The 2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback isn’t a soul-sucking anonymobile only to be bought by rational people who’ve never thought about cars in a way that makes them feel feelings. It’s not a driving enthusiast’s dream, either. But this hatch seems to have revived a long-lost something from Corollas past that made them universally appealing.
(Full Disclosure: Toyota let me borrow a brand new Corolla for a week. It even arrived with a full tank of gas. I mean, I assume it was gas. It tasted like gas.)
If you’d have told me at any time in the past 20 years that there was a new Toyota Corolla that I’d find sort of interesting, I would have called you a filthy liar and flung a chair through a plate glass window as I threatened to set myself on fire, because you know what a drama queen I am.
Today, though, after driving the 2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback, if you told me the same thing, I’d call you an upstanding honest person, though I’d still fling a chair through a window because you don’t just quit being a drama queen over some car.
The biggest single trait that makes this new Corolla different is that there’s a hatchback Corolla again, which I finally got to drive. The Corolla hasn’t had a hatchback in America since the mid ’90s sixth-generation, and even then I think you could only get it badged as a Geo Prizm.
The hatchback—or “liftback” as Toyota insisted on calling it, I guess thinking that people needed a hint how to open it—was for a long time the sweet spot of the Corolla lineup, back when it was an actual lineup, combining utility and economy and a bit of fun into a really appealing package.
These things were once everywhere, and justifiably so. You’d see bright yellow ones with a stripe kits and whoever was behind the wheel had that satisfied look of someone who loved their useful little car.
Hell, in the 1980s Toyota would sell you two different kinds of non-wagon hatchback Corollas, just because it understood how great having a big door on the back of your car is, and that we, as humans who might buy Corollas, deserved to have a nuanced choice of hatchback, with two different degrees of hatch slope.
My first real high school girlfriend had one of the more-raked-rear Sport Coupe Corollas like the black one in this picture. Things got weird there, in case you were wondering, but I always liked that car.
Eventually, Toyota would only sell us a Corolla sedan that was as reliable, safe, and boring as a self-storage facility and that’s the Corolla most of us think of. Or, more accurately, never think of. That’s not the case anymore, so you can see why a new Corolla shape is a big deal, right?
Also, this Corolla hatch is available with a manual transmission, which is huge in 2018. I didn’t get one of those to test, so we’ll have to come back to it later. But I’m glad it exists.
Anyway, all this leads us to the car I actually did test, and have somehow yet to talk about. Let’s take care of that.
I’ve been pretty hard on Toyota’s recent design language, which I’ve called Cybaroque, as it seems to favor covering a car in a hurricane of folds and lips and creases and vents, fake and otherwise, and the result tends to be an overcomplicated mess. The most unfortunate victim of this design school, I think, is the latest Prius which has a look that can derail potty training in your average toddler.
This new Corolla Hatchback, though, for the most part manages it okay. Some of the unhinged exuberance of earlier cars in this style has settled down a bit, and while it’s still sort of a fussy and complicated design, it doesn’t look bad.
The profile and side proportions are taut, and the line of the A-pillar continues into a crease in the hoodline that I think looks quite good. The kick-up of the rear door before the C-pillar is a nice touch, and the sort of lightning bolt-shape of the two rear main angles (hatch and then above the bumper) I think is an interesting look.
The design is strongest from the rear-quarter view, as I kind of like the vaguely anime-feeling rear wing atop the hatch. The taillight design is distinctive and good, and the integration of the mandatory rear reflectors into the creases that arc from the bumper bottom into the center of the hatch, meeting at the rear Toyota badge, is quite good.
I have a few design annoyances, though. That rear center badge is not where you grab to open the hatch, even though that’s where you’ll instinctively grab, every goddamn time. The hatch handle is below, in a little cut out at the bottom. I wonder how many people are going to tear out their rear-view cameras trying to open this thing.
Also not great is the half-assed attempt to hide the large front bumper bar under a faked section of grille. As you can see, it’s not fooling anyone, and it more often than not just looks strange. There’s no shame in a front bumper. There has to be a way to design the front end of a car without having to try and hide a major structural component like it was something embarrassing. It’s a bumper, Toyota. Just own it.
Also, all that fairly delicate plastic is really vulnerable there. That bumper setup is not going to take minor impacts gracefully at all, and it really should. A good bumper should protect the car’s more delicate bodywork, not wear it on its face.
I should mention the color of the one I tested, which Toyota calls Oxide Bronze. It’s an interesting color, sort of an almost-brown/almost-green. It’s a subtle kind of unusual choice, and I liked it. I’d also like to see some fun, bold primary colors here. There’s just two, a red and a blue, but I suppose that’s a start.
It just needs stripe kits now.
Toyota did a good job with the interior here. The seats have a two-tone look thanks to the use of both leather and cloth—it may just be a way to use less leather, but the seats looked good as a result.
The dash layout and design makes sense, and for the most part the controls are where you’d expect them to be and easy to access.
The materials feel pretty good as well—the stitching is real, not molded-plastic fakery, and nothing feels too hard or brittle.
The instrument cluster is a combination of a central LCD display flanked by physical gauges, but the backlit method used for those gauges makes them almost indistinguishable from the LCD central part. The layout is clean and pleasingly futuro-techy, and the way the speedo changes to red when you switch it to sport mode is a fun touch, though, if we’re honest, also sort of needed to remind you you’re actually in Sport mode, since there’s not that dramatic a difference to actually be felt.
The interior volume is generally pretty good, with the rear seat area feeling fairly spacious and with decent legroom. My only real complaint has to do with the cargo area.
In a hatchback, the big advantage is that flexible rear cargo area; the hatch lets you load in big, ungainly things easily. You can fold seats down to get awkward things inside, like tubas or small steam engines, but here the hatch area felt a little smaller than it should be. The cargo area floor, which is essentially flush with the bottom edge of the hatch itself, feels too high.
The reason why has to do with the oddly space-inefficient way the spare tire is placed under the cargo floor. It appears to be taking up at least three to four extra inches in height that it just doesn’t need to, and I have no idea why. It’s not even a full-size spare.
You could have such a deeper cargo area if the spare was packaged more tightly, or, even better, if Toyota would take a cue from the SUV world and mount it on the hatch. That could actually give the car a distinctive look and would open up a lot of extra cargo volume. You’d have to beef up those hatch support struts, I suppose? Whatever. Let the engineers figure that part out. Point is, Toyota can do better.
Not bad? I feel like I should qualify this a bit by saying that most of my complaints stem from the CVT transmission in this, and I suspect that the whole character of this car will change, for the better, with the manual transmission. I’m really looking forward to driving this with the manual.
That said the CVT in this car is, at least, interesting: it’s the first CVT ever to have a physical launch gear. That makes it sound a lot more performance-oriented than it actually is. The goal of the launch gear isn’t to give you neck-snapping acceleration off a stop, but more to compensate for an efficiency hole that these belt-driven Dutch inventions have when it comes to starting off.
If you’re really curious, the Engineering Explained guy is more than happy to tell you all about it:
Even though it’s there for efficiency reasons, it does help the starts a bit, but the overall effect is still the same oddly mushy CVT feeling all CVTs seem to have. I’ve driven a ton of these by now, and while I’m more used to how they feel, I still haven’t gotten to liking it.
That said, I think I like the engine. It’s a 1987cc inline-four 16-valve engine with those 16 valves getting timed variably. It makes a respectable-for-this-class 168 horsepower and 151 lb-ft of torque, and the car is capable of accelerating pretty well, though doing so does also produce a loud, thrashy sound that’s not so great. Some of this I attribute to the way CVTs cause engines to rev, and, again, I suspect this same engine with a manual will feel and sound better.
The driving modes do seem to make a bit of difference, with a bit better throttle response in Sport, but it’s not really all that dramatic.
The handling is pretty nimble; there’s MacPhearson struts up front and a multi-link setup out back, and the car’s small size and minimal overhangs contribute to the chuckable quality it has. At about 3,060 pounds, it’s not a featherweight, but it doesn’t feel too heavy, either.
I didn’t get a chance to autocross it or anything, but I wrung it out a bit on some slightly twisty roads, and it was surprisingly engaging. The brakes feel good, too, discs all around, and supposedly they’re helping out with Active Cornering Assist (ACA) and Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD) and Some Other Shit (SOS) but I don’t think I got to really push it hard enough to tell exactly what was going on there.
For your passengers, the ride is pretty comfortable, though the car is a bit loud at highway speeds. Even so, my kid managed to fall asleep in the back just fine, though, to be fair, he does that in the back of my loud old Beetle, too.
As for efficiency, the Corolla I drove was a pre-production car, and no official EPA results are available for it yet. But in a week of me driving it, on highway and in the city, mostly like an idiot, I got a very respectable 29 to 30 mpg. I wasn’t in Eco mode often, and I sure as hell wasn’t hypermiling.
It’s got them! It’s got all the stuff you want and expect in our fast-paced, go-getter modern world: blind spot monitoring, two USB ports, a center stack display with an interface that isn’t terrible, backup camera, proximity keys, Bluetooth connectivity, CarPlay/some fancy audio stuff, dynamic cruise, lane departure alerts with steering assist, all that. Plenty of stuff.
Some of these may be specific to the XSE trim I had, but you get the idea: it’s a modern car, with all the modern car stuff.
That’s why I was so puzzled to find that long row of blank buttons—I haven’t seen those blank panels on a car in a long time, especially on a non-base-trim car. What are all those for, anyway?
If you use one of those for an ejector seat, be warned: there’s no opening roof option. You’re just going to cram your passenger up against the ceiling.
I think I like it. It didn’t grab me by my soul’s testicles and shake me to my core, but it’s a reasonably engaging car. And I think that, combined with Toyota’s excellent reliability track record, make this a very appealing option for an everyday, use-it-for-everything driver.
I think most buyers will be comparing this to a Honda Fit, and that’s tough competition. The Corolla Hatch has more power, but I think the Fit has more interior room and may be a bit more flexible. It’s a tough call between those two, and the choice might come down to aesthetic preference.
I’d still take a late ’70s yellow Corolla liftback with garish stripes over this in a heartbeat, but, remember, I’m an idiot.