel economy matters when you are shopping for a hybrid.

Where does the Prius come up better than the Corolla Hybrid? You do lose cargo space in the Corolla Hybrid, even though the seatbacks do fold down. We're essentially comparing a conventional 13.1 cubic foot trunk against a 27.4 cubic feet space behind the rear seats. One thing to note is that the Prius with AWD-e gets a reduced cargo space down to 24.6 cubic feet thanks to the electric motor in the rear. It seems silly to start comparing these things, but you want to know, right?

Let's talk pricing, shall we? The base price of the Corolla Hybrid LE is $22,950. The Prius lineup starts at $23,770. Both are considered…ahem…affordable. There are a few things to keep in mind here. One, there is just the LE trim in the Corolla Hybrid, while the Prius is offered in six different models, including two with all-wheel-drive. Secondly, consider content between the two. The Corolla Hybrid LE has plenty of equipment standard and some amenities that are not available on the Prius. Lastly, consider what truly fits your lifestyle – which could be a simple choice between a conventional sedan and a future-forward hatchback.

We can go back-and-forth on which hybrid has the advantage over the other. The fact that we're talking about the Corolla Hybrid and the Prius in comparative terms is something no one ever thought possible until now. The playing field for compact hybrid automobiles is quite narrow, adding that Hyundai's Ioniq, Kia's Niro, and the Honda Insight compete against both Toyotas. Both the Hyundai and Kia offer their hybrid vehicles with two other propulsion options: A Plug-in Hybrid and a full battery electric model. The Prius does come in a plug-in version, called the Prime. The Corolla is not offered in a plug-in at this point.

Where I would single out both Toyotas is the fact that they have sold more parallel-type hybrid propulsion systems than anyone else. They were the first to market, alongside the two-seat version of the Insight. Since then, Toyota has proven their hybrid drivelines to be the most reliable among its competitors.

2019 Toyota Prius XLE AWD-e

It's great to have a choice among compact hybrid automobiles.

Prices as tested: 2020 Corolla Hybrid LE – $24,467; 2019 Toyota Prius XLE AWD-e – $32,508. Both vehicles featured in this article were provided by Toyota Motor North America

All Photos by Randy Stern

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