The Corolla Altis Hybrid is the essence of Toyota

This could finally herald the hybrid era for us
by Dinzo Tabamo | Apr 13, 2020

“Putting a hybrid powertrain in the Corolla reinvigorated both the tech and the car”

There was a time, not too long ago, that the success of the biggest carmaker in the Philippines rested heavily on the Toyota Corolla. And when I say success, I don’t just mean in the financial sense and in terms of having a massive 40% market share. This compact car, dubbed the best-selling model in the world, established Toyota Motor Philippines’ (TMP) reputation for quality and reliability that made it the industry titan it is today. 

I still remember the handsome AE92 Corolla that arrived with Toyota’s return to the Philippines after the economic downturn in the early ’80s. With its proud 16-valve engine, it was our first taste of modern automobile after Marcos-era economics decimated foreign car brands during the dark days of Martial Law.

PHOTO: Vincent Coscolluela

The ‘Big Body’ Corolla arrived in the early ’90s, and it would have dominated the competition with its clean, classic design had the Honda Civic and the Mitsubishi Lancer not been at the height of their powers. The compact-sedan war of that era was glorious, and it defined car culture for a generation. The ‘Love Life’ eighth-generation Corolla that succeeded the Big Body didn’t match the success of its predecessor; it had a smaller cabin for some reason, and the looks didn’t resonate as much. But a midlife refresh brought the ‘Altis’ name to the range, and the Corolla began to move upmarket since then. 

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The ninth-generation model arrived to much fanfare, and it was handsome and spacious again. The Corolla, now formally called the Corolla Altis, regained its former glory. But by the time its midlife facelift came, a seismic shift had occurred within Toyota. The Japanese carmaker revealed a masterstroke of platform-sharing called the Innovative International Multi-purpose Vehicle, and with it came the Fortuner, the Hilux, and the Innova.

We all know what happened next. Arriving in 2004, the Fortuner had a brawny turbodiesel engine, seven seats, and a cabin that felt more plush than the vehicle’s SRP suggested. Customers waited for 10 months to buy Toyota’s hot new SUV—unheard of at the time. The Fortuner and the Innova, the latter being the spiritual successor to TMP’s other pillar, the Tamaraw FX, brought TMP to new market heights.

PHOTO: Vincent Coscolluela

Generations 10 and 11 of the Corolla arrived like model-change clockwork, but to little fanfare. Incremental size and price increases drove the Corolla up to the SRPs of Fortuners and Innovas, and so Filipino families logically embraced the seven-seaters. Those in the market for sedans looked to TMP’s new sales darling, the Vios. The subcompact four-door was pleasing to the eye, roomy enough, and as reliable as Japan’s train system. 

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By 2017, the Corolla Altis only accounted for 2% of TMP’s total sales. Customers bought 10 times more Vios sedans and almost 11 times more Fortuners than Corollas that year. 

At this point, the compact segment had also gotten much better. The Honda Civic packed a terrific turbocharger, the Mazda 3 had basically achieved compact-hatch perfection, and even the late Ford Focus dazzled with its performance and features. The Corolla Altis was...well, a reliable sedan with a famous name. 

A new era indeed.

PHOTO: Vincent Coscolluela

When I heard TMP was launching an all-new Altis, I was already disappointed because I knew the best Corolla is the hatchback version, and TMP would never bring it here. The bulk of our Toyota products come from Thailand, where the Japanese carmakers have a large manufacturing base and can enjoy favorable ASEAN tariffs. Toyota Thailand does not have a Corolla hatchback in its inventory, but apparently, it has something almost as good—a hybrid. 

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Toyota is a pioneer in hybrid technology; it practically invented the segment. But if you thought Corolla sales were tepid lately, Prius sales are on life support. TMP sold zero Prii in our market last year. Many people still don’t understand how hybrids work, and many more would rather purchase 86 coupes or FJ Cruisers. 

But putting a hybrid powertrain in the Corolla reinvigorated both the tech and the car. First off, the design is a knockout. For the past decade or so, I felt that whenever Toyota would come up with a beautiful sedan form, it would pass the design on to the premium Lexus division. The Corollas looked...okay. But you look at the past two generations of the Lexus IS and wonder why Toyota didn’t do better. Not anymore. 

PHOTO: Vincent Coscolluela

The look is...well, perfect. The body soothes your eyes with its clean lines, yet holds your attention with its sharp stance. The headlights are sexy, but not reduced to mere slits. The wheel wells bulge slightly, making the car look low and stable. Intakes flank the glistening black grille, with the blue Toyota logo in the middle housing the Corolla’s advanced sensors.

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More than any Corolla since perhaps the Big Body, this model aces the lingering-look-back-as-you-walk-away test. In a remarkable twist of fate, the 2020 Corolla makes the current Lexus IS look dated. 

The cabin also exudes class. The materials feel as premium as they can in this segment, and visually, it’s a nice balance of black, chrome, and leather accents. Thank goodness Toyota is done with the tacky faux wood that plagued previous Corollas. Behind the steering wheel, the gauge cluster shows additional hybrid information like power, economy, and charge.

PHOTO: Vincent Coscolluela

What the buttons on the steering wheel controls is two of the Corolla Hybrid’s most polarizing features—infotainment and cruise control. First off, the adaptive cruise control is magnificent. I’ve seen Toyota’s research and technology regarding autonomous driving firsthand, during a visit to its Odaiba facility in Japan. Six years ago, the company was already experimenting with self-driving cars. But these things were always wishful thinking for our market. Japan market would get these magical features first, naturally, but our high tax structure meant these expensive safety and comfort options would be perennially absent. 

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Lo and behold, the Corolla Hybrid has arguably the best adaptive cruise control in the Philippine market—at least in anything without a European badge. Going down from Tagaytay, the Corolla dutifully followed the car in front of me, keeping its distance, and adjusting speed and even steering. I’ve tested this kind of system before in other brands, but this is the best implementation yet. I’ve even let go of the steering wheel for a few seconds, and the car just steered itself (you can’t let go for too long because the system will look for your hand or else it will deactivate). While holding nothing for those few moments, I felt the future.

In the Corolla Hybrid’s dismal infotainment system, however, I felt the past. Let’s be clear: If all you want is to connect your smartphone’s Spotify via Bluetooth, listen to radio, or play CDs, well, you can do it, but you’ll still be disappointed knowing what else is out there in other brands. 

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PHOTO: Vincent Coscolluela

TMP could have chosen any number of elegant aftermarket solutions for the double-DIN dashboard slot. Instead, we have an audio unit that belongs to an era when iPods were still in vogue. And as if it’s not bad enough that the unit doesn’t have Apple CarPlay or Android Auto capability, Toyota PH also opted for one with something called T-Link that will mirror your smartphone. It’s awful. You have to download an app before you can use it. It will mirror your phone, literally. What you will see is your exact smartphone screen on the car’s touchscreen, complete with empty spaces because of the disparity in the screen size of a smartphone and a double-DIN touchscreen. It’s a massive step backwards, and you can almost hear Mazda and Honda snickering. 

There’s nothing you can say against the Corolla Hybrid’s powertrain, however, and it is here that the car vindicates itself. It’s smooth, efficient, and even enjoyable in Power mode thanks to 121hp (combined) and 142Nm. I did feel that the marriage of electric motor and gasoline engine could use a bit more refinement; there’s a feeling of uncertainty at the edges of its driving behavior. I remember the Prius C having a more cohesive powertrain—the power delivery in that car was almost EV-like. 

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Puttering about a gridlocked city reveals the Corolla Hybrid’s ace: its bulletproof fuel economy. Many compact and subcompact cars are fuel-efficient on the open road and expressway. Most will do 13-14km/L easily as long as they’re moving and keeping to around 2,000rpm. The Corolla Hybrid holds steady at 17km/L in crawling Friday payday traffic. A pace like this would easily reduce a subcompact car’s fuel consumption to half that figure. 

Handling is good—for a Toyota. For ear-to-ear grins, I would still look to compacts from Honda or Mazda, but I would also opt for that trademark Toyota comfort any day. The Corolla Hybrid likes to glide, almost waft from point A to B. It reminds me of what endeared the Corolla—and Toyota—to many buyers in the ’90s. A brand loyalty that is present up to now.

PHOTO: Vincent Coscolluela

Thanks to current tariff conditions, we finally have an affordable hybrid vehicle, wrapped in the most beautiful Corolla body in decades. It has comfort, reliability, power, and real fuel efficiency—the kind that counts in real-world use. Sure, the infotainment sucks, but since it’s a double-DIN setup, you can easily remove it and install a head unit that’s better than many stock audio systems out there. Put an Alpine unit, just like what the ’90s Corollas had. 

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TMP doesn’t need the Corolla anymore. Of its 161,385 vehicles sold in 2019, Altis sales didn’t even reach 1% of that figure. But a good brand isn’t all about sales. Reminding people what the brand stands for—as well as what it can do—is just as important. The Corolla is back, and this time, it carries the best of Toyota, in a Toyota. 

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PHOTO: Vincent Coscolluela
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