2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback first drive review

Loaded with tech, Toyota's Corolla Hatchback puts the fun back in functional

This hatchback is worthy of the Corolla name.
This hatchback is worthy of the Corolla name.
This hatchback is worthy of the Corolla name.

Highs

  • Attractive and current styling
  • Redesigned CVT fixes a flaw
  • Surprisingly good plastic hatch
  • Engine delivers good usable power
  • Comfortable, no-nonsense interior

Lows

  • Disappointing 6-speed manual
  • Weak audio options
  • No Android Auto support

Toyota brought out the first Corolla way back in 1966, and for the last 52 years, there’s never been a time when you couldn’t buy a new one. Toyota made it the biggest-selling nameplate in automotive history by offering an affordable car with reasonably good performance and utility. Lately, the Corolla hatchback space has been occupied by a rebadged and somewhat lackluster Scion iM.

The 2019 Corolla Hatchback follows the best Toyota traditions with two easy-to-understand trim levels: SE and XSE. That’s all, and it’s refreshingly easy to track all the goodies. The car comes with just one engine for both trims, two transmission options, and a good safety and tech story. The SE is not a penalty box, and the XSE just adds some nice features like leather upholstery, heated power-adjustable seats, and a really nice upgraded digital gauge pod. The SE makes do with traditional gauges, but as the base model, it still includes paddle shifters for the CVT, electronic parking brake, smart key, and support for Apple CarPlay.

This Corolla is a credible entry to compete with the Honda Civic and Chevrolet Cruze hatchbacks, but Toyota’s going to have a harder time winning converts from the Mazda3, VW Golf, or Subaru Impreza hatchbacks with this car.

At press time, Toyota was not ready to announce pricing and the EPA has not yet issued its fuel economy rating for the new Corolla hatchback, so we can’t really compare apples-to-apples value with any 2018 models currently on the market. Toyota expects the new Corolla Hatchback to be on sale by July.

2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback
Toyota

Interior and tech

You can’t bring out a new car in this era without the latest in safety tech and driver aid features. Toyota’s safety tech starts with the chassis platform. Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) is the scalable unibody on which the current Camry, Avalon, Prius, RAV4, C-HR, and even some Lexus models are based. Having a common platform simplifies everything from development to construction, because engineers don’t have to dial in several chassis designs. As a result, the new Corolla hatch rides and drives very nicely because the bugs have already been worked out.

The new Corolla hatch will feature the latest Toyota Safety Sense (TSS) 2.0. That package includes a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, which will notice pedestrians along your way even at night, and will now identify bicyclists during the day. The system will warn the driver if things look close, and automatically apply the brakes to prevent or mitigate an accident.

Toyota’s adaptive cruise control understands when the driver applies the turn signal to change lanes, and the following distance function works flawlessly.

If the Corolla is equipped with the continuously variable transmission (and almost all of them will be) then it includes adaptive cruise control, which Toyota calls Dynamic Radar Cruise Control. This is a great feature, and Toyota gets points for including it on base trim cars as well as the upgrade trim. DRCC works down to a full stop. The system understands when the driver applies the turn signal to change lanes, and the following distance function works flawlessly.

TSS 2.0 also includes lane-departure control with steering assist and new lane-tracing assist functions, which help keep the car dead-center in its lane at all times. This is fine if the driver is in the habit of applying minimal attention or control to the car, but if you’re trying to drive on an enjoyable winding road, or just trying to stay away from the stoned freeway driver who’s wandering over into your lane, the Corolla will complain at you and tug at the wheel. Lane-tracing assist works with the adaptive cruise control and tracks the exact center of the lane around the curve.

Other features included in TSS 2.0 are road sign assist, which will read the road signs and sound an alert if the driver is spacing out, and automatic high beams. These are worthwhile features. Having the car say, “Hey dummy, the speed limit went to 35 back there. Apply some brake unless you want a ticket” would have saved us some money over the years. Auto high beams are a feature designed more to help the rest of the motoring public than the owner of the Corolla, but it’s good tech anyway.

Toyota offers the new Corolla with an 8-inch touchscreen display, mounted up high near the driver’s natural field of vision. There’s no “sad trombone” base model stereo in the base model. Every Corolla gets the 8-inch screen. The upgrade XSE trim adds HD Radio, Sirius XM satellite capability, and Entune 3.0 connected services. From there, you can upgrade to the 800-watt JBL stereo with GPS navigation and all the trinkets.

To be blunt, the JBL system isn’t worth the money (whatever it turns out to cost).

To be blunt, the JBL system isn’t worth the money (whatever it turns out to cost). It didn’t sound much better than the base system, and once you’ve got Apple Carplay, you’ve got navigation. Also worth noting, the Corolla will not support Android Auto at launch. This is because Toyota has not yet finalized their agreement with Google to provide it. Toyota executives cited user privacy issues as the reason for the delay.

The main creature comforts of the Corolla have been admirably handled. The interior feels good, with no demerits or obviously cut corners. Road noise is commendably attenuated, and the Corolla is comfortable even for 6-foot adults with a little meat on their bones. Toyota didn’t provide interior cargo volume stats, but the new car is longer and wider than the outgoing Corolla iM, and it feels more spacious. The rear seats fold flat, providing the capacious cargo space that is the sine qua non of the hatchback.

One more feature to call out for praise is the composite rear hatch. By composite, Toyota means plastic, and we had some doubts about that. But when you use the Corolla hatch, it’s solid yet lightweight, and using the molded polymer allows Toyota to get great shape into the material. The Corolla definitely gets bonus points for this feature.

Driving experience

The 2019 Corolla hatchback gets just one engine for the whole line, and it’s a good one. The new 2.0-liter normally aspirated four-cylinder improves on the outgoing 1.8-liter, delivering 168 horsepower and 151 pound-feet of torque. Those aren’t numbers that will burn any barns in 2019, but the Corolla uses the available power wisely.

Now here’s what you really need to know.

There are two transmission options for the 2019 Corolla Hatchback: a 6-speed manual and a continuously variable unit (CVT). The CVT is new, and features a real fixed-ratio first gear. That’s critical because it gives the Corolla hatch a confident and decisive feeling when pulling away from a stop. There’s none of that rubber-band slingshot feeling where you inch along while the engine whines, then finally take off. The Corolla just moves out smartly.

The Corolla’s not a hot rod, but it’s perfectly acceptable as an economy hatchback.

Once going, the CVT emulates a 10-speed automatic transmission, and it includes paddle shifters if you feel the need to pretend to shift. The point is, the CVT does a good job matching its working ratios to the power available from the engine. The Corolla’s not a hot rod, but it’s perfectly acceptable as an economy hatchback.

In the ordinary way of things, you’d be expecting to hear about the manual transmission as the performance option, and we expected the same thing. Then we drove it, and this is the only area where Toyota really stumbled with the new Corolla hatch.

The manual comes with rev-matching programming and also some code to help drivers avoid stalling the engine when leaving a stop. That all works pretty well for learners, but it blunts the engine, which is the opposite of what you want and expect from a manual transmission. The shifter itself is also disappointing, with a loose feeling and generally seeming like an afterthought. This is why the Corolla won’t get many converts from the comparable Mazda3 or VW Golf.

On the road, the Corolla hatch is enjoyable with the CVT. The little car goes where you point it and it will cut a curve. Going over rolling bumps and rough pavement, drivers will appreciate the rear multi-link suspension, and the predictable steering won’t surprise you. Again, the Corolla is not intended to be a sports car, but it does its job in good form.

2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback
Toyota

We don’t yet know fuel economy numbers, but Toyota knows what it needs to do in this arena. Asked if the planned relaxation of fuel economy standards would change their plans, one executive answered, “We don’t plan on adjusting our program. This could all change in 2021.”

Warranty

The 2019 Corolla Hatchback will presumably be covered by the standard Toyota warranty of 3 years or 36,000 miles. Given over 50 years of experience making Corollas and Toyota’s general reputation, reliability shouldn’t be a concern with this car.

How DT would configure this car

The new Corolla Hatchback is easy to configure, though without pricing it’s hard to say whether it’s a car we would consider buying. The upgrade XSE trim brings you 18-inch wheels, adaptive front LED headlights, dual zone climate control, heated and power-adjusting front seats, and the nifty video dash. You also get the better stereo, though we’d suggest saving the money on the JBL unit and talking to your aftermarket audio professionals if you care about sound. Moving up to XSE also buys blind-spot monitoring. And we’d definitely choose the CVT, even though we can’t quite believe we’re actually typing those words.

Conclusion

Let’s slay the elephant in the room. We like this car better than the basic Honda Civic hatch. It’s more fun to drive, and the two-liter engine is more to our liking. Assuming they’re price-competitive, that’s the biggest hurdle Toyota has to clear with this car. The Corolla doesn’t have to compete with the Civic Type R.

More generally, this is a car that’s worthy of the Corolla nameplate. It’s a vast improvement over the Scion or Toyota version of the iM hatchback, and Toyota should be proud of the difference. Yes, there’s room to improve the Corolla hatch further, but assuming that the pricing is attractive – and there’s every reason to think it will be – then this car is a winner for its segment.

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