Toyota Corolla Hatchback — A pleasant surprise

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Toyota has sold more than 10 million Corolla compact cars over the years, bringing peace of mind to countless families — reliable transportation that in addition to dependability offers excellent gas mileage and above average resale value. But for the most part Corollas have been as exciting as — well, let's say, the kitchen refrigerator.

As automobile enthusiasts we expect more from our ride — some excitement and personality and for that reason we were delighted to see that Toyota has upped its game with the new 2019 Corolla Hatchback. The hatchback has an eye-catching exterior highlighted by the now familiar toothy Toyota grille, which is actually fairly well done in the Corolla. Both front headlamps and rear taillights are boomerang shaped with LED illumination. The highly sculpted rear hatch liftgate is made of composite plastic to help keep weight down and, aesthetically, looks terrific with the raked styling.

Toyota it seems has also taken more interest in interiors in recent times (prime example — the 2018 Camry); likewise the new hatchback interior is the best we’ve seen on any Corolla in terms of design shape, layout, materials, coloring and attractive switchgear.

A 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.

The heart and soul of any vehicle is the drivetrain and here, too, Corolla has taken a big step forward with a new 2.0-liter inline-4 with direct injection and variable valve timing. Compared to last year, horsepower jumps by 31 to 168 and torque is up 25 pound-feet, now 151. While these numbers are respectable, they do not, however, make the Corolla a "hot hatch" such as the Honda Civic Si or the Volkswagen Golf GTI. As before, you can choose between a six-speed manual and continuously variable transmission (CVT). For comparison, the new hatchback has been clocked from 0-to-60 in 8.7 seconds and at 16.7 seconds in a quarter mile.

While we prefer a standard geared automatic, Toyota has used its ingenuity to make the CVT more effective by adding a physical gear in addition to the belt and pulleys. It's effectively a first gear for better off-the-line acceleration after which the transmission transitions to the CVT pulleys to continue the work. Toyota says this approach gives the hatch a broad ratio range while keeping the CVT portion of the transmission in its most efficient range, and it works seamlessly.

But for maximum performance we recommend purchasing the 6-speed manual transmission called iMT (Intelligent Manual Transmission) that utilizes what’s known as rev-matching because of its ability to adjust the engine for smooth downshifts.

We found the five-door hatchback entertaining to drive, thanks to its crisp, sure-footed handling with a quick steering response, and minimum body roll. Ride comfort takes a bit of a back seat to sporty handling, and interior noise levels are a bit high. But with its agile maneuverability, well-laid-out passenger compartment and comfortable front seating, along with above average driving dynamics, it scores high on the “fun to drive” scale.

Toyota bundles its safety features into the Star Safety System, which includes vehicle stability and traction control, seven airbags, 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 its compact Corolla.

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, chrome trim surround on the grille, and deeper lower-body moldings. With larger wheels and tires and added features, our choice would be the XSE trim such as our test car. Our XSE test car carried a bottom line of $27,025. The hatchback starts at $20,910 in SE trim with the manual transmission.

Base price: $20,910; as driven, $27,025
Engine: 2.0-liter 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 168 @ 6,600 rpm
Torque: 155 foot-pounds @ 4,800 rpm
Transmission: continuously variable
Drive: front wheel
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 103.9 inches
Length: 169.9 inches
Curb weight: 3,060 pounds
Turning circle: NA
Luggage capacity: 17.8 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 13.2 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 30 city, 38 highway, 33 combined
0-60: 8.7 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Chevy Cruise Hatchback, Volkswagen Golf, Honda Civic Hatchback

The Good
• Toyota scraps conservative styling
• Good handling traits
• Composed ride
• Standard safety impressive

The Bad
• Could use more horsepower

The Ugly
• Android Auto still not available