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DRIVEN: 2021 Toyota Corolla Hybrid [Review]

Toyota’s Hybrid Corolla Has Impressive Fuel Efficiency But A Loud Tiny Engine

2021 Toyota Corolla Hybrid Review

In 2020, Toyota released the hybrid Corolla in the United States for the first time. For its second year, the 2021 Toyota Corolla Hybrid got a very slight refresh.

I was pleasantly surprised to find the rear seats spacious and it easy-to-achieve 48 mpg regardless of where and how I drove. I was taken aback by how loud the 1.8-liter engine was under load, however.

Let’s dive into what makes this car interesting, and where it falls short.

2021 Toyota Corolla Hybrid Review

For $3,000 more than a base-model, gas-powered Corolla (which gets an impressive 34 mpg combined), you can opt for the 2021 Toyota Corolla Hybrid which boasts an average of 52 mpg. For drivers who average 12,000 miles a year, that’s 122 gallons of savings, meaning you can spend less time at the pump and more time on the road.

When I drove it through the canyons in Malibu, California in Power mode it still showed over 45 mpg, which is probably pretty standard regardless of driving style or roads. Though I was impressed with the hybrid Corolla’s gas mileage, this economy is now pretty standard for most hybrids.

One big caveat with the hybrid model is that Toyota only offers it in the most basic LE trim level. And the only optional add-on is blind-spot monitoring, which costs an additional $500. Though Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, radar cruise control, lane-keeping assist, keyless entry, and push-to-start are standard, you can’t get heated seats or a sunroof as you can on the higher-end Corolla trims, such as XSE — a bit of a bummer.

For those looking for Prius-like fuel efficiency but better looks, the 2021 Toyota Corolla Hybrid is a safe choice and a budget-friendly one, coming in under $25,000. But it does come with a few surprises.

1.8L Gas Engine: A Lot of Noise & Not Much Speed

When I think of hybrid or electric cars, I think dangerously quiet. However, the 2021 Toyota Corolla Hybrid, which has a 1.8L four-cylinder gasoline engine is actually pretty noisy. When you’re speeding up to pass or merging onto the freeway, you’ll hear the gas engine really putting every ounce of juice to work. When coasting or in traffic, the car will most likely be silent as it switches into Electric Vehicle (EV) mode.

With music playing, you may find it easy to dismiss the noisy Atkinson engine. Even at 1,000 or 2,000 RPM, the car is very quiet, as you’d expect. Because the gas engine only puts out 121 hp and 105 lb.-ft. of torque, you’ll always hear a loud grunt when accelerating. I often noticed that the gas engine flicked on and jumped straight to 4,000 rpm or more — hence the loud noise level in the cabin.

By the way, getting to 60 mph takes a whopping 10.7 seconds. That’s 2.8 seconds slower than the gas-powered Corolla. Although it’s slow, it handles better than expected. A cruise through the Malibu canyons left me impressed with the steering response and how planted it felt on sweeping mountain roads.

Seamless Hybrid Experience

Toyota has been making hybrids for over two decades, and the 2021 Toyota Corolla Hybrid takes advantage of the manufacturer’s years of experience perfecting their hybrid systems. In the driver’s seat, you’ll be surprised that there is no way to feel when the gas engine turns on or off. But it’s always there waiting for you.

After accelerating up to speed from a red light, the tachometer drops straight from 4,000 rpm to 0 rpm as EV mode is engaged. When the car switches from full electric to gas-assisted mode, this transition is pleasantly seamless. When I accelerated abruptly, EV mode deactivated, and the gas engine turned on.

Toyota states in the owner’s manual that you can use EV drive mode “when driving short distances to reduce noise early in the morning and late at night in residential areas or to cut emissions when parking in a small garage or indoor car park.”

However, I found that the manual button for EV mode was useless. I’d go 21 mph, hit the EV button, and get an error that:  “EV Mode is Unavailable, Speed Range Exceeded.” Moreover, if I started at 0 mph in EV mode and tried to speed up t0 10 mph while staying in EV mode, I was moving about as fast as a tired mouse!

Whenever I hit the accelerator pedal, even with a fairly light foot, EV mode turned off and the car kicked on the gas engine, instantly anticipating more abrupt acceleration. This even happened in Eco mode.  I found that I couldn’t make it through my neighborhood without an EV mode error.

I felt almost no difference between the different driving modes. 90% of my driving was in Eco. The four modes (including the somewhat useless Electric Vehicle mode) are EV, Eco, Regular, and Power. Regular mode feels just a bit more powerful than Eco mode with the throttle being more responsive and kicking the gas engine on sooner. In Power mode, the acceleration difference can be felt but only past about 3,000 rpm. If you’re trying to pass, I recommend you turn on Power mode and keep it there.

Comfortable But Basic Interior Design

On the inside of the 2021 Toyota Corolla, you will find the seats are fairly comfortable both for the driver and passengers. You could easily tackle 2-3 hour road trips in comfort. Passengers in the rear will be surprised by the roominess. Seated behind the driver’s seat, I found I had plenty of knee room (I’m 5’8″ for reference).

The rear center arm-rest, with cup-holders, however, does not stay in place — it literally flops down. I’d only trust it with a closed bottle, but not an open cup. As is typical with smaller sedans, there are no vents for A/C in the rear. When configuring a Corolla Hybrid, you get two interior choices: all-black or two-tone. And remember, with the LE trim package, additional creature comforts like heated seats are not an option.

A Few Nice Driver Add Ons

Radar cruise control is a must for any driver who deals with traffic or spends hours on the freeway. And thankfully, it comes standard in the 2021 Toyota Corolla Hybrid. Unlike some radar cruise systems, the Corolla has full-speed range, meaning you can use it in slow traffic. Don’t mistake that for forward collision avoidance.

Another gem of a function is brake-hold. It may seem silly but once you are accustomed to it, it’s hard to live without. Imagine you’re at a red light that’s lasting for what feels like an eternity. Turn on brake hold. You can take your foot off the brake pedal, and the car will stay put. Once you tap the accelerator, the brake hold will automatically turn off. Viola — it’s magic!

Surprisingly Spacious Trunk

Having driven and reviewed the 2021 Toyota Corolla XSE Hatchback recently, I was thrilled with the cargo space of the 2021 Toyota Corolla Hybrid. Although the Corolla Hybrid does not produce the best in-car sleeping arrangement as the XSE Hatchback did, overall, the Corolla Hybrid’s cargo room was practical and substantial.

As for the trunk space, holy cow! You can fit four to six carry-on-size luggage pieces without a problem. Without backseat passengers, you can fold down the rear seats for even more room. I was impressed with the versatility of the cargo space.

Solid Hybrid With Room For Improvement

Though the Corolla Hybrid has some solid features, it also has some downsides. Similar to the hatchback, only one USB port works for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. This port is hidden under the dash near the phone cubby. I was disappointed to have that wire and my phone tossing around near the shifter. There is a USB port perfectly located in the center console storage compartment which could hide the phone and wire easily if it were enabled for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

For passengers in the rear, having an air vent and sturdier center armrest would be welcomed. EV mode could be reprogrammed to make it usable in real-world conditions. And in terms of the design, aesthetically, the Corolla looks good to my eyes except for one spot — the gap between the hood and the headlights seems rather large and uneven. Overall, these items weren’t deal-breakers on the 2021 Toyota Corolla Hybrid, just minor inconveniences.

In conclusion, if you’re looking for great gas mileage, a seamless hybrid driving experience, plenty of cargo space, and passable looks, the 2021 Toyota Corolla Hybrid is a good value and worth consideration.

Find a Toyota dealer near you HERE.

About Ben Revzin

I am a 2x Miata owner, current Fiat 500 Abarth driver and lifetime car enthusiast. My portrait photography business led me to video creation and now the car video review creation has led to writing this for you to read here on Autowise! If it looks cute and feels quick, I wanna drive it!