2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback review

Boring takes a back seat as 2019 Corolla Hatchback mixes fun with practicality

The 2019 Toyota Corolla hatchback is a sensible compact car that doesn’t forget about fun.
The 2019 Toyota Corolla hatchback is a sensible compact car that doesn’t forget about fun.
The 2019 Toyota Corolla hatchback is a sensible compact car that doesn’t forget about fun.

Highs

  • Exterior styling
  • Ride quality and handling balance
  • Large number of driver-assist features
  • Front-seat space

Lows

  • Numb steering
  • Imprecise manual transmission shifter
  • Rear-seat space

Across 52 years on sale, the Toyota Corolla has taken on many forms. But more often than not, the Corolla has been a humble economy car, notable mostly for cockroach-like durability. As it rolls out the 12th generation model, Toyota is trying to make this compact car something more.

The 2019 Toyota Corolla hatchback aims to inject a bit more style and fun into the basic compact car formula. The hatchback is available in just two trim levels: SE and XSE. A redesigned Corolla sedan arriving for the 2020 model year will offer more trim options.

Starting at $20,910 (including a mandatory $920 destination charge) with a six-speed manual transmission (an automatic CVT is available for $1,100 extra), the SE gets a generous array of standard features, including an 8.0-inch touchscreen display, Apple CarPlay compatibility, and adaptive cruise control. XSE models like our test car add more creature comforts, including leather upholstery, heated front seats (with power adjustment for the driver), and a digital gauge cluster. Our test car also features adaptive LED headlights, which brought the sticker price to $24,325.

2019 toyota corolla hatchback review fullwide
Stephen Edelstein/Digital Trends

Refreshing flamboyance

Design seemed to be afterthought with the previous-generation Toyota Corolla, but that isn’t the case with this version. Toyota has recently dialed its exterior styling up to 11 in order to combat a reputation for blandness. The latest versions of the Camry, Avalon, and Prius testify to how far Toyota is willing to go to make its cars look more interesting.

Exterior styling strikes a pretty good balance between shocking people and pleasing them.

Toyota may have gone a bit too far with some of those designs, but the Corolla hatchback strikes a pretty good balance between shocking people and pleasing them. The gaping grille is an acquired taste, but the chiseled look of the headlights and taillights is appealing, and designers restrained themselves from adding too much detailing. The Corolla definitely stands out in a crowded parking lot, and stands up well to rivals like the Honda Civic and Mazda3.

The interior has a simple design dominated by a wide, flat dashboard atop which sits the instrument cluster and 8.0-inch touchscreen. The overall look is nice and clean, but ergonomics are a mixed bag.

We appreciated the low belt line, which brings the bottoms of the side windows down and increases exterior visibility. However, the driver sits very far away from the windshield. This is a problem we’ve noticed in many recent compact cars; it’s likely due to the rake of the windshield, which necessitates moving the front seats back to preserve headroom. The touchscreen and its backup analog controls were easy to reach, but the controls for the seat heaters were awkwardly placed in a nook ahead of the shifter. Toyota offers wireless phone charging, but only as an optional extra on CVT-equipped XSE models.

The Corolla hatchback is near the bottom of its competitive set when it comes to interior space. We found plenty of space up front and the seats themselves were fairly comfortable, but rear-seat legroom is tight, even for a compact car. The Corolla also offers less cargo space than most rivals, at 18 cubic feet with the rear seats in place (Toyota did not publish a cargo space figure with the rear seats folded). The Mazda 3, Subaru Impreza, and Volkswagen Golf all offer at least 20 cubic feet, while the Honda Civic hatchback offers 25.7 cubic feet in LX, EX, and EX-L Navi trims.

Tech in need of polish

The 2019 Corolla hatchback gets Toyota’s latest Entune 3.0 infotainment system, which incorporates Apple CarPlay. Toyota has not added Android Auto to any of its vehicles so far, as negotiations with Google are ongoing.

The touchscreen is responsive, easy to navigate, and is backed up by analog buttons that shortcut to specific menus, as well as all-important knobs for controlling cabin temperature and audio volume. XSE models like our test car get a digital gauge cluster with easy-to-read graphics. However, we’d prefer a setup that places the speedometer (or at least, in our stick-shift test car, the tachometer) front and center, instead of a fuel-economy readout.

The Corolla hatchback was also one of the first vehicles to get the Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 suite of driver aids as standard equipment. Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 includes adaptive cruise control, automatic high beams, Lane Trace Assist (which automatically centers the car in its lane on highways), and Road Sign Assist, which uses a camera to read stop, yield, do not enter, and speed limit signs. It’s supposed to warn the driver in the event these signs are ignored. But if you’re already breaking the speed limit or driving the wrong way down a one-way street, a little dashboard warning probably won’t make much of a difference. Blind spot monitoring is an optional extra on the Corolla hatchback.

Manual-transmission models get an iMT rev-matching feature to help smooth out shifts. It’s a good feature for beginners, but it also makes the engine’s responses a bit unpredictable. It can also be turned completely off, which is what we advise doing once you’ve mastered the clutch pedal. 

Lukewarm hatch

Speaking of clutch pedals, Toyota claims the 2019 Corolla hatchback is the kind of car for driving enthusiasts. In its press materials, Toyota calls the Corolla a “driver’s hatchback.” But while the Corolla is a very nice car to drive, it’s important to keep expectations in check.

The Corolla hatchback is near the bottom of its competitive set when it comes to interior space.

It’s great to see Toyota continuing to offer a manual transmission in an age when shifting gears yourself is about as rare as writing in cursive. But many competitors also offer manuals in their compact hatchbacks; this just happens to be one of the last market segments where a manual transmission option is still the default.

The Corolla’s manual also isn’t the best of the breed. We had no complaints with the clutch pedal, but the shifter was hard to work with. The long lever and imprecise action made us think of blindly fumbling for a light switch in a dark room, not performance driving. The transmission felt like what it is: an economy car gearbox built to a price. Toyota does offer a CVT automatic as an option.

On the highways and back roads of New York’s Hudson Valley, the Corolla quickly earned our respect. Ride quality and overall refinement were impressive for an economy car, and the suspension had an appetite for curves. However, the steering turned out to be a buzzkill. Like most modern steering systems, it gave very little indication of what the front wheels were actually doing. Between that and the fact that the steering wheel feels gigantic in this driver’s hands, we felt like we were piloting a bus at times.

The only engine available in the 2019 Corolla hatchback is a 2.0-liter four-cylinder, which sends 168 horsepower and 151 pound-feet of torque to the front wheels. That’s more power than you get in a Subaru Impreza or Volkswagen Golf, although the VW does have more torque (184 lb-ft), and the Subaru has all-wheel drive.

The Corolla also has a narrow advantage over the 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine offered in lower-level versions of the Mazda 3. That engine develops 155 hp and 150 lb-ft of torque, but Mazda also offers a 2.5-liter four-cylinder with 184 hp and 185 lb-ft. The Honda Civic hatchback gets a 1.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine with 174 hp and 162 lb-ft in standard form, and gets a boost to 180 hp (torque remains the same) in the Sport model, which is also the only Civic hatchback trim level with a manual transmission.

2019 Toyota Corolla hatchback
Stephen Edelstein/Digital Trends

It may not have class-leading power and torque, but the Corolla’s engine proved more than up to the job of propelling a small hatchback. It doesn’t sizzle and aggressively rev, like our favorite four-cylinder engines, but it provides power reliably when you need it.

Manual transmission-equipped Corolla hatchbacks like our test car are rated by the EPA at 31 mpg combined (28 mpg city, 37 mpg highway). We averaged 28.9 mpg, according to the car’s trip computer. Models equipped with the CVT are rated at 36 mpg combined (32 mpg city, 42 mpg highway) in SE guise, and 33 mpg combined (30 mpg city, 38 mpg highway) in XSE guise. Those numbers are very competitive: the CVT Corolla SE even beats the (soon to be discontinued) Chevrolet Cruze diesel in combined and city fuel economy.

Rivals

While hatchbacks are less common than four-door sedans, the 2019 Toyota Corolla hatch still has no shortage of rivals. We’ve narrowed it down to a few key competitors.

Honda Civic (base price: $21,450): The Civic and Corolla have been rivals for decades, but the latest versions of both cars have actually made that rivalry worth caring about again. The Civic offers more interior space than the Corolla, and the Honda Sensing suite of driver aids is comparable to the Corolla’s Toyota Safety Sense 2.0. We also think the Civic is nicer to drive than the Corolla, and it offers more power.

Mazda 3 (base price: $19,345): The Mazda 3 is about to undergo a major redesign, but the outgoing-generation model remains one of the best compact cars around. It’s fantastic to drive and, while the interior is a bit plain, the exterior is gorgeous. The Toyota looks pretty nice, but the Mazda is even better.

Subaru Impreza (base price: $19,095): Subaru’s compact hatchback comes standard with all-wheel drive, making it the obvious choice in regions that get a lot of snow. The Subaru also offers more rear-seat space and cargo volume than the Toyota. However, Subaru only offers a five-speed manual transmission, compared to Toyota’s six-speed gearbox. The Impreza is also more conservatively styled than the Corolla (or most other rivals, for that matter), but some buyers may see that as a plus.

Volkswagen Golf (base price: $21,845): Volkswagen’s interior quality is second to none, and the Golf feels like a more expensive car from behind the wheel. But the VW offers less power than the Toyota, and it can’t match its fuel economy. Volkswagen also has a poor reputation for reliability. 

Peace of mind

Toyota offers a three-year, 36,000-mile, new-car warranty and a five-year, 60,000-mile powertrain warranty. The 2019 Corolla hatchback is a redesigned vehicle, which makes predicting reliability difficult. But Toyota has a good overall reputation for reliability, and the previous-generation Corolla has received generally high reliability ratings.

Ride quality and overall refinement are impressive for an economy car, and the suspension has an appetite for curves.

In addition to the above-mentioned Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 suite of driver aids, the Corolla hatchback comes standard with the automaker’s Star Safety System, which includes industry-standard features like stability and traction control and anti-lock brakes.

The 2019 Toyota Corolla hatchback was named a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), earning the top “Good” score in all tests except the headlight evaluation. Ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) are not available at this time. 

How DT would configure this car

With only two trim levels, Toyota is making things easy for us. We’d stick with the XSE, which we feel offers a good amount of equipment for its price. The manual transmission is still the best option for people who really enjoy driving, but those who are less committed (or just want the best gas mileage) won’t miss much by choosing the CVT.

One option box we would definitely check is the one for our test car’s blue flame paint. As with the Nissan Kicks and its Color Studio option, this bright blue hue shows how big a difference the exterior color can make. It transforms the Corolla from an ordinary car into something cool and fun. 

Our Take

For a long time, Toyota seemed to be resting on its laurels, building reliable but uninspired cars.

That’s not the case anymore.

The 2019 Corolla hatchback offers a good combination of style, driving dynamics, and interior comfort. Other cars do certain things better: the Honda Civic and Mazda 3 are sportier, the Subaru Impreza is better in foul weather, and the Volkswagen Golf feels like a more upscale car. But the Corolla still does everything well.

Should you get one

Yes. While it doesn’t lead in any of those areas, the Corolla is a solid all-rounder. That, combined with Toyota’s still-stellar reputation for reliability, makes the Corolla hatchback a worthy contender.

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