The Toyota's compact car is all new for 2019 and the first model to emerge is the sport-themed Corolla Hatchback. It most directly replaces the Corolla iM in the Toyota lineup. Sharing mechanicals with the new Corolla sedan, the hatchback is a front-drive, 4-door hatch that seats five. Competitors include the Chevrolet Cruise, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, Mazda 3, Subaru Impreza, and Volkswagen Golf.
Riding on a 103.9-inch wheelbase that's almost 2.5-inches shorter than the previous and current sedan, the Corolla Hatchback is slightly larger than the Volkswagen Golf. Corolla Hatchback's wheelbase is 1.5-inches longer than the iM it replaces.
Two models are offered, the $21,090 SE and the $24,090 XSE. Both come standard with a new-for-2019 168-horsepower, 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine. Transmission choices include either a 6-speed manual transmission with rev matching functionality or a 2-speed continuously variable automatic transmission.
Both models come with Entune 3.0 audio with 8-inch touchscreen, Wi-Fi connect, Amazon Alexa, and Apple CarPlay compatibility. Also standard is Toyota Safety Sense 2.0, which includes pre-collision warning and braking, dynamic cruise control, lane-departure alert with steering assist, automatic high-beam headlights, lane-tracing assist, and road sign assist. Available on automatic-transmission models are blind-spot alert and a JBL sound system with navigation system and wireless charging.
Corolla Hatchback's new 2.0-liter four is significantly more powerful than the 1.8-liter four found in the outgoing Toyota iM. In fact, it produces 31 more horsepower and 26 lb-ft more torque. That's good enough for a 0-60 mph sprint of about 8.5 seconds when equipped with the 2-speed CVT automatic. A second or two slower than most competitors, but likely more than enough oomph for most owners. Unfortunately, the engine isn't the smoothest nor the most refined in hard acceleration. Thankfully it quiets down when cruising.
Both transmissions are worth an extra mention. The slick-shifting manual comes with a unique feature that automatically matches engine RPM with vehicle speed to provide smoother gear changes and quicker throttle response when downshifting. The CVT automatic has a true first gear helps the Corolla pull away from stops like a traditional automatic and also has pre-defined ratios when operating as a CVT. The overall result is a CVT that feels like a regular transmission but offers improved fuel efficiency.
Though the engine may be more powerful it's also more efficient. EPA numbers for the XSE/CVT automatic are 30 MPG city and 38 MPG highway. Impressive indeed. In routine driving it's easy to get close to the EPA highway number, but 35 MPG is more realistic overall.
When it comes to road holding, Toyota has taken a lot of criticism over the years -- in many cases justly so. Thankfully, the stiffer structure of the new Corolla makes a world of difference. When in upscale XSE trim, the Corolla Hatchback delivers a ride that's both composed and firm but free from undue harshness. There's enough compliance in the suspension and tires to soak up large bumps and soften minor impacts, but not so much that the car bounces and bobs on badly broken roads.
Toyota has taken pains to improve steering feel and overall composure. The Corolla Hatch isn't quite a match for the class leading Golf GTI -- yet -- but it is significantly more athletic than any Toyota-badge-wearing predecessors. Turn in is crisp and the front tires have ample grip on dry roads. Brakes have good stopping power and the pedal feel is fantastic. There's almost no body lean in quick transitions and the Corolla Hatchback is a delight to push onto twisty on ramps or around quick corners. Ultimately, the transition to front-drive understeer is undramatic and progressive.
Though a value leader, Corolla sports a nice interior that's class appropriate in terms of design and materials. Thankfully, the center screen is touch control and Toyota even added Apple Car Play support (though Android Auto is still unavailable). Going upscale on the XSE brings lots of soft-touch materials as well.
On the bas, the seats are firm and offer only modest support. Step up to the XSE and bolstering is improved. Head and leg room are great up front. In back, there's not as much space as Corolla fans might expect, likely because the hatch rides on a shortened wheelbase. Still, two adults will find enough room to get comfortable on short drives. Entry exit is easy and excellent outward visibility is otherwise compromised by a smallish rear window.
Toyota's dashboard layout is fairly simple, but there is a difference in instrument cluster design between SE and XSE (with the XSE getting fancier gauges and displays). The center stack is dominated by a large screen and well-placed climate and audio controls. Ancillary controls are easy to operate day or night.
With seat-up cargo capacity at just 18 cubic feet, the Corolla Hatch disappoints somewhat. Plus, the sloping design really hampers when loading bulky items. The rear seats fold flat to increase cargo space somewhat. Interior storage is scant with just a few bins in the center console.
What a difference a year makes. Corolla iM was somewhat uninspired and paled in comparison to true hot hatches, but the new for '19 Corolla Hatchback is a true competitor that falls just short of much pricier competitors. Strengths include nimble road manners, spritely engine, excellent fuel economy and reasonable pricing. Unfortunately, interior space could be better and you can only get some important safety features with the automatic transmission. All told, Corolla Hatchback might just be the subcompact surprise of the year.