February 4, 2023

PROS:

  • Comfortable, calm ride
  • Affordable
  • Boomin’ sound system

CONS:

  • Underpowered
  • Too few USB ports
  • Somewhat anonymous

EDITOR’S QUOTE:

Toyota’s little SUV doesn’t exactly reach out and grab you to make a first impression. But, spend some time with one and you’ll find a comfortable, capable partner available at a compelling price.

With the rush of every manufacturer on the planet to meet the unyielding need for more and more crossover SUVs, every consumer everywhere seemingly yearning for the things, there’s enough volume there for manufacturers to come up with their own interesting, unique take on the segment. Something quirky, something different, something perhaps a bit weird.

The 2023 Corolla Cross is none of those things. From the conservative exterior to the monotone interior, Toyota’s little SUV doesn’t exactly reach out and grab you to make a first impression. But, spend some time with one and you’ll find a comfortable, capable partner available at a compelling price.

Growing up

It almost feels a bit derivative for Toyota to call its littlest SUV the Corolla Cross, milking nearly 60 years worth of name recognition for small, value-oriented motoring. But the Corolla Cross is very much a bigger, taller version of the stoic Corolla, and for that reason you have to respect the no-nonsense nomenclature here.

That said, for a crossover SUV that shares so much with the sedan, on the outside there’s very little visually to connect the two. It starts up front with a tall, dark grille that itself sits on top of more dark material, some black plastic cladding that runs all the way around the car, forming the lower extents of the fenders, rocker panels, and rear bumper. This gives the car a slightly chunky, vaguely rugged look that’s necessary for this segment.

The blocky fender flares help in that regard, too, highlighting the rear tail-lights, which stand out from the receding flanks of the car. A tiny spoiler mounted on the top of the hatch gives only the tiniest of sporting pretensions, mounted just aft of the only real bit of visual flare: a tiny chrome badge that says “Corolla Cross.”

All that cladding on the front, back, and sides pairs well with the Blue Crush Metallic paint, a color that, like the rest of the car, is pretty straightforward.

While the outside of the Corolla Cross doesn’t share too much with its namesake, it’s a completely different story on the inside. The interior is an almost identical clone of that found in the Corolla hatch and sedan. Mind you, that’s not a bad thing. Surely it helps keep the cost down, a factor I’ll be referencing a lot in this review, but regardless it’s a nicely laid out and well-made space.

The dash is a combination of simple, clean shapes of soft-touch plastics embossed with an unfortunate faux leather pattern, complete with pretend stitching. With so many premium manufacturers like Volvo and Mercedes-Benz going out of their way to offer vegan interiors, I’m inclined to say it’s time for manufacturers to give up on the pretend leather patterns.

Materials overall are good, hard plastics limited to the lower door cards and center console between the seats, though the headliner does feel a little cardboardy. Only the gloss piano black surfaces around the shifter and infotainment system are a real bother. They’re impossible to keep clean at the best of times and, given how your average Corolla gets used, they’re liable to be properly filthy in the wild.

The center stack contains a simple, separate HVAC row with a pair of temperature knobs for driver and passenger, a few physical buttons, and a little LCD for temperature and mode readouts. Up above the vents you’ll find the main infotainment touchscreen, eight inches in the XLE and standing proud out of the dashboard.

This is flanked with another pair of knobs, including one for volume thank goodness, plus eight buttons for going home or skipping straight to various sections of Entune. Entune itself is, well, Entune, dated and tired but perfectly functional. There’s no navigation out of the box, you’ll need to install that separately, but if you’re going to go through the trouble of connecting your smartphone I’d say you might as well just use either Android Auto or Apple CarPlay. Either of which work just fine here so long as you don’t mind plugging in.

That means the lone front USB port up front will be used to drive the infotainment experience. There’s a wireless Qi charger, too, but if your passenger wants to gain a little juice and use their phone at the same time they’re out of luck. Rear-seat passengers, meanwhile, get one each of USB Type-A and USB Type-C.

The gauge cluster is a large, centrally mounted LCD. A physical tachometer runs up the left side and, on the right, separate dials for fuel level and coolant temperature. That large central LCD doesn’t offer much in the way of customization, its middle section able to cycle through things like trip info and ADAS status — all the usual stuff and nothing too flashy. Much like the rest of the car, then.

There is, though, one thing that’ll make you sit up and take notice: the nine-speaker JBL sound system. This thing kicks. Sure, it lacks a little finesse, and I had to drop the bass in the settings before I could really hear the lyrics clearly in most of the music I listened to, but for a car this affordable it’s a great system. Bass lovers will find little need to upgrade.

Patient driving

While so much of the car is fair to middling, if there’s one area sure to leave you wanting it’s the powertrain department. The Corolla Cross features a 169-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder paired with a continuously variable transmission. The CVT here does its best to ape a traditional automatic, changing ratios to simulate gear shifts every now and again, but still you’d best get used to the continuous droning complaints of each of the four cylinders whenever you push the accelerator flat to the floor.

And you’re liable to do that a lot. Anytime you want to get up a hill, for example, or accelerate to highway speed. Passing on a two-lane road? You’d best make sure the road is clear for a good, long way before putting on that turn signal. This is the same motor used in the smaller, 175-pound lighter, FWD Corolla. Here, dragging around a heavier, AWD Corolla Cross, it struggles.

It is, at least, frugal. The Corolla Cross in XLE trim is rated at 29 mpg city, 32 highway, and 30 combined. In my mixed testing I came in at 29.2 mpg.

Underwhelming though it may be, lack of performance is not the end of the world. The Corolla Cross is perfectly driveable and, if you’re a little less impatient on your commutes than I, you’ll be just fine. In fact, with the Corolla Cross’s relaxed suspension and comforting ride, there’s no reason to push.

Your back-seat passengers will probably appreciate your taking it easy anyway. There isn’t exactly a massive amount of legroom back there, but it’s enough, plus plenty of headroom. There’s seating for three-across, but unless your guests are small you’re better off keeping it to two and letting them use the flip-down armrest.

When rolling solo, the seats split and fold 60/40, giving easy access to the 25.2 cubic feet of storage space (slightly more, 26.5, if you go with the FWD version). The rear of the car is accessed through a power liftgate (part of the $1,250 Convenience Package), where the floor has handy cubbies on the left and right, perfect for stuffing avocados and other bits of produce from your grocery run that are otherwise liable to roll around on the ride home.

In terms of active safety, the Corolla Cross comes standard with Toyota Safety Sense 2.0, which includes the usual niceties like adaptive cruise and advanced lane-keep assist. It does a fair job of keeping you centered in the lane, but beeps annoyingly any time you stray near the lines.

If you want blind-spot monitoring, you’ll need to opt for at least the mid-tier LE model, which also gives you rear cross-traffic alert, ensuring you don’t back yourself into trouble. Finally, step up to the top-trim XLE and you also get parking assist sensors along with automatic emergency braking.

Pricing and Options

The base Corola Cross L starts at $22,445. The model you see here, however, is a top-trim XLE AWD, with a starting price of $27,625. $1,465 added on that banging JBL sound system, plus an integrated alarm, while $1,250 brought the power liftgate and sunroof to the party. Self-leveling and auto-dimming headlights add another $615, plus $249 for cargo mats and $299 for the crossbars on the roof rack.

Total price for the car you see here was $32,718, including a $1,215 destination charge. That’s for a fully loaded car, and one that feels like it, but the sweet spot is found on the lower-spec Corolla Cross LE in FWD, which you can get with the brighter, light gray interior and still spec many of the desirable options, walking away with a lot more money in your pocket.

Regardless how you option it out, you’ll wind up with a nice-driving, comfortable, and clean-looking SUV that’ll do a great job of hauling you and all your stuff wherever you need to go — just so long as you’re not in a hurry to get there.

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