First Drive

2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback First Drive Review: Antidote To Boring?

No longer wearing a young-brand badge, is Toyota's new Corolla a fun hatchback for everyone?

Reliability. Practicality. Durability. They're the three tenants upon which Toyota has cultivated its existence for the last 20 years. Beige has been all the rage. Even Toyota's mottos over the last decade—“Moving Forward” and “Let's Go Places”—sound like calls to action for the average suburban commuter. Yet, the Japanese automaker's president, Akio Toyoda, has declared his company will no longer build boring cars. Does the new 2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback fulfill his corporate mission? Will it make us yell, “Oh, what a feeling!” all over again?

Like the original Scion iM hatchback, the new 2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback is a European Auris with some North American-style power under the hood. You won't find any fancy hybrid batteries or electric motors driving Toyota's new five-door on these shores like you will on the Old Continent. Here it's powered by a new Dynamic Force 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine shared with the Lexus UX. Output for the new engine is rated at 168 horsepower and 151 lb-ft of torque, which puts it well ahead of the outgoing Corolla iM, but it comes up short compared to the Honda Civic, Volkswagen Golf, and Mazda3. Hot hatch this is not. If you want more power in a five-door bodystyle, you'll need to look elsewhere than a Toyota store.

The punchier mill is at least paired with an all-new iMT six-speed manual, about which Toyota is proud to boast. For the first time, the Corolla gains a rev-matching function similar to some sports cars on the market. Alternatively, buyers can opt to equip the Corolla Hatchback with a continuously variable transmission—and it's more than just a belt-driven affair. The new Dynamic Shift CVT is fitted with a launch gear that effectively acts like a first gear in a traditional automatic to aid in off-the-line response. After its initial motivation, the continuously variable transmission switches to its belt drive for better fuel economy. It's Toyota's attempt at blending the best of both types of automatics, though the company was mum on fuel economy figures.

The new engine and transmission combinations propel a new architecture for Corolla. Toyota's compact hatchback is now built around the same TNGA-C platform as the Prius, C-HR, and Lexus UX, which increases torsional rigidity some 60 percent while reducing weight. (Corolla Hatchback is heavier overall, though, than the outgoing Corolla iM by about 30 pounds.) The new structure sits atop a new sport-tuned suspension that the automaker says experiences 40-percent less friction than before, thus aiding in a setup that responds quicker to road imperfections to better insulate passengers and improve handling. The overall package also reduces center of gravity height by 0.8 inches.

Outside, the Corolla Hatchback is lower, wider, and shorter than the outgoing Corolla iM, with more distance between the axles and in its track. Its body has also been shifted rearward, producing a shorter front overhang but a larger rear overhang to help negate the effect the new sloping rear end has on cargo volume. Unfortunately, it couldn't pull off the job completely, as the new car is 2 cubic feet tighter behind the rear seat. At least the rear seatbacks fold flat for easy loading of large objects in the Corolla Hatchback's cabin. The rear hatch itself is a trick piece of work. Toyota made it out of resin (read: plastic) because it couldn't form the shape it wanted with metal. The process also cuts a few pounds of mass out of the rear door.

Up front, the Corolla wears a new trapezoidal grille that sits below a reworked version of Toyota's signature, blacked-out crosspiece with the company's emblem displayed proudly on its rounded nose. The crosspiece blends into new J-shaped bi-beam LED headlamps. Even though the Corolla Hatchback gets sportier sheet metal for 2019, Toyota's real work was done inside. Unlike the Avalon we tested during the same week, the Corolla had a well-sorted and high-quality interior that seemed better thought out and designed. Materials are on-par or better for the class. Even the door cushioning offered enough padding for achy elbows during long drives.

Safety and convenience kit, too, are Corolla strong suits. It's the first Toyota in America to be fitted with Safety Sense 2.0, a suite of active safety features meant to keep you out of harm's way. It includes Pre-Collision System with Pedestrian Detection, Dynamic Radar Cruise Control (which will bring you to a full stop in traffic when equipped with the CVT), Lane Departure Alert and Steering Assist, Automatic High Beams, Lane Tracing Assist, and Road Sign Assist. Together, the features rival or best what's available on other vehicles in the class—sometimes by a significant margin. Meanwhile, Toyota hasn't forgotten about entertaining people inside the cabin, and has fitted Corolla with a new infotainment system on an 8-inch touchscreen.

Entune 3.0 comes standard on all Corolla Hatchbacks, and includes Apple CarPlay, Amazon Alexa Connectivity, App Suite Connect, Wi-Fi Connect, and Siri Eyes Free in addition to the typical assortment of Bluetooth, USB and auxiliary ports, and voice recognition. Entune 3.0 Audio Plus, which comes equipped on XSE models, adds HD radio, weather/traffic alerts, and other connected services. Top-rung XSE CVT models include an upgraded, eight-speaker JBL audio system pumped up to 800 watts. All of what I've told you so far can be gleaned from a spec sheet, and you likely want to know how the new Corolla drives. Well, it's better than the iM. Easily.

My driving partner found the seats in the previous iM to be lacking so bad that it completely ruined the car in its entirety for him. However, he was absolutely pleased with these chairs, even if they did sport bottom cushions that were a little on the short side for his tall, lanky frame. Other interior items, like infotainment, materials, controls, and overall dash design, pleased us both. The cabin won't wow you in the same way as an upmarket compact from more premium brands, but it's definitely above average across the board. On our first leg, we opted for an SE model fitted with Toyota's new CVT. Launches were more brisk off the line than what you would expect from other CVTs and it does have a step function when heavier on the throttle.

Sure, steps seem kind of silly in a CVT, but at least it breaks up the drone of generic-sounding four-cylinder engines. Steering was light, though not unnervingly numb or anything like that. Ride, too, was compliant and handling fairly neutral. Even with the sport-tuned suspension, it didn't feel like the Corolla wanted to carve up canyon roads, but it also didn't wobble or protest when pushed. The same ride and handling characteristics were observed in the top-range XSE trim. However, the Corolla wasn't perfect. The new six-speed manual transmission isn't geared toward the enthusiast set. Yes, it has rev-matching on downshifts and also holds revs to a point on upshifts, but the solution isn't very elegant.

For starters, you need to get the timing right, which almost defeats its purpose. If you're too slow or quick into the next gear, rev-matching either works badly or not at all. Also, you must be fully into the next gate in order for it to activate, unlike similar solutions in other vehicles that only require you to be near the opening of the next gate for it to anticipate the change in gear. It wasn't just that. The manual gearbox in the Corolla isn't what you'd call pleasant to shift. Mazda and others have nailed manual transmissions. They feel mechanical, notchy, and offer enough resistance to give you enough feedback through the lever. The Corolla doesn't. The gearbox felt a bit sloppy and reminded me of damn near every manual Volkswagen Golf I've ever driven.

At least the new 2.0-liter engine has a bit of poke. It won't set your pants on fire, but it's more than adequate for the application and doesn't drone too badly when mated with the CVT. Actually, if I were to buy this Corolla, I'd probably opt for the CVT over the manual. You might call that sacrilegious coming from an automotive journalist, but I'd rather a good CVT over a bad manual—plus you get stop-and-go radar cruise control with the automatic; you can't with the manual. In all, Toyoda-san might be right in the new Corolla not being boring. Just look at it. Its design is fantastic, inside and out, and Toyota has seen fit to give it some decent shades of paint beyond the typical monochrome rainbow.

Yet, for its sporty looks, I wouldn't call it a sporty car. Adequate? Yes. A little fun? Yes. Sporty? Not so fast. But if you're looking for a stylish hatchback with a bit more poke than the Koreans offer and with a bit more technology than nearly any other compact brings to the market today (other than Android Auto), the Corolla Hatchback could be a solid buy. The 2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback goes on sale in two grades—SE and XSE—starting this summer. Fuel economy and pricing details have not yet been announced, but expect costs to remain in the same ballpark as the current Corolla iM and for it to return slightly better mileage.

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