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2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback First Drive: The Changes It Needed

2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback; Cars.com photos by Christian Lantry

The all-new 2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback is a head-turner (in a good way), bringing some sorely needed styling updates, inside and out, versus the two 2018 models bearing the Corolla name, the sedan and the Corolla iM hatchback, previously sold as the Scion iM. Though it's easy to get caught up in those more cosmetic updates, don't let the new clothes distract you from the more significant updates to the 2019's technology and safety offerings.

Related: Toyota Hatches New Corolla Variant to Replace Ex-Scion iM

The Corolla Hatchback isn't based on the current Toyota Corolla sedan or the Toyota Corolla iM, which it replaces (that sound you hear right now is nobody crying because that car also left much to be desired). It has much more in common with the European 2019 Toyota Auris, with a new platform and different enough powertrains and new technology to be considered its own entity. Toyota currently declines to comment on whether the Hatchback is a reliable preview of an updated sedan, but it's logical and likely. If the sedan adopts the Corolla Hatchback's changes, it will be a dramatically better car.

I headed to Toyota's national media drive in San Diego to drive several new variants of the Corolla Hatchback to see how all those changes play out on the road. (Per company policy, Cars.com pays for its airfare and lodging at such automaker-hosted events.) The 2019 Corolla Hatchback will be offered in two trim levels, SE and XSE.

What's New

Beyond the new styling inside and out, the Corolla Hatchback features a few firsts not just for Corolla models, but also for the Toyota brand itself: a new 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, two new transmissions and the new Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 suite of safety technologies (which is standard) that includes a few key additions that improve the systems. Toyota's new global architecture lies underneath, along with suspension upgrades such as an independent multilink rear suspension that's superior to the 2018 sedan's semi-independent torsion beam design and lowers the car's center of gravity.

There are technology updates as well: A larger, 8-inch touchscreen is now standard and the multimedia system adds much needed connectivity features such as Apple CarPlay and Amazon Alexa. Two USB ports and a Qi wireless smartphone charging pad are also available, as is a 7-inch electronic display that serves most instrument panel functions.

How It Drives

The Corolla Hatchback's new 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine makes 168 horsepower and 151 pounds-feet of torque, an improvement of 31 hp and 25 pounds-feet over the Corolla iM, significant jumps that help the Corolla Hatchback feel lighter on its feet (a needed change).

What I was more enthusiastic to test were the new transmissions, the Dynamic-Shift continuously variable transmission and a six-speed manual, both of which are available on either trim level.

The CVT features a fixed 1st gear that it uses to launch from a stop before transferring over to operate like a conventional CVT. This provides smoother launches and eliminates some of the initial rubber-band-type delay in accelerator response that conventional CVTs exhibit off the line. The transmission also features 10 preset gear ratios that drivers can flip among with the standard paddle shifters, giving the feeling of a conventional stepped-gear transmission.

The CVT feels in many ways like a normal automatic transmission, which is the point. Off the line, the fixed gear offers more linear acceleration, and it transitions into conventional CVT mode seamlessly. I couldn't pick it out while I was driving around town.

The new six-speed manual transmission is a big improvement over that in the Corolla iM, which has a weirdly high clutch catch point and gears that are hard to find. (When reviewing the Scion iM, I found it so distasteful that I preferred the CVT.) With the new manual, the catch is lower and the shifter moves more naturally.

The hatchback Toyota Corolla manual transmission also comes with a new rev-matching feature: Click on the "iMT" button behind the shifter and the engine will automatically rev up to meet the transmission's speed if you select a lower gear, for smoother downshifts. It's a system we've tested in other cars from the Nissan 370Z to the Porsche 911, but never in a car this affordable.

The transmission's ability to manipulate the engine rpm gives it a fun additional benefit — it's basically impossible to stall it, unless you really try. On flat ground, I tried giving the car minimal throttle, then no throttle, then just letting the clutch go completely. After dropping the clutch with no gas, the Corolla Hatchback crawled forward at around 3 mph, seemly saying to me, "Is that about it?" This makes the Corolla Hatchback a great car for beginners, or those interested in learning how to drive a manual.

The powertrain and suspension changes make the Corolla Hatchback a well-driving compact, though I'd stop short of calling it a sporty one. Competitors like the Mazda3 and Volkswagen Golf offer a crisper driving experience, but the new Toyota still drives circles around the hatchback it replaces.

Interior

Despite all those mechanical updates (which do work quite well), I think that the Toyota Corolla Hatchback's more meaningful changes are its improved multimedia and safety technology.

The multimedia system, as mentioned before, gets a larger, standard 8-inch touchscreen and connectivity upgrades. Moving up to the XSE adds satellite radio and Entune 3.0 Connected Services, while an optional third system adds native (built-in) navigation, replacing the standard Scout GPS link compatible system that employs the in-dash display but relies on an app running on your smartphone.

Not only does the new screen look better, but its position is great as well. It sits high up on the dashboard for easy visibility but not so far forward that it's unreachable. In other vehicles with high screens, like Toyota's also redesigned 2019 Avalon sedan, you need to lean way forward to reach those controls or have Go-Go-Gadget arms. In the Toyota Corolla Hatchback I could stay seated comfortably in the driver's seat and just reach an arm up to access all corners of the touchscreen and the physical controls flanking it. The rest of the Corolla Hatchback's controls are tightly clustered right underneath the screen and easy to access as well.

Backseat Crunch

All of that is good stuff, so what's the rub? Fortunately, the driver won't experience it, but a friend/spouse/child might. The backseat seems to be have been utterly neglected; there isn't much legroom or headroom to speak of and the back of the center console is completely bare. That means no USB charging port, no 12-volt outlet and no visible air vents — a shortcoming that makes motion-sensitive folks like me cringe.

Much Needed Safety Innovations

Every Toyota Corolla Hatchback comes equipped with a suite of safety technology called Toyota Safety Sense 2.0, a mix of new technologies and updates to existing systems that were a part of TSS-P, the standard suite of safety features found on the 2018 Corolla sedan.

New features include lane keeping for the lane departure prevention (Lane Tracing Assist or LTA) system, road sign reading and daytime detection for cyclists, which is tied into the forward automatic emergency braking. Toyota also says the system's pedestrian detection has been upgraded to work better in low-light situations.

My favorite change comes to the adaptive cruise control system, which is now a full-speed system, meaning it can work all the way down to a stop, making the feature much more useful in stop-and-go traffic, which I appreciate living in Los Angeles. This system is available only with the CVT; manual-transmission models get an adaptive cruise control system that works between 15 and 110 mph.

Conclusion

The 2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback is a comprehensive package, with greater visual appeal and performance than the 2018 sedan and Toyota Corolla iM that's backed up by big leaps in technology. It has transformed a car that used to inspire yawns into a fun, funky compact hatchback that offers serious standard safety features.

We are still waiting for final pricing and fuel-economy details, but unless those come back as large surprises I can confidently say that the new hatchback is the most appealing Corolla I've seen in a few generations. Those details should come shortly, as the 2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback heads to dealerships in July.

Cars.com's Editorial department is your source for automotive news and reviews. In line with Cars.com's long-standing ethics policy, editors and reviewers don't accept gifts or free trips from automakers. The Editorial department is independent of Cars.com's advertising, sales and sponsored content departments.

 
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