2023 Toyota Corolla Hybrid AWD SE
Words and pictures by Mitchell Weitzman
What is it?
The preferred transportation piece of several hundreds of thousands each year, featuring a zap of electricity, style, and AWD ability, the Corolla line has rapidly expanded in the past couple years, with a first-ever hybrid option in the U.S., as well as a hatchback and AWD options, and even the GR Corolla super-hot-hatch. Not a bad time to be alive for Corollas, with the range of usual mundanity seemingly having a little fun. For 2023, all Corolla hybrids benefit from extra power and the option for all-weather AWD. There's also a stylish SE trim package that tightens up the looks. Could this be the best Corolla for the every person? MSRP on this Corolla Hybrid SE AWD stickers at $30,388 including destination, with options including a $600 JBL speaker option, $1,220 SE Premium Package, and a steep $631 accessory package of floor mats and other random items.
It's hard to argue against an overall 40 MPG. Sure, the window sticker states 44 combined, but I managed 40 during our week together. That may fall short of the estimate, but that's usually the case with most hybrid vehicles. No matter what way you look at it, though, 40 MPG is a highly attractive figure that will save you coin down the road and presents a reasonable alternative to the lack of any electric vehicles in this price category. For some, depending on their charging situations, a Corolla hybrid might even be cheaper to run (let alone much more convenient).
The last Corolla hybrid I tested was a dreadfully slow LE model. Dreadfully is far from an exaggeration when the suspect required over 10 seconds to hit 60 MPH from a standstill. Luckily, the new Corolla hybrid range all see an increase in horsepower, if a modest one, that noticeably improves acceleration. With power up to 134, a change of 13, but a large torque increase of 51 foot-pounds, 0-60 MPH now takes nine full seconds, still slow, but dramatically quicker than the prior Corolla hybrids. You won't win many drag races out on the boulevard, but you will at least beat other Corolla hybrids and older Priuses!
A bold and ingenious move by Toyota is to add all-wheel drive to several consumer sedans like the Camry, the Prius even, and now the Corolla. Besides Subaru's Impreza, there are few other affordable options with AWD that aren't crossovers. So, for those that do live in places like the Pacific Northwest that see lots of rain, or areas that get a lot of snow each season, cars like the Corolla are now truly viable options. It's not a state-of-the-art system meant to win World Rally Championships, nor would I trust it as much as a Subaru, but it will increase traction desired in everyday scenarios and hopefully limit how often you need to install chains. I didn't have a chance to test the capabilities myself, but the on-paper versatility is unmatched by cars like the Civic, Jetta, or Sentra.
For those concerned about price, the Corolla Hybrid SE with AWD can be had for about $28,000, an entry point that will be accessible by many, though this example has a few options that breach the 30-large mark. What must be noted is that the only Corolla that benefits from AWD (GR Corolla excluded) are the hybrid models. The hybrid's AWD comes courtesy of an electric motor that exclusively powers the rear wheels when needed. A simple method that forgoes a long and space-intrusive driveshaft from the engine.
The SE package, not previously offered on Corolla hybrids, also does add some visual tension that do make this an attractive little vehicle. The air scoops in the front are aggressive, some distinct side skirts, and there's even a fake diffuser that makes for the rear valance. It's all show with no go, but hey, decent looks are decent looks, and it does make the LE models look quite pedestrian when parked next to one another.
A lot of the positives listed above are coincidentally also the source of most negatives. For example, though this is a faster Corolla hybrid than before, it's still painfully slow. Peak acceleration also depends largely on the small battery's charge level, with a drop-off that renders it basically just the same as past renditions. Further, the non-Hybrid SE has significantly more power and shaves another full second off the 0-60 MPH sprint at eight seconds dead, and that's performance that remains accessible all the time.
40 MPG is a feat without doubt, but the front-wheel drive Corolla Hybrid LE I tested a year ago averaged an incredible 50 MPG. And when testing this car, I was trying, and I mean really trying to squeeze out every drop of fuel, and still only saw 40 on the digital gauge. If you don't think you need AWD and want to maximize your range from their modest 11-gallon fuel tanks, skip this model for their more rudimentary Corolla hybrid and you'll travel a few extra miles further per full tank. If you value increased performance, you can forgo the hybrid completely and have a 2-liter Corolla SE with FWD and still average nearly 35 MPG. Likewise, the last Honda Civic Touring I tested, with a gutsy 1.5L turbo engine and also FWD, averaged a real 35 MPG.
The interior has little to write home about—this is a boring, lacking, and drab environment. Honda and Mazda are both quite a bit ahead when it comes to cabin furnishings, with the Corolla having a basic interior reminiscent of the classic “rental car.” Regardless of that, the seats are comfortable and it has all the features and safety equipment you could want, but it's a very dull experience inside. At least this Corolla has the leather-wrapped wheel, as the standard Corolla unit is similar to coarse cardboard in texture and feel. Space is minimal, especially in the back seat, being considerably cramped for American-sized adults, but the trunk is decent thankfully. Also, be warned that road noise is quite high on the freeway, so be prepared for elevated volumes for both music and talking. Another item that comes across as cheap and distasteful is the gross badging on the rear, with an enlarged red SE badge awkwardly placed above the additionally awkward and large hybrid emblem, which also appears as crooked. One can't help but think every single name pasted across the trunk came from a generic selection at Autozone or eBay.
Despite some spicier looks and accents that come with the SE package, the driving experience is anything but. Toyotas have seen tremendous strides in this category, but they went from really boring to just now only boring. Nothing about the way this car drives is exciting, and the handling can be aloof and reluctant to change direction when you wrangle and attempt to provoke. Traction control intervenes in hasty cornering, too, as the car descends into understeer and naïve transitions. For the average buyer, none of this matters, but alternative choices are deftly graduated to a higher degree and exhibit some form of entertainment. The new Civic and Mazda3 are both further accomplished and engaging vehicles to drive in all manners. Also, don't be left thinking that the AWD system in the Corolla Hybrid will replace all Subarus on the road.
Toyotas are also known for annoying beeps and bongs, and the Corollas (unfortunately) delivers here, too. Just turning the car on will result in loud and sanity-depleting warning tones unless both the door is shut and your seatbelt fastened, even with the car completely stationary and in Park. Toyota is far from the only carmaker who does this, but it's just tiring how annoying new cars can be. Worst yet was the reminder for things you may or may not have left in the back seat. While a simple chime used to work as the industry-standard reminder here, Toyota has since decided to implement several loud excessive beeps upon locking the car if you've left something in the back seat. Trouble is, out of the five or six times this alarm sounded off, only ONCE did I actually leave anything abandoned in the rear. So, most of the time, the car simply was just losing its mind which in turn caused me to lose my own mind and look silly in crowded parking lots. Baffling, really, just how poorly executed and irritating these so-called help signals really are.
A compromise that will work for many
Despite the obvious deficiencies of this otherwise efficient vehicle, the Corolla is strong choice for the hundreds of thousands who buy them each year. It's not a fun nor compelling vehicle, but it is one that makes sense for those that like Venn diagrams and spreadsheets to make decisions. The hybrid's gas mileage also adds valid reasons to choose one, with MPG that is only bested by their own Prius. The Hybrid SE AWD here did deliver less MPG than expected, but it is a strong effort still, and the AWD will appeal to those who only ever considered Subaru Imprezas before. In all honesty, many will want the hybrid SE over the LE just for the looks alone. At least Toyota is an unexpected leader in choice among consumers now with all their model variants.
2023 Toyota Corolla Hybrid SE AWD
As-tested price: $30,388.
Pros: AWD unique in class; fuel economy.
Cons: Other Corolla hybrids get better economy.
For more car reviews and photos, visit theroadbeat.com.