A six-speed manual transmission! I hadn’t even seen one of these in a while, much less driven one, and then the all-new 2019 Corolla hatchback showed up on my doorstep with a manual gear lever sprouting like a rose out of the center console. “New Corolla,” I thought to myself, “I like you already.” I waited all of five minutes to head out for some good ol’ fashioned clutching and shifting.
The 2019 Corolla hatchback has essentially nothing in common with the Corollas of yore—even the old, somewhat similar Corolla iM (which started life as a Scion model). The new hatch is freshened in almost every way, starting with the new global architecture (TNGA) platform that unpins it. The TNGA bones, which can also be found in the new-for-2020-Corolla sedan, are said to lower the center of gravity by almost an inch, drastically reduce structural weight, and increase torsional stiffness a whopping 60 percent. Dimensions are dramatically changed, too: The hatchback grows by 1.5 inches in wheelbase and overall length, more than an inch in width, and sports a roofline that’s an inch lower.
The result is a genuinely good-looking—even snazzy—machine, with an aggressive front grille that really works in the overall theme, thin and racy LED headlamps, and a rakish profile that ends in a chiseled liftgate. (The hatch is made of resin for reduced weight, just like the gate on the new Lexus UX.) Uplevel XSE versions like my test car cost $24,070 to start and add satin-chrome grille trim, sportier body moldings, and 18-inch wheels. (The base SE, which opens at $21,070, has 16s.) A new-for-2019 Blue Flame paint color really makes the package pop.
Inside, the hatchback is also all-new. Overall, it’s a refreshingly simple and approachable design, with standard pushbutton start, a 7.0-inch color primary-instrument display (the SE’s measures 4.2 inches), an 8.0-inch color infotainment touchscreen in the central dash, Apple CarPlay (Android Auto isn’t offered), and hard buttons and knobs for the climate system. The XSE also includes leather upholstery, heated front seats with eight-way power adjustment for the driver, LED fog lights, heated power side mirrors, a leather steering wheel, and dual-zone climate control. The only significant options on my example: adaptive LED headlamps ($415), carpeted floor mats ($229), and a rear-window spoiler ($375). The total sticker was a very reasonable $25,083.
The hatchback faces stiff competition from such rivals as the VW Golf and new Mazda 3, but it holds its own well. This isn’t a performance machine by any definition, however. The new twin-cam 2.0-liter four-cylinder may produce 31 horses more than the 1.8-liter engine in the retired iM—the engine is direct-injected and boasts variable valve timing—but max output is still just 168 horsepower. That output is on par with the Golf’s, but the Corolla’s lack of forced induction means it has to wind hard to 4,800 rpm to reach its 151-lb-ft torque peak, whereas the turbocharged VW delivers its 199-lb-ft max at just 1,600 rpm. Thus, you’ll rev out the Corolla more often, though for enthusiasts that six-speed manual makes doing so a whole lot more enjoyable. (A CVT is also available if you can’t stand shifting for yourself. Boo, hiss.)
Added sound deadening and the refinement of the TNGA structure mean the engine never gets strident, even when nearing the top of the tach. The six-speed itself, I should note, is smooth in action and clicks solidly into its various cogs. A standard rev-match system functions quite well, automatically blipping the throttle on downshifts, though heel-and-toe purists will prefer to do it themselves. And by the way, if you’re fearful of having to perform the clutch/throttle dance while stopped on a steep incline, fear not. The hatchback includes standard hill-start assist, which prevents the vehicle from rolling backward when the clutch is depressed.
Reduced suspension friction means the standard electric steering feels smoother and more accurate than before, while ride motions are nicely damped. If you’re looking for a truly exciting sport hatch you’ll want to check out something else (say, a VW GTI), but at a more relaxed pace the Corolla is civilized and entertaining. Rear-seat legroom isn’t great but it’s adequate and about the same as the Golf’s, while the split-folding rear seats offer a host of packaging options.
The list of onboard safety gear—especially the active systems—is truly impressive. Included are pre-collision warning with pedestrian detection, dynamic radar cruise control with auto braking, lane-departure alerts with steering assist, blind-spot monitoring, automatic high beams, and road-sign recognition with audible and visual alerts. You can operate the Entune 3.0 premium audio system entirely by voice, too, while Apple’s Siri Eyes-Free system is also here. I’d feel confident handing the keys to a Corolla hatchback to a younger, less-experienced driver.
Despite being more powerful and larger in displacement (though smaller in overall packaging size) than the outgoing 1.8-liter four, the new 2.0 delivers better EPA fuel efficiency, an impressive 28/37 mpg city/highway. Which is to say, this new Corolla hatchback outshines its iM predecessor in every objective and subjective measure—and now stands as a well-equipped and well-seasoned competitor to everything from the VW Golf to the Hyundai Elantra GT. If you’ve driven a Corolla before, throw those memories away. The new Corolla hatchback is a horse of a different color, and you really need to saddle up to appreciate just how vibrant it’s become.
2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback XSE Specifications
|ENGINE||2.0L DOHC 16-valve I-4, 168 hp @ 6,600 rpm, 151 lb-ft @ 4,800 rpm|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD hatchback|
|EPA MILEAGE||28/37 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||169.9 x 69.9 x 57.1 in|
|WEIGHT||3,100 lb (est)|
|0-60 MPH||8.4 sec (est)|
||115 mph (est)|