2019 TOYOTA COROLLA HATCHBACK FIRST DRIVE: THE UNEXPECTED

The boring, spacious, and slow U.S.-market Toyota Corolla sedan has a vibrant European cousin that carries none of those traits. New for 2019, the Corolla hatchback reverses traditional Corolla sedan weaknesses in a package that could change consumers’ opinions about the decades-strong nameplate, for better and worse.

Known elsewhere as the Auris (and the replacement for the Corolla iM here), the 2019 Corolla hatchback is one of the most attractive cars in its segment. That pissed-off front styling you’ve seen all over the automotive universe is realized effectively on the sharp Corolla hatch—whether you get the SE or sportier XSE trim—with cool fangs on the lower front fascia and standard LED headlights. Around back the creased sheetmetal is interestingly shaped, except it’s not sheetmetal. The hatch is composed of a resin that allows for more complex surfacing, Toyota claims.

It’s been a very long time since the Corolla could truly be called sporty, but this hatchback takes steps in that direction. Built on Toyota’s TNGA platform and riding on a sport-tuned suspension, the 2019 Corolla hatch has moves that place it in another class of responsiveness and fun above the American-market sedan. It’s no Civic Type R, of course, nor is that the Corolla hatchback’s mission. But with 168 hp and 151 lb-ft of torque from a 2.0-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine, the car has just enough oomph to keep things interesting. Anyone put off by the Corolla sedan’s lethargic responses should drive the hatch.

Then again, anyone who appreciates the Corolla sedan’s interior spaciousness will be put off by the Corolla hatch’s disappointingly small interior. The hatch lacks the class-above spaciousness we’ve come to expect from the Civic and Elantra GT hatchbacks; passenger volume is well below that of hatchbacks from Honda, Hyundai, and Volkswagen. If you compare it to the outgoing iM, well, it’s smaller than that, too. There’s a respectable though not class-leading 18.0 cubic feet of cargo space behind the second-row seats, which is about even with the Volkswagen Golf but not as stuff-friendly as the Honda or Hyundai.

That’s OK, though, as there should be more to #HatchbackLife than the primary mission of being more versatile than a sedan. The Corolla hatch drives well, with a lowered center of gravity and 60 percent more torsional rigidity than its predecessor. The steering communicates more on the XSE model, which rolls on 18-inch wheels and 225/40R18 tires compared to the base SE’s 16s and 205/55R16 rubber. And although you do feel bumps, the XSE shouldn’t prove tiresome as a daily driver. Speaking of which, the updated CVT is still the better choice for commuting, but the also-available rev-matching six-speed manual can—at the push of a button—subtly smooth out gear changes. Cool. As for that CVT, it has a physical launch gear and simulated gears for those who worry about the rubber-band feel of a CVT. Those simulated gear changes mostly stay in the background, only occasionally messing with the key benefit of CVTs: everyday smoothness.

Inside, a decent amount of the 2019 Corolla hatch is covered in soft-touch surfaces, and drivers will have good front and side visibility; you can improve the view out back by folding down the rear-seat outboard headrests. (Thanks for that functionality, Toyota.) An 8.0-inch touchscreen sits atop the dash on every Corolla hatchback, with standard Apple CarPlay (but not Android Auto just yet). Corolla SE hatchbacks get a more basic but acceptable instrument cluster with a vertical 4.2-inch display on the right side, whereas XSEs get a more modern 7.0-inch central digital display flanked by analog gauges. The system’s welcome animation is fun, and the screen’s blue speedometer/info-display combination looks sharp, but the digital mode doesn’t use enough of the screen’s width, making it feel like it’s not much more than the SE’s vertical-screen graphics on a larger display. If we had an XSE, we’d just enjoy it in analog mode.