by Jared Rosenholtz
Car reviewers are often asked for opinions on which vehicle their friends should buy and the discussion often goes in the same direction. We ask a few questions about what they need, they tell us they just want to get from point A to point B, then we recommend a Toyota Corolla. Simple, easy, no second-guessing. The Corolla has long been the ideal appliance to putz around town in but it rarely elicits joy from the driver.
Enter the 2019 Corolla Hatchback, part of Toyota's efforts to "stop building boring cars." The Corolla hatchback acts as a replacement for the Corolla iM (formerly the Scion iM) and with hot new styling, a fresh interior, and a newly-developed manual transmission, this new Corolla might have the goods to be more than just another appliance.
In their efforts to build exciting cars, the 2019 Corolla Hatchback is all-new, redesigned completely for the 2019 year model and built on a new platform, with new styling, a new interior, new colors, and a new lease on life. It forms the 12th generation of Corolla and represents Toyota's third longest-running nameplate in the brand's history, with the Corolla moniker now spanning 53 years.
With an all-new design for 2019, the Corolla Hatchback is finally exciting, led from the front by the broad new grill and sharply styled LED headlights with LED daytime running lights and LED taillights out back. The XSE trim even gets LED front fog lights, as well as a chrome front grille surround compared to the standard dark gray finish on the base SE. In base SE format, the Corolla rides on 16-inch twin-spoke alloy wheels, while the XSE takes two steps forward in the fitment of 18-inch machine-finished alloys. Regardless of trim, a chrome rear diffuser is fitted housing slender dual chrome exhaust tips.
Two trims proffer identical dimensions, with the Corolla Hatchback measuring 172 inches long, 70.5 inches wide, and 57.1 inches tall - longer, taller, and wider than last year's Corolla iM. The wheelbase of 103.9 inches is one and a half inches longer, too, owing to the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) platform on which the Corolla is built. 5.1 inches of ground clearance is moderate but appropriate for the compact hatchback segment, while a curb weight of 3,060 lbs across the range is marginally heavier than the likes of the Honda Civic, despite being shorter, narrower, and riding on a more compact wheelbase than the Civic.
A color palette of seven hues gives buyers some choice, with options ranging from Blizzard Pearl to Midnight Black, with the likes of Oxide Bronze (read pensioner beige) and Smoked Paprika in the middle all available at no cost. But those aren't the colors you should choose.
We aren't saying Toyota is at fault for offering the Corolla Hatchback in multiple colors, but anyone who does not select this fabulous shade of Blue Flame should call their doctor to schedule a fun transplant. Toyota has been on-point with colors lately and this new shade of blue makes the Corolla stand out in a crowd. It's just too bad most buyers will ignore it and go for white. Shame on those people.
Elsewhere in the world, the Corolla Hatchback gets downsized turbocharged engines. But on US soil, we're limited to a single naturally aspirated four-cylinder measuring 2.0-liter in capacity. That's not necessarily a bad thing, however, as the new engine is fairly potent, developing 168 horsepower and 151 lb-ft of torque, scuttling the Corolla Hatch from 0-60 mph in under eight seconds. It's not going to challenge a Golf GTI or even a regular Honda Civic for that matter, but it's not slow, nor is it uninvolving. Dare we say it, but the new Corolla Hatchback could even be described as fun. No 'for a Toyota' appendage to that statement either. Toyota deserves particular praise for offering a new six-speed manual gearbox in a world of automatics, and while the CVT will be the transmission most buy, the option of rowing your own gears is a laudable decision from Toyota.
Only one engine is available on the Corolla Hatchback: a 2.0-liter four-cylinder producing 168 horsepower and 151 pound-feet of torque. The new mill is smaller and lighter than the 1.8-liter unit it replaces and is quieter with less noise, vibration, and harshness. Toyota does offer two transmission options including a standard six-speed manual (found on our tester) and an optional continuously variable transmission (CVT). The CVT simulates ten gear ratios and even includes a launch gear to feel sportier off the line.
We tested the six-speed manual, which is how we would option or Corolla Hatchback. Toyota's new Intelligent Manual Transmission features an iMT mode to adjust engine revs and keep gear shifts smooth. The clutch take-up is rather light and the throws are fairly long but we enjoyed the experience of rowing our own gears in the Corolla and recognize Toyota isn't targeting the GTI or WRX with this car. Enthusiasts can hold their breath for a faster version but this basic Corolla package offers plenty to keep the average driver entertained.
Past Corolla models have often felt dreary to drive but much like the Blue Flame paint job, this new Hatchback model aims to put a smile on the driver's face. Steering is still a weak point and we wish Toyota had gone for a quicker rack. But as it sits, most drivers won't notice a lack of responsiveness on their daily commute. Ride comfort is excellent even over rough pavement but the cabin gets loud on the highway – like, really loud. Road noise has been an issue for Toyota recently and it sticks its neck in as one of our few gripes with the Corolla driving experience.
Moving past the road-noise, Toyota has done a terrific job of tuning the Corolla hatchback. Body lean can be easily managed through the bends and once the suspension sets in, it is easy to pilot the Corolla through corners at a brisk pace. 168 horses feel like just enough to keep the driving experience interesting though another 30 stallions or so would be perfect to target enthusiasts buyers. Perhaps Toyota will bring back the old XRS trim with a higher-revving engine. As it sits, the hot styling does write checks the 2.0-liter engine and soft suspension cannot cash but this is certainly the most enjoyable Corolla we have ever tested.
The available CVT-equipped Corolla Hatchbacks, both SE and XSE specification, naturally return the best gas mileage estimates, with the EPA rating the 'Rolla at 32/42/36 mpg on the city/highway/combined cycles respectively. Those are impressive figures, better than anything a Honda Civic will provide, making the Corolla one of the most economical offerings in its class, and with the 13.2-gallon gas tank, buyers should see a return of approximately 475 miles in mixed driving conditions. Of course, the manual gearbox sees some loss to those figures, with estimates pegged at a still-respectable 28/37/31 mpg.
In real-world driving, we observed around 30 mpg on average, which falls just one-mpg shy of the EPA rating. Having a manual transmission encouraged us to rev the engine well past the point most drivers would, which may explain the slight discrepancy in fuel economy. A one-mpg tradeoff in exchange for fun is a sacrifice we would be willing to make.
Toyota hasn't just stepped up their game in the Corolla's exterior design, but throughout, giving the new Hatchback an interior befitting of its striking exterior. In typical Toyota fashion, the controls are laid out in a fashion that's easy to figure out and easily within reach. True to form, ergonomics are exceptional, and despite looking good outside, the design is functional, with visibility from the driver's throne second to none. Material quality is high, too; not premium, but high enough to make you feel like you're lavishly accommodated, and the seats are comfortable and supportive for all body types. Only the rear seats feel limited, with legroom somewhat cramped behind taller drivers and front passengers.
The seats in the Corolla hatchback hug you without feeling too snug. We found the front chairs to be comfortable over long distances although the rear seats feel tight with just 29.9 inches of legroom. Getting in the rear seats can also be difficult for larger occupants because the rear door opening is small. Aside from the tight rear seat, the Corolla also suffers from a lack of storage space in the cabin. There is a small area in front of the shifter, which can also be a wireless charger, though it is mostly obscured by the dashboard. Other competitors in the segment offer more areas to stick a smartphone within an arm's reach.
The Corolla Hatchback can be optioned in two interior colors and two material sets. SE models feature either black or white fabric while the XSE trims changes the cloth to partial leather. Our tester had the two-tone black and white leather interior, which looked great but may show scratches and stains more easily than black. If you plan to haul a bunch of kids in the car, we'd recommend going with the black interior.
Hatchbacks tend to be versatile creatures, even when the figures may suggest otherwise, but unfortunately for the Corolla, the numbers are backed up by limited real-world practicality. Behind the rear seats, you'll find 17.8 cubic feet of cargo volume, which lags some way behind the 25.7 cubes in the Civic Hatch and the 22.7 found in the Chevrolet Cruze. Making matters worse is a high floor in the trunk, limiting practicality and making it awkward to load heavy objects. The rear seats are 60/40 split-folding, but Toyota hasn't yet divulged the maximum available cargo volume, and from experience, others in the segment are vastly more spacious.
Likewise, within the cabin, the Corolla's small-item storage areas don't seem very modern or practical. Yes, the door pockets and cupholders are decently sized, but the storage shelves and cubbies in the center console are too small for a modern smartphone, and the main center console bin is awkwardly out of reach.
A new design is accompanied by a new price, and the Corolla Hatchback is more expensive than the Corolla iM it replaces. But with the added premium, there's a higher level of standard and available equipment too. Proximity entry, automatic climate control, push-button start, and automatic LED headlights are all included from the base SE, while available either optionally or by upgrading to the XSE, climate control becomes dual-zone functional and the sports seats become heated and power-adjustable. Driver assistance standards are high from the get-go too, with Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 equipping pedestrian detection, pre-collision braking, lane departure warning, adaptive cruise control, and road sign detection to both trims, while blind-spot monitoring is available.
Toyota's Entune infotainment is housed on an eight-inch touchscreen with simple controls and plenty of physical buttons and dials to control various functions. Although the system is easy to use, it feels slower than some other systems from mainstream automakers. Apple CarPlay is included to add Siri voice command and navigation but Android Auto remains absent from the Corolla. The base system is tied to six speakers but an optional JBL audio system adds two speakers, built-in navigation, and a wireless charger. Sadly, opting for the JBL system requires the CVT.
All-new means unchartered territory, particularly where reliability is concerned, so while we wait and see if any problems rear their ugly heads later in the Corolla Hatchback's lifespan, things are currently a little unknown. However, Toyota has a history of providing unparalleled reliability, which bodes well, and fair warranty coverage including a 36-month/36,000-mile basic warranty and 60-month/60,000-mile powertrain warranty are some of the better assurances in the segment, even if not quite matching Hyundai and Kia for span. Despite being early on its lifespan, Toyota has already recalled 3,400 Corolla Hatchbacks for the potential failure of the torque converter in CVT-equipped models. It's the car gods' way of telling you to buy a manual gearbox.
Safe as houses, a hallmark of Toyota in recent years, the Corolla continues that legacy, scoring a full five-star overall rating from the NHTSA, while being awarded the IIHS honor of Top Safety Pick for 2019. Of particular interest is the Good+ rating for the access and usability of the LATCH anchors.
A full suite of standard safety features includes Toyota's Star Safety System, incorporating the usual suspects - vehicle stability control. Four-wheel ABS, EBD, and brake assist. Eight airbags are generous for the compact segment and include both a driver knee airbag and a front passenger seat-cushion airbag. Meanwhile, Toyota's Safety Sense 2.0 is standard on all models in the line-up and incorporates pre-collision with pedestrian warning, road sign detection, lane keep assist, lane departure warning, adaptive cruise control, and automatic high beams. Optionally available is a blind-spot monitor.
The Toyota Corolla has always been a default recommendation for shoppers who don't care much about cars and couldn't care less about how fun their vehicle feels. This 2019 Corolla Hatchback changes that narrative without stepping too far into performance territory. The enthusiast may bemoan the fact there is no turbocharged variant with a loud exhaust but for ordinary folks, this new Corolla will spark enjoyment unlike any of its modern predecessors.
What Toyota has done here is create a car with mass appeal, then give it a manual transmission to attract a small portion of enthusiast buyers. We sincerely hope shoppers stumble into a Toyota dealership and walk out with a manual transmission because the Corolla Hatchback is engaging enough to convert people into manual lovers for life.
Two trims comprise the Corolla Hatchback range, with the cheapest model being the SE with a manual gearbox, priced to go from just $20,140 before the addition of licensing fees, taxes, and a destination charge of $930. Opting for the XSE pushes the MSRP up to $23,140 while opting for a CVT transmission on either trim will add $1,100 to the asking price.
Just two trims are available to buyers looking for a Corolla Hatchback: SE and XSE, both of which are powered by the same 2.0-liter four-cylinder in conjunction with either a six-speed manual gearbox or CVT automatic.
The SE kicks things off with 16-inch alloy wheels, LED headlights, automatic climate control, cloth seating surfaces, manual seat adjustment, and an eight-inch touchscreen infotainment system with six speakers, Bluetooth, USB, and Apple CarPlay functionality. Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 covers safety with an array of driver assistance systems.
Stepping up to the XSE trim adds 18-inch alloy wheels, LED foglights, and chrome exterior trimmings, while inside, seats are upholstered in leather, while front occupants benefit from heated seats and a power-adjustable driver's perch. Dual-zone climate control adds extra comfort, while HD and satellite radio are added to the infotainment suite.
In addition to two trim choices, Toyota offers a couple of additional packages and standalone options to bolster the feature count. Starting with the SE, when equipped with the CVT gearbox, the available SE Preferred Package will set you back $1,400 but adds blind-spot monitoring and an upgraded Entune 3.0 infotainment system with HD radio, satellite radio, and access to Toyota's Entune app services.
The same package is available on the XSE with the CVT but will set you back $1,600. In addition to the abovementioned equipment, the SXE Preferred Package also equips wireless device charging, navigation, and an eight-speaker JBL premium audio system.
Since there are very few options available for the Corolla Hatchback, we'd leave it exactly as Toyota configured our test car. Get the XSE grade with the manual transmission and call it a day at $22,990. If the hatchback just doesn't suit your style, Toyota also offers the sedan as a 2020 model with the same aggressive front styling and a trunk where the hatch would be.
Can the newcomer conquer the current segment leader, Honda's venerable Civic Hatchback? The truth is the Corolla isn't as thrilling to drive, nor does it offer the same levels of practicality when it comes to cargo volumes or rear passenger space. But it finally rivals the Civic for style, interior quality, and comfort, while the addition of a manual gearbox makes the Corolla one of a few to still offer the DIY option. It's more frugal than the Civic, too, despite the lack of a turbocharger, while the infotainment interface is vastly more intuitive than Honda's own setup. However, Android operators may bemoan the lack of Android Auto on the Corolla. If you're after a through-and-through driver's hatch, get the Civic, but if you want style, comfort, and refinement, with just enough involvement to satiate your inner gearhead, the Corolla is a solid proposition that undercuts the Civic substantially on the price front.
Another relative newcomer, the Mazda 3, has leaped to the front of the compact hatch pack, being one of the only two compacts to offer all-wheel drive. It pairs this with enticing driving dynamics the Corolla simply can't match. But the Corolla is comfort-biased, proudly so, and it's not afraid to brag about the budget-friendly price tag and economical running costs. The Mazda might border on premium inside, but it's also expensive, and both offer similar levels of practicality and specification. We understand your desire for style and enjoyment, and the Mazda 3 is an exceptional premium offering at a reduced price, but the Corolla is 95% as good to most shoppers, at a discount price, and for the first time in a long time, it's one of our top picks across the compact segment.