2023 Toyota Corolla Cross Hybrid First Drive: CUV By The Numbers

When I buy a car, I do it pretty unscientifically. I look at performance, spaciousness, and price, yes, but I can't pretend I am the most rational buyer; if the vibe on the test drive feels right, that matters vastly more in my mind than the specifics of the drivetrain or the cubic feet of cargo space. Call it romanticism—or irrationality—but I believe the most enjoyable cars are emotional purchases.

The 2023 Toyota Corolla Cross Hybrid respectfully disagrees with me. It is the accountant of SUVs. This crossover is built entirely out of logos; distinctive character is in very short supply in the Corolla Cross Hybrid, but it checks the spec-sheet boxes with gusto. It has great mileage, a competitive base price, and adequate space and power. It's simply that, in exchange for this numerical prowess, the Corolla Cross Hybrid has the personality of a warm glass of milk before a 9:15 bedtime on a Friday night.

Crunching the numbers

The Corolla Cross Hybrid is statistically very appealing. AWD is standard across all trims. Thanks to the fifth-generation hybrid architecture it shares with the Prius and Corolla, miles per gallon (mpg) jumps 40% over its non-hybrid sibling to an impressive (manufacturer-estimated) 45 mpg in the city, 38 mpg on the highway, and 42 mpg combined. This makes it the most efficient hybrid all-wheel-drive crossover currently on sale. Power is up 16% over the gas-only Corolla Cross, to 196 horsepower total.

It also has solid cargo capacity for its class, with 21.5 cubic feet of cargo space in the rear hatch (slightly less than many non-hybrid crossovers, but competitive), and 61.8 cubic feet with the second row folded flat (more than most other C-class SUVs, hybrid or otherwise). Passenger space is comfortable for four full-size adults; the rear seats were plenty roomy for my 6'1" frame with a 6'1" driver directly in front of me.

A strong value play

All trims receive Toyota's Safety Sense 3.0 package, which offers a fairly robust suite of driving assists that includes pedestrian detection, lane departure with steering assistance, and automatic high-beams. Day-to-day, all buyers will also enjoy standard wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, operated through an 8" touchscreen. Even with all of these features, the Corolla Cross clocks in at a base price of $27,970, which is solidly competitive for C-class crossovers, and extremely competitive for hybrid SUVs—only Kia's Niro and Sportage hybrids have lower base prices, and neither offer standard all-wheel-drive.

Mathematically, it all checks out pretty favorably for the Toyota.

Appeals to logic

Stylistically, Toyota has had a lot of memorable cars hit the market recently. Within the past few years, the company has given us the reborn Supra, the suddenly-sexy cyberpunk-style Prius, and the rally-ready hot-hatch GR Corolla.

The 2023 Toyota Corolla Cross Hybrid is not one of them.

The moment I turned my back on it, I forgot what it looked like. There is not a single crease in the sheet metal that isn't generic; there is no angle that is either bad or good. It is so plain, it feels like it's making a concerted effort to go unnoticed. It's not ugly. It's just bland.

A well-equipped cabin

Unfortunately, its anonymous character carries to the interior, and there, it begins to feel cheap. Hard textured plastic or piano black dominates every touchpoint in the entire cabin. The base model gauge cluster uses a tiny center screen for its dynamic display, which is hard to read; the upsell trims' digital cluster screen feels underwhelming in the gauge pod.

The 8-inch touchscreen feels tacked-on; there's nowhere to rest your finger underneath the screen, which makes directing accurate taps while the vehicle is moving a challenge. The screen itself also feels dwarfed by its massive piano-black plastic surround, adding to the cut-cost feeling of the cabin. For around $28K, I don't expect the pinnacle of luxury, but when compared with, say, Kia's hybrid Sportage, the Corolla Cross's cabin just feels cheap.

The seats are reasonably comfortable, though, and the climate control does have physical buttons for all of its controls, so it's not all bad. I suspect the standard wireless CarPlay/Android Auto will help a lot of buyers care less about the choices of plastic, and it would be hard to be frustrated with sitting in it for a while. 

Stellar stats, mediocre execution

Obviously, with a vehicle like this, driving dynamics are supposed to be forgettable. And yet here I found quite a bit that was memorable; unfortunately, it just wasn't all pleasantly so.

On the upside, the hybrid drivetrain itself is plenty quick. For people who find the lackadaisical acceleration of the non-hybrid Corolla Cross (or low-power competitors like the Honda HR-V) insufficient, the hybrid will definitely do the trick. Highway merges are no longer dicey; in the city pulling from a stoplight, it's downright spritely. Power delivery through the e-CVT is smooth, with no odd torque peaks or power lag to be found.

Unfortunately, the Corolla Cross Hybrid is blatant about delivering its power. The gasoline half of the drivetrain is noisier than it should be for an average four-cylinder, and the hybrid's silence only makes that ruckus more noticeable. Worse yet, the gas motor transmits vibration through the steering wheel right around 3,000 RPM. It's not severe, but since the Corolla Cross Hybrid uses an e-CVT, you'll end up spending a lot of time at 3,000 RPM, which made it get annoying fast for me.

It drives old-school

While the "N" and "V" portions of the Corolla Cross Hybrid's NVH err on harsh, the "H" has the opposite problem. Handling is on the very-loose side of the compact crossover spectrum, thanks to a combination of underweighted power steering and minimal anti-roll stabilization. Steering is lighter than I prefer, but it is accurate and has good feel on-center, which makes it a very easy drive.

The suspension tuning is less than optimal, however. The nose squats hard under braking, and body roll is noticeable at the speed limit. I'm not a proponent of overly-stiff commuter vehicles—why suffer on a daily drive?—but the Corolla Cross Hybrid is so soft that it feels both dated and larger than it really is. Despite the Corolla moniker it bears, the Cross doesn't possess a car-like demeanor; it carries its weight into corners much more like a three-row of yore.

2023 Toyota Corolla Cross Hybrid Verdict

Despite my many criticisms about the Corolla Cross Hybrid, it commits no unforgivable sins. There are a medley of crossovers in its class that improve on various aspects of its experience, but the raw data doesn't lie: The Corolla Cross is currently the most-efficient hybrid AWD crossover for sale, and also the cheapest.

And the audience for whom that's vital is, ultimately, who the Corolla Cross Hybrid wants to appeal to. It offers enough standard features (Toyota Safety Sensing Suite 3.0, wireless CarPlay) that, even in the base model, owners won't feel cheated. It is objectively the best in its competitive set at delivering good fuel economy. It has enough power that it can merge safely onto the freeway, and it's roomy enough that even statistical outliers of humanity will be comfortable. Standard all-wheel-drive will be a boon for buyers in snowbound regions.

For those who go to a rankings aggregator site and sort-by price, MPG, or standard features, the Corolla Cross Hybrid will do the trick nicely, because it'll appear at the top of every list. Just don't expect to be excited by it.