With an all-new hybrid-powered Corolla Altis, Toyota takes the lead in the engine room stakes. This is the first time in the Philippines for a mass-market model to offer a hybrid powertrain. Hybrid models to have hit the local market have been the exclusively hybrid Toyota Prius sedan and Prius C hatchback, the Honda CR-Z sports car, the Lexus CT 200h, and several other Lexus models. You’ll notice that all those cars—save for one Honda—are all from the Toyota/Lexus group.

But the Corolla Altis is a curious example. It has finally become a shining beacon of Toyota’s leadership in motive propulsion. But it hasn’t always been so. In fact, one can argue that it’s actually the first time for the timeless Corolla to take such an assertive and commanding role. 

The first Corolla saw the light of day in 1966. It had a pushrod overhead valve (OHV) engine, which was the predecessor of today’s universal overhead cam (OHC) engines. Ten years later, the Corolla still had a pushrod 3K/4K engine. Its counterparts from Nissan and Mitsubishi (the then Datsun 180B and Colt Lancer, respectively) already had the much sportier single overhead cam (SOHC) engines—the Lancer with its iconic Saturn engine. 

Overhead valve engines need stick-like pushrods to open and close the intake and exhaust valves while overhead cam engines have the cam lobes directly actuating the valves, reducing weight, complexity, and engine height.  

It would take almost 15 years—1980—before the Corolla could boast an OHC engine with its legendary 2T motor. Meanwhile, the Lancer and 180B has had OHC motors since the mid-70s. 

Overhead cam designs also had an implication in terms of engine metallurgy. Most pushrod motors of the day were made of cast iron; OHC motors, on the other hand, had lighter and more heat-efficient aluminum cylinder heads atop cast iron engine blocks. (All-aluminum engines in compact sedans wouldn’t become commonplace until the late 90s, with Honda as the spearhead.)     

Fast forward to the late 80’s. By this time, everyone had OHC powerplants. The buzzword then was “multivalve.” Earlier OHC engines had only two valves (one intake valve and one exhaust valve) per cylinder. Multivalve engines had three or more valves per cylinder—usually two intake valves and one exhaust valve or two intake and two exhaust valves per cylinder. 

The 1989 Corolla GL (AE92) marked a milestone as the first 16-valve double overhead cam (DOHC) engine in a mass-produced model available in the Philippines. But Nissan actually had the first multivalve technology in the 12-valve SOHC engine of the box-type Sentra (B12), which appeared almost a year before the AE92 Corolla.         

Fast forward a bit to 1991. This time, the new technology was electronic fuel-injection. And this time, the Lancer trumps its class by offering EFI in its top-of-the-line GTi variant (which had 12 valves). A few months later, Nissan would trump that by matching EFI with twin cams and 16 valves in the B13 Sentra. The Corolla would have to wait until the “big body” Corolla (AE101) of 1993 to get fuel injection.

Forward to the mid-90s. This time, the Honda Civic was a major player in the compact sedan category—and the big buzzword was “VTEC.” This was the age of variable valve timing—a technology developed and perfected by Honda in the crucible of Formula One racing, and which soon found its way under the hood of many Hondas.

It would take a full model change for Toyota to bring in its own VVTi variable valve timing technology under the hood of the Corolla. (Mitsubishi would be even tardier, waiting until the 2008 Lancer to have its own MIVEC variable valve-timing tech.)       

The intervening years would see relatively little development in engine tech among compact sedans. Perhaps the only two standouts would be Mazda and Subaru; Mazda with its Skyactiv-G motor used in the Mazda3, which boasts current state-of-the-art direct fuel-injection and an exclusive  diesel-like ultra-high-compression engine (14:1, when most other petrol-engined cars have 9:1 or 10:1). 

Subaru, of course, has become synonymous with its lovely boxer engines—an old but unique design shared only by one other car brand, Porsche. The boxer engine’s claim to fame is its horizontally opposed cylinder/piston layout. The movements of the pistons look like they’re boxing against each other, hence the name. This layout allows the engine to sit much lower than a typical inline engine for a lower center of gravity (which helps a car’s handling) and which gives boxer-equipped cars that characteristic thumping idling sound.    

Today, most compact cars have the now-traditional DOHC 16-valve EFI format with displacements ranging from 1.6 to 2.0 liters. A couple (i.e. Honda Civic RS Turbo and Volkswagen Lavida) has veered towards the turbocharged small-displacement sub-1.6L direction. 

Which leaves the all-new Corolla Hybrid as the only compact sedan available in the Philippines with a truly unique powerplant. It may still have a relatively large 1.8L petrol four-cylinder VVTi engine, but coupled with intelligent electric propulsion, it should be capable of traveling far more—perhaps the double the full-tank range—than any of its now seemingly “old-tech” rivals.

It may have taken more than half a century, but the Corolla is now the undisputed leader in the “let’s see what’s under the hood” bragging rights. Thankfully, its environment-friendly fuel efficiency and reduced exhaust emissions, mile for mile, are far from just being the icing on the cake.

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