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One slightly unfortunate consequence of our current era of cars, where everything is faster, safer, cleaner, more efficient and more high-tech than ever before, is that there are very few true surprises anymore.

A new Porsche 911 is out this year. I know it’s going to be very good. Having driven plenty of BMWs, I can almost tell you how the new Toyota Supra will feel—probably quick, probably with superb handling, but probably with unimpressive engine sounds and too-synthetic steering. And I know how great a new McLaren is long before a member of my staff ever turns in their review.

That’s why I liked the all-new 2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback so much. Turns out it’s full of surprises. And the best one is that when it’s equipped with a six-speed manual gearbox, it’s shockingly fun to drive without ever feeling like a cheap, small car—which, incidentally, it still is.

(Full Disclosure: Toyota loaned us a 2019 Corolla hatchback for a week with a full tank of gas.)

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By now, the new Corolla has emerged as a kind of unexpected, low-key favorite among the Jalopnik staff. Jason Torchinsky said the Hatchback, even equipped with a CVT as his was, is the first Corolla in a very long time that’s actually worth caring about. Raphael Orlove says the new 52-mpg Corolla Hybrid makes the current (and unfortunately hideous) Prius irrelevant if you’re looking for a car to help you skimp on your gasoline bill.

That’s why I was eager to drive what’s arguably the best enthusiast-choice Corolla since the XRS of the early 2000s, or since Takumi Fujiwara took his sliding around mountain roads to battle with RX-7s and occasionally deliver tofu, if you want to go back further than that.

You wouldn’t know this from the specs on paper. Built on Toyota’s New Global Architecture, a modular platform that will underpin most Toyotas from now on regardless of drivetrain layout, Corolla Hatchbacks are powered by a fairly humble non-turbo 2.0-liter four-cylinder with a claimed 168 horsepower and 151 lb-ft of torque. Power goes to the front wheels, as expected.

By all that, you’d assume it’s, well... another Corolla. Small, extremely dependable, slow, safe, basic transportation. Nothing interesting or entertaining, nothing worth driving in any sort of enthusiastic sense.

That’s the wrong assumption, because this is a deeply enjoyable Corolla, and one I looked forward to driving while I had it in my care.

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Those power specs won’t impress anyone, but the Corolla manages to have plenty of pep around town, more than enough for everyday commuting and errand-running. Lesser sedan models get a 1.8-liter four with 132 HP, but on any trim level I feel like the bigger 2.0-liter is worth springing for.

Granted, it won’t dazzle anyone with its highway acceleration in particular, but passing is nothing a few quick downshifts won’t solve.

And that’s when we get to the main selling point around this model: the manual transmission, which is very good and adds a ton of fun in the classic way a small economy car can be fun when you’re allowed to have more control over it.

The shifter here is a modern delight to use. This is a light and easy gearbox that’s extremely user-friendly and novice-friendly, as it should be. Shifts are not too long, not too short and slide into gear easily. It’s a tad on the rubbery side, but it doesn’t feel like some cheap econobox accessory, though it’s not as good as the one in the Honda Civic. (But honestly, Honda still does manual gearboxes better than almost everyone else.)

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It falls down a bit for having a clutch with a vaguely defined catch point, but in general it’s a very fun unit that adds a lot to this car.

I kept going back to the idea that this would be an excellent car for manual transmission beginners, for younger buyers who want to embrace the stick shift life but also want something new—or at least a great value that competes with a more nicely equipped used car. I believe you can master a stick shift on anything—I learned on my dad’s C5 Corvette Z06, and I turned out fine—but I can’t imagine many cars are better partners to manual-transmission newcomers than the Corolla.

Beyond all that, the Corolla benefits from the fact that it’s still small. Not even the smallest car Toyota makes; that distinction goes to the Yaris and Yaris Hatchback. But the Corolla hasn’t gained girth and weight the way the Civic has. This Corolla is eight inches shorter than the Civic Hatchback, with a three-inch shorter wheelbase and is an inch less wide, though they both weigh around 3,000 pounds.

But this smaller size makes for a car that’s shockingly as tossable in the corners as it is easy to park. On more than a few occasions it reminded me of the things I liked best about my F56 Mini Cooper S. It hasn’t ballooned into an almost-Camry—it’s stayed small, and it’s more fun for it. As a result it turns in and changes direction rather quickly, and it’s vastly more enjoyable to put on a good winding road than you’d expect.

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And inside it’s not bad at all. The current Corolla has a clean, modern design that, giant tacked-on nav screen aside, doesn’t look or feel cheap. The seats are comfortable and the hatch area is plenty roomy, though the Corolla is down about seven cubic feet of cargo volume to the Civic hatchback. Front legroom is the same on those cars, but the Corolla sacrifices several inches of rear legroom. I found it to be a little tight back there, but fine for kid-hauling and shorter journeys for adults.

Still, it’s again a testament to how good new cars are. On this humble Corolla you can have standard features or options like a digital gauge cluster, radar cruise control, backup camera, automatic high beams, lots of airbags, lane keep assist, blind spot warnings and more, all for not a lot of money.

All told, it’s hard to find many disappointments with the Corolla Hatchback. The car has a plucky spirit, owing to its manual, small size and decent handling. It’s just fun to drive. The engine’s still kind of whatever, but it gets the job done.

I think you’d buy this if you felt like the new Civic has become too large for your needs, or that the Mazda 3 has gone too far upmarket to suit your budget.

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The Corolla Hatchback starts at $19,990, and the top-trim XSE model you see here starts at $22,990 both excluding destination charges. That includes heated leather seats, dual-zone climate control, the eight-inch touch screen and the smart key. No other options were checked, so with delivery it came to $24,325.

Keep in mind it’s for a spec you won’t see much out on the roads. When was the last time you ran into a Corolla with heated leather seats? I’m not sure I ever have. Most buyers will be fine with the lesser SE model.

Considering your average new car price is around $34,000 these days and this thing feels like it has everything you’d ever really need in a new vehicle, it figures into a good deal. Especially so when you consider this is both a Toyota and a Corolla, two factors that will likely make this car last forever, or at least be something you know deep down in your soul will last a very long time.

People buy these cars because they know they won’t have to worry about them much. It’s nice to have that security and a good time, too.

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My major question after giving it back was this: Is it somehow better than the new Mazda 3, another favorite that’s now arguably better than ever? The Mazda is bigger, more upscale and, again, more expensive. And I haven’t driven its very latest incarnation yet, though I will later this summer.

But the fact that I even have to wonder if a Corolla is as good as a Mazda 3—the perennial enthusiast’s choice for small sedans and hatches—speaks to what a good job Toyota has done here.

And if Toyota truly manages to beat Mazdaspeed to the punch with a hot hatchback version, well... that changes the equation, doesn’t it?

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