Toyota’s all-new Corolla hatchback: More haute than hot

By Jim Prueter

(April 30, 2018) Just over two years ago, Toyota announced it was killing off the Scion brand, which launched in 2003 hoping to attract trendy youthful buyers to the Toyota family.  By the end of 2016, Scion was toast and Toyota saw fit to rebadge the small, sporty FR-S as the Toyota 86. The diminutive iA became a Yaris subcompact sedan and the Scion iM hatchback became the Corolla iM hatchback.

Now for 2019, Toyota has completely jettisoned the iM Corolla Hatchback, launching a Corolla Hatchback (minus the iM). On sale this summer, the new Corolla Hatchback is a bit larger than the iM and is built on Toyota’s new TNGA (Toyota New Global Architecture) that underpins vehicles such as the Prius, Camry, Avalon, RAV4 and several Lexus nameplates.

The Corolla Hatchback also debuts with an all-new 2.0-liter 168-horsepower engine, replacing the lethargic 137 horsepower 1.8-liter four-cylinder found in the previous iM and other Toyota nameplates. There’s a choice of two transmissions: a new six-speed manual called iMT (Intelligent Manual Transmission), that utilizes what’s known as rev-matching because of its ability to adjust the engine for smooth downshifts; and a Dynamic-shift continuously variable automatic transmission with 10 simulated gears, Sport Mode, paddle shifters, and a “launch gear.”

For now, Toyota is keeping things simple with just two trim levels at launch: SE and XSE. Both come standard with alloy wheels —16 inches on the SE and 18 inches on the XSE. The XSE also adds upgraded alloy wheels, an attractive rear spoiler above the hatch’s rear window and chrome trim surround on the grille and deeper lower-body moldings.

Consistent with other recently introduced Toyotas, Corolla displays the massive gaping-maw grille that’s the best execution on any Toyota product thus far. Both front headlamps and rear taillights are boomerang shaped with LED illumination. The highly sculpted rear hatch liftgate is made out of composite plastic to help keep weight down and, aesthetically, looks terrific with the raked styling.

The new interior is the best we’ve seen on any Corolla in terms of design shape, layout, materials, coloring and attractive switchgear. An 7.0-inch tablet-like display screen is prominently fixed on the center dash just above the digital climate controls. It has both Apple CarPlay capability and Amazon Alexa integration, two USB ports up front, a leather shift knob, electronic parking brake, keyless ignition, Wi-Fi, Siri Eyes Free, and voice recognition, all standard. For whatever, the reason Toyota and Android Auto have not come together to strike a deal and it is not available.

Seats are comfortable and have been redesigned with a lower hip point that Toyota says provides a more natural body posture. Driver’s head, leg, hip and shoulder room are all excellent, even for tall drivers. The XSE trim adds a power driver’s seat, combination leather/fabric seating, heated front seats, automatic air conditioning and Entune 3.0 Audio Plus entertainment with Sirius XM. Additionally, blind spot monitoring and dynamic radar cruise control is standard on XSE, optional on SE.

At the media launch, I had the opportunity to take the new Corolla to the streets and coastal highways of San Diego, Calif., to drive both trim levels of the front-wheel-drive only hatchback.

I found the five-door hatchback a joy to drive, thanks to its crisp, sure-footed handling with a quick steering response, minimum body roll, sprightly engine and smooth transmissions. The extra 31-horsepower makes an incredible difference over the iM Corolla hatchback from last year. Still, while Toyota personnel on hand made it a point to call it a hot hatch, it doesn’t quite earn that designation. I wished for more horsepower, 200 horsepower minimum, hopefully more.

Ride comfort takes a bit of a back seat to sporty handling, and interior noise levels are a bit high. But with it’s agile handling, well-laid-out passenger compartment and comfortable front seating, along with easy driving dynamics it scores high on the “fun to drive” scale. With larger wheels and tires and added features, if you can afford it, our choice would be the XSE trim with the smooth shifting manual transmission. 

Toyota bundles its safety features into the Star Safety System, which includes vehicle stability and traction control, seven airbags (including a driver knee airbag), driver and front passenger whiplash injury-lessening seats, and more. The new hatchback also comes with the first North American application of standard Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 with pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, automatic emergency braking, lane departure alert with steering assist, automatic high beams, daytime cyclist detection and numerous other safety features. This safety equipment isn’t on most competitors and we’re more than pleased Toyota has made them standard on it’s compact Corolla.

The new Corolla Hatchback is a significant improvement over the Corolla iM it replaces. We especially like the added horsepower with the new engine, the rev-matching manual shifter, and its agile handling. The addition of a roomier hatchback, excellent technology, superb suite of standard safety features and Toyota’s traditional reliability and excellent resale values should land it on your must drive list if you’re shopping for a compact hatchback.

And, we hope that Toyota will strongly consider a more performance-oriented trim level with more horsepower and sportier suspension options.

Vital Stats
Base Price: $19,995 (est)
Price as Tested: Not Available
Powertrain: 2.0-liter 168 horsepower four-cylinder with either a six-speed manual or the Dynamic-shift Continuously Variable Automatic Transmission
Fuel Economy: Not Available
Seating: 5

Crash Test Ratings: The Corolla Hatchback has not been crash tested by either the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or the National Traffic Safety Administration.

Competes With:
Chevrolet Cruze Hatchback
Ford Focus Hatchback
Hyundai Elantra GT
Kia Soul
Mazda3 5-Door
Volkswagen Golf

Fab Features
New more powerful engine and silky smooth transmissions
Standard Toyota Safety Sense 2.0
Corolla gets a “Hatch” of its own