2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback SE

A huge step in the right direction

Words by: Adam Allen

Let’s give props to Aiko Toyoda!

In late 2016, Toyota’s head honcho decried that he’s done with boring cars, a proclamation served up much to the delight of anyone who dearly misses the last generation Supra, MR2 or Celica, amongst others. Toyoda-San knew he was making a bold claim- as one of the largest automotive manufactures on the planet, ushering in profound change isn’t impossible, but it does take a while. Since he threw down the gauntlet to his stylists and engineers, progress of marching towards this new mandate has been commendably brisk. We have a new Camry that is vastly more handsome and entertaining than any in history, a new Supra on the way and now, the Corolla Hatchback we recently welcomed into the Carpages Garage.

Hang on a moment. Did you just use the words ‘Corolla’ and ‘handsome’ in the same sentence?

Hard to accept, we know. But just look at it- if we wouldn’t have told you it was a Corolla, would you have believed us? That’s right folks- we’re going to go ahead and boldy claim that the Corolla Hatchback is the best looking Toyota on sale today. These are indeed exciting times we live in, aren’t they? It looks particularly fanciful in Blue Flame paint, which is about as far away from Corolla’s default livery of beige as you can get. Toyota front grilles can be pretty polarizing these days, but this car makes the design language look cool- even the silhouette is nice to behold, reminding us of a Japanese take on one of our favorite hatches, the Volkswagen GTI.

It’s not just nice on the outside, either…

The excitement level has been ratchetted up on the inside as well, but not as dramatically as the exterior. That’s OK because what the cockpit lacks in pizzazz it makes up for in function. Toyota’s expertise in build quality and ergonomics are on full display and everything is tasteful in a non-descript kind of way. Corolla aficionados will run their fingers over the various surfaces and find nary a hard surface anywhere, at least in areas you can see. A 8-inch sized infotainment screen takes up residence in the central part of the dash, and while we aren’t huge fans of Toyota’s Entune suite of apps everything works well enough. Sorry Android users- apparently Toyota didn’t get the memo that your devices enjoy a massive 85% of market share for smartphones, so only those with iPhones will be able to connect. You want driver aids? Toyota’s got you covered and goes all in with its best-in-class system called Toyota Safety Sense 2.0, which includes Pre-Collision, Pedestrian Detection, Lane Departure Alert/Steering Assist, all-speed Dynamic Radar Cruise Control and Automatic High Beams.

Who would have thought the Corolla would become a Save the Manuals evangelist?

To its credit, Toyota has always offered a manual gearbox in the Corolla, but it served more as a cost savings alternative to the slush box rather than the enthusiast’s choice. Just like the company’s admirable dedication to naturally aspirated engines, a manual is still available and our tester was thusly equipped. We wish that ol’ Aiko would send his engineers to hang out at Honda for a little because the Corolla’s manual could use a dose of precision and tactility. The throws are decent, but the clutch take-up is vague, demanding more concentration for smooth starts that you might anticipate. Interestingly, when you spec the manual there’s a switch just ahead oft the shifter labeled ‘iMT’ which, when pressed, allows for perfect rev-matched downshifts. You’ll want to press that button every time you set off, because the pedals aren’t ideally spaced for heel-and-toe downshifts. See, we told you Toyota is trying!

This sounds like it’s shaping up to be a fitting wingman to the flagship Supra.

Not so fast. While the Corolla Hatchback is undeniably sportier than ever before, it isn’t ready for the Big Leagues just yet. Let us take a look at the engine, a new 2.5 litre unit that Toyota calls ‘Dynamic Force’. We’ll start with the good points- it makes much more power than before, it sports a lofty 13:1 compression ration but still runs happily on regular and will sip that fuel in a very miserly way. Now for the downside- the horsepower seems to be provided by Clydesdales instead of Thoroughbreds (meaning it doesn’t feel all that quick) it doesn’t sound thrilled to be revved past 4,000 rpm and when shifting gears its management software causes it to hang to revs more dearly than an aging high school star quarterback desperately clinging to faded glory. Again, we admire Toyota’s decision to go naturally aspirated but perhaps a turbo would help in adding to the pace this car craves. We discovered that the engine will not protest being shifting into 6th gear even at sedate city speeds, not lugging or juddering whatsoever- an asset to those steadfast on wringing every bit of energy from every drop of gasoline. The chassis is also a huge step in the right direction, starting with the decision to turf the twist beam rear suspension for a more contemporary and sophisticated multilink setup. The TNGA platform- which happens to be a good one- underpins this car as well as others in the lineup including the jumbo Highlander. Handling is actually fun and it does not come at the expense of comfort- on a long highway slog we appreciated the refinement and settled in for long, appreciably quiet cruise.

What might go wrong?

As you’ve gathered by now, the Corolla Hatchback makes good on the herculean task of nudging the model out of being associated with an appliance to something you might sincerely want to drive, but there is still work to be done. We griped about vague clutch feel earlier, and we’ll add steering feel to that list as well. There’s a numbness there that doesn’t inspire much confidence, although its sense of path control is as good as you’d want and it refuses to drift absentmindedly within its lane. Those coming from Corolla sedans and the iM Hatchback will lament the shrunken accommodations in the rears seats and cargo area- Uber drivers, who appear to be huge fans of Corollas, might want to stick with the sedan version because of its advantages in rear seat room and its more commodious trunk.

Should I buy a Corolla Hatchback?

If you were thinking Corolla- and there is a lot of you out there, helping to make this world’s best-selling nameplate of all time- you really should check out the hatchback. The sedan is virtuous in some aspects and has a vast following but line the two up beside one another and doesn’t the hatch seem like the obvious choice? Of course it does. Stephen Beatty, Toyota Canada’s corporate vice-president, said recently of the Corolla Hatchback: “there’s a golden opportunity here for us to change the perceptions of this generation”. He’s right about that, but we think the brand could do more to capitalize on the moment. We suggest a TRD massaged version, or a geared towards enthusiasts XRS model. Since it’s built on the TNGA platform which will accept say, a puffed up 2.0 litre turbo driving all four wheels- why not sell it as an homage to the Celica’s days as a competitive rally car? Now THAT would be something  which Aiko Toyoda would be proud of- another huge step in the right direction.

2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback SE— Specifications

  • Price as tested: $25,753
  • Body Type: 5-door, 5-passenger hatchback
  • Powertrain Layout: Front engine/Front-wheel drive
  • Engine:  2.5-litre inline-4, DOHC, 16 valves
  • Horsepower: 168 @ 6,600 rpm
  • Torque (lb-ft) 151 @ 4,800 rpm
  • Transmission: 6-speed manual
  • Curb weight: 1,374 kg (3,029 lbs.)
  • Observed combined fuel economy: 8.5L/100 km (28 mpg)