When I was asked to review Toyota’s Corolla Altis Hybrid, I knew I couldn’t pass up the chance to drive my first Corolla sedan in over thirty years. After all, the pandemic has made us nostalgic for the good old days—and the late 80s were quite memorable years for me—and that old Corolla, my very first car by the way, was there to witness some of the most enjoyable road trips.
For most of my college years, I took public transport or borrowed the family car to get to class in UP Diliman. This changed in 1988, my senior year, when I inherited my older brother’s Toyota Corolla—which in turn was handed down to him by an uncle. The Corolla, if I remember it right, was a rather commonplace E50 model from 1977, but repainted to look newer than its real age and spruced up with “mags” (the outdated term for alloy wheels) to make the Toyota look sportier than it originally was.
This was a time in UP and in most campuses around the country when owning a car, even a hand-me-down from 1977, was something of a rarity (it was also the time in UP when the parking lot across Palma Hall was still relatively empty). Indeed, in a time when most middle-class families had only one, maybe two, cars in their garage, you merely bought what you could afford – a vehicle to get you from point A to B, primarily. Back then only the wealthiest had the means to purchase separate cars for city and cross-country driving; or cars that best expressed the varied lifestyles and personalities of individual members of the family.
The economic boom and liberalization policies that followed the turbulent 80s democratized car ownership and ushered in many more brands and models in the Philippines. Along with these came the growth of automotive journalism and the proliferation of car magazines in the country. By the turn of the century, the role of private cars had evolved from mainly utilitarian modes of transport to indicators of wealth, status, and—a concept new to most car buyers at the time—personality! “You are what you drive,” a variation of the consumerist maxim “you are what you buy” has since become the subtle message employed by car brands and journalists to promote car models by tapping into the egos and insecurities of the car-buying public—men, mostly.
My humble Corolla would be a victim of this narcissistic trend, and by the mid-90s, I had lost my appetite for hand-me-down cars and budget models entirely (the Corolla was passed on to a police nephew years before; in hindsight, a mistake, because vintage Japanese cars are highly collectible these days). It’s only recently, and amid our current climate crisis, that I’ve started to rethink my relationship with cars and the role of private vehicles in our society.
Fast forward to 2021 and the Toyota Corolla Altis Hybrid waiting to be reviewed in my driveway is my first reunion with a Corolla sedan since my late college years. Naturally, the latest model, the 12th generation of the Corolla, is a huge upgrade – a larger, more comfortable, and better performing car in every way. And though the top of the line 1.8V Hybrid Altis variant feels more upmarket than I expected, it’s good to know that it hasn’t lost its utilitarian appeal despite the leather interiors and premium amenities. Indeed, it’s still very much the reliable and economical car I’ve come to know from experience, an understated vehicle for everyday driving. Now equipped with Toyota’s proprietary hybrid system, this one adds an environmental dimension to the mix. I’m enjoying this reunion already.
Unlike my old Corolla which went through several upgrades and accessories to keep it up to date, the model’s package is pretty complete as it is: with LED lamps, 17” alloy wheels, LED information displays, a touch screen entertainment system, and genuine leather seats.
The continuous variable transmission (CVT) and 1.8 inline four-cylinder engine of the Corolla Altis are light years away from my old E50 model’s clunky 60-horsepower inline engine and stick(y)-shift transmission. Indeed, the performance of the latest Altis model is comparable to more expensive sedans in some ways. I suspect this is the result of Toyota’s New Global Architecture which introduced a new way of building cars from the ground up to create a more satisfying driver experience.
Speaking of which, the active-safety technology of the Altis is where it comes closest to luxury car territory. In 1977, the year my old Corolla was released, rear passenger safety belts were optional, and airbags were unheard of in our corner of the world; the new model on the other hand, comes equipped with Pre-Collision System (PCS), Dynamic Radar Cruise Control (DRCC), Lane Tracing Assist (LTA) and Lane Departure Alert (LDA). All these safety features, plus seven airbags, a rear camera monitor, clearance sonars, and vehicle stability control, are often only found in cars with much higher price tags. And even without the hybrid system in the package, those features alone would make it a convincing choice for safety-conscious drivers. Then again, it’s precisely Toyota’s tried and tested hybrid technology that gives the new Corolla its single most compelling feature – and for me personally, the sweetest part of my reunion with a car model I once wrote off entirely.
Ironically, the unique selling proposition of the Corolla Altis, the hybrid technology, is also one of its least visible features. Apart from two simple ‘hybrid’ badges on the car’s exterior, there’s little else that tells onlookers that it’s different from other Altis models on the road, or for that matter, equipped with Toyota’s advanced fuel-saving technology (especially since you don’t hear the motor running until the fuel engine is fully engaged).
Although Toyota’s series-parallel hybrid technology has improved since my first time to drive their Prius model over a decade ago, the fundamental concept remains the same: the vehicle is powered by combining an efficient gas engine and a high output electric motor to increase fuel mileage and reduce carbon emissions. In certain driving conditions, like while idling or at low speed, the rechargeable hybrid battery can be engaged solely. However, unlike with a pure electric vehicle (EV), a hybrid like the Corolla Altis still requires refueling; yet unlike a dedicated EV, the hybrid doesn’t need to be plugged into an electric source to recharge its internal batteries. (The battery of a plug-in hybrid or PHEV on the other hand is recharged via an on-board charger or an external source).
Conveniently, the hybrid battery of the Altis recharges on its own using power from the fuel engine and kinetic energy recovered by the motor generator when braking. In a perfect world, we’d all be driving dedicated electric vehicles, but until the number of public charging stations increases significantly, hybrids of all types (mild parallel or series-parallel like the Altis) are currently the most practical fuel-saving alternative in the country.
So, considering the cost-savings and environmental benefits of driving a hybrid, why aren’t there more people driving them on the streets? The high sticker price of a hybrid vehicle, regardless of the brand or model, used to be the biggest barrier, but with the Corolla Altis Hybrid selling for a more affordable PHP 1.610M, that should be one less argument against the cost of ownership.
Reliability is another argument voiced by sceptics, but the fact that Toyota alone has already sold more than 15 million hybrid electric vehicles worldwide (in 2020) is an indication of the technology’s maturity. (I just drove the Altis through thigh-high floodwater in the middle of a thunderstorm recently so that should put to rest one of the fears about the electric motor’s viability).
So why are many still reluctant to make the switch? I suspect it has to do with ignorance about the technology and how hybrids—and their owners—are perceived generally. Remember that maxim “you are what you drive?” Perhaps some take it too seriously?
Almost 25 years after the Toyota Prius first appeared on the scene, hybrids seem to remain typecast as the cars of choice of tree-huggers, new-age hippies, tech geeks and futurists—or more generally, people outside the car enthusiast mainstream. Some detractors even insinuate hybrids are unmasculine (is it because of the lack of a thunderous exhaust note or just a lingering macho bias against progressive environmentalism?). Anyone who still thinks hybrids are for yoga-practicing, latte-sipping sissies, should know that some of the most famous owners of hybrid cars include the likes of Leonardo di Caprio and Brad Pitt. Call them anything you want but unmasculine.
If in the past, hybrid technology has been associated with a particular type of lifestyle or shade of politics, I’m convinced we are way past that point already. Whether you believe in climate change or not, no one will deny the benefits of reducing fuel consumption and air-polluting carbon emissions. You won’t hear anyone argue against lower noise pollution levels either.
It’s for these reasons that many of the world’s greenest and most livable cities have mandated the use of electric and hybrid vehicles for taxis and other forms of public transport. And by tapping into a combination of altruism (saving the planet) and economic self-interest (fuel savings and tax breaks), most drivers seem to comply willingly.
This should be the same formula to convince potential car buyers here, but, even with the economic and environmental benefits aside, the Altis Hybrid can probably sell itself without leaning on its green credentials exclusively. Because as I discovered for myself, it drives much smoother and quicker than a similar model in its class with a single petrol or diesel engine powering it.
In gridlocked stop-and-go traffic, for example, you often feel—and hear—the internal combustion engine struggling with the gears shifting; with a hybrid, the silent motor is a dream. Most cars also struggle when accelerating suddenly or when overtaking, but not the Altis Hybrid; both the gas engine and battery power combine to produce more torque and speed. In short: a hybrid can probably outperform any fuel-driven car in its class without even having to compare their gas bills. Despite my impatient and spirited city driving, the Altis Hybrid averaged 18km/liter—with even better mileage achieved in less-congested suburban streets. (Not as impressive as a dedicated electric vehicle, but still far better mileage than any car with an internal combustion engine).
More than 30 years after my first experience with a Corolla (and 50 million units of the model sold since the product was first introduced in 1966, the year I was born), I’ve come full circle with one of Toyota’s most enduring car models. Sure, it’s no longer the budget option that it used to be, and with a hybrid variant now available, it attracts more approving looks than my old car could ever achieve. But the qualities I enjoyed most about that Corolla from my youth remain intact amidst the luxed up features and advanced hybrid technology, qualities like economy, simplicity, and reliability. Above all, a vehicle that sets out to do what cars in our era of climate change ought to be doing: take you from point A to B in the safest, cleanest, and most fuel-efficient manner necessary. It’s not the perfect green vehicle, but it’s proof of progress, indeed.