You might think it’s a no-brainer, considering the insane popularity of crossovers, to build one based on the best-selling car of all time. And that’s exactly what Toyota did in 1994, when it released the RAV4, a plastic-fendered wagon built on Corolla bones with bits from the Celica and the Corona.
Only back then, we didn’t call these things crossovers. Toyota’s push into the so-called soft-roader market sparked the crossover revolution that resonates until this day.
Unfortunately, the RAV4 has grown out of the affordable compact class. Now sharing platforms with the Camry rather than the Corolla, it is priced far beyond the capabilities of many first-time buyers. Enter the Corolla Cross, designed to fill that niche the RAV4 left behind, and debuting in global markets like the ASEAN ahead of release in high-income countries like the United States.
But is it affordable enough?
Let’s get this out of the way: The Cross looks nothing like a Corolla. Instead, it rips a page right out of the RAV4’s techno-origami playbook, but with edges softened to appeal to a more general audience. So, the big blistered fenders have softer edges, and wrap around a slightly smaller wheel and tire package. The front end still has a grille large enough to swallow stray cats and smaller cars, though most of it is filled in with black plastic instead of radiator. And the incredibly long front overhang leaves enough space between that radiator and grille for another engine.
At a glance, ground clearance isn’t all that impressive for a crossover, but at 163mm, it’s enough to clear most potholes and humps, and you aren’t likely to catch the front bumper on even the steepest ramps. The shorter wheelbase is less obvious—60mm down on the Corolla, and it presents a pretty aggressive and imposing package when put beside its more sedate sedan counterpart.
On the inside, however, you finally find the Corolla you were looking for. Everything, from the dash layout to the materials, is immediately familiar. Granted, everything is rendered in varying shades of gray, but at least they’re classy shades. While most high-contact surfaces are soft and pliable, there are hard plastic bits hidden here and there, as in the small dash cover to the left of the steering wheel. And the seats are nothing to write home about. While they’re well-padded and supportive, they are covered in a plain black nylon fabric that feels more Vios-level than Camry-like, and the taller seats combined with the shorter wheelbase eat up precious knee room.
That said, interior space is still huge, and the taller roof and big windows do a lot for interior ambience. The Cross uses a torsion beam rear suspension to save space compared to the sedan, and you do get a pretty big cargo area, at 440 liters—plus an extra hundred in the spare-tire compartment—but the need to make space for the hybrid battery means that the rear seat cushion sticks up over the load floor. Which means a big step between the seat and the trunk when the seats are folded. While there’s still a lot of room for groceries, loading bicycles or balikbayan boxes isn’t as easy, and you definitely can’t sleep laid out over that step on impromptu car-camping trips.
If you do feel like heading out into that great wide somewhere, the familiar 138 hp 1.8-liter engine will get you there nicely. It’s the latest in a line of 1.8-liter units dating back to 2007, mated to the same continuously variable transmission as in the regular sedan. At a few hundredths under 11sec from 0-100kph—on a ‘green’ engine, no less—it’s only 0.2sec slower than the Corolla Hybrid I tested. Surprising, given the lower torque and greater weight.
The difference in fuel economy is hardly surprising, though. While we got 14km/L in mixed conditions and over 20km/L on the highway, that’s an average of 5km/L worse than the Corolla Hybrid. It’s good for the size, as expected of the 2ZR engine, but not in the same class as the hybrid.
Ride and handling
To drive, the Cross is, unsurprisingly, Corolla-like. Albeit one with much more headroom and, consequently, visibility. Even though the natural seating position is low, as in the Corolla, the view out is impressive, and it’s easy to maneuver in traffic. The tall hood and the wide D-pillars out back present some issues while parking, but the Cross comes standard with parking sensors and a rear camera. For medium-size compact crossovers, this is about as painless as it gets.
Out on the open highway, the steering has a nice medium-light weight to it, and is precise and predictable. The suspension strikes a good balance between handling and comfort, though the torsion-beam rear-suspension downgrade does rear its ugly head when you hit sharp bumps, as it doesn’t feel as composed as the multilink rear on the Corolla. It also limits overall agility, as the Cross doesn’t feel as balanced as the sedan. The biggest handicap here are the tires: The 215/60 R17 Bridgestone Alenza 001s are a strange halfway-house between the Potenzas and the Dueler HTs. Granted, they have a lot more grip and stability than Duelers HTs or the older HLs, but they’re stiff and noisy, and squirm under load even at the recommended 35psi pressure. A considerable downgrade from the 225/50 R18 Michelins on the hybrid variant.
Another downgrade is in active safety. While stability control is standard, you don’t get Toyota’s active Safety Sense suite, or even cruise control. Which is something to think about if you drive long distances, as I do. Those features are real life savers, literally, for sleepy drivers on long highway stints.
That said, the Cross comes with the same crash protection as the hybrid, and also gets decent infotainment options, in the form of a seven-inch touchscreen with smartphone integration and Bluetooth. Unfortunately, it isn’t Android Auto or Apple CarPlay, just the same old T-Link that Toyota has been using for forever. It’s fiddly and requires an additional app and more setting up than Android Auto, but it does work. It allows you to stream navigation apps and even video through the in-car display, though the mirroring is often slow and buggy.
As a safety feature, video playback is turned off when the car is moving, but it’s nice to have when eating lunch in the parking lot—because, you know, you can’t eat inside the restaurant during certain quarantine classifications. Unfortunately for those in the back seat, there are no rear A/C vents here, which means it’ll be a hot lunch. But you do get a nice high-mounted fold-out center table with cupholders, which is a bonus.
So, that’s the Corolla Cross. A fine effort by Toyota, and spec for spec, well-worth the measly P50,000 premium over the Corolla. In terms of market positioning, it offers Subaru XV-level space for Honda HR-V money, and a lot of utility versus many small crossovers offered by major manufacturers at a similar price, despite the lack of toys.
It faces much tougher competition, however, from fully-loaded Chinese-branded crossovers and even Chinese-built crossovers such as the Ford Territory. Especially since it doesn’t have the same rugged go-anywhere vibe as many of its competitors. Still, given the branding, the utility, and the practicality of the Corolla Cross, it’s sure to find a lot of willing buyers in this status-conscious market, helping cement Toyota’s stranglehold on local market share in the months to come.
SPECS: 2021 Toyota Corolla Cross
Engine: 1.8-liter gasoline I4
Power: 138hp @ 6,400rpm
Torque: 172Nm @ 4,000rpm
Transmission: continuously variable