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Toyota Corolla to get electric all-wheel drive?

Toyota says the Prius' new e-AWD will drop right into the new 2020 Corolla. Hmm...

Toyota

The 2020 Toyota Corolla sedan debuted on Wednesday at the LA Auto Show, and its big news is the availability of hybrid power for the first time in North America. The new Corolla Hybrid is pegged to achieve 50 miles per gallon in combined driving, which should help expand the compact's appeal to more buyers.

However, the passenger car market has been shrinking as more and more customers defect to crossover SUVs. For 2020, Toyota's Prius will look to stem the tide by offering all-wheel drive, but the new Corolla remains front-wheel drive. That may change, however.

In a one-on-one interview at the show on Wednesday, Toyota's Yoshiki Konishi, chief engineer for the Corolla, confirmed to Roadshow that the Japanese automaker is open to offering all-wheel drive in the new model. "From a technical point of view, we can do [it]. So I would like to study the North American market. So if the North American customer would like [us] to introduce Corolla all-wheel drive, I would like to introduce [it]," he said. 

Konishi-san continued: "The TNGA platform communization between Prius and Corolla sedan is 99-percent the same. The chassis and the underbody shared area." In other words, not only would an AWD Corolla be technically feasible, it'd likely be very easy — and relatively inexpensive — to do so.

Konishi-san confirmed that an AWD Corolla offering would rely on the same hardware as the new Prius, meaning an unconventional "through-the-road" system where there's no mechanical driveshaft between the front and rear wheels. The Prius' system, dubbed AWD-e, is an on-demand electric setup that employs an independent motor. The motor powers the Prius e-AWD's rear wheels from 0 to 6 mph automatically, and at speeds up to 43 mph "when needed," Toyota said in a press release. 

The 2020 Corolla is based on Toyota's TNGA platform, sharing much of its underpinnings with the Prius.

Toyota

The upshot is that this type of setup provides AWD traction with low weight and greatly reduced parasitic drag, which typically saps fuel economy. The down side, however, is that it isn't an all-speed driveline, meaning it won't be helpful at highway speeds, or for high-performance driving. It also essentially means that the only cost-effective way to offer AWD would be on a vehicle that uses the same powertrain as the Corolla Hybrid.

While all-wheel-drive offerings among affordable economy have historically been limited to smaller-volume players (e.g., Subaru Impreza and recently discontinued Mitsubishi Lancer), the new 2019 Mazda3, which also debuted on Wednesday at the LA Auto Show, will get optional all-wheel drive in North America for the first time. It will be interesting to see if this development touches off a trend among automakers looking to keep their passenger cars relevant in a market where many consumers are opting for crossover SUVs in part because of available AWD.