Test Drive: 2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback 6MT SE Upgrade

Toyota's been on a new-product tear over the last year or two, with the surprise that Toyota, after generations of beige, says that it's aiming all of its new cars at enthusiasts, adding fun to drive to the company's reputation for reliability and solidness. Have they hit that target with the all-new 2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback? Well, this is one of the most involving drives I've had in the last year. So let's take a look.

Practicality: 5/10

The Corolla Hatchback is an all-new model for 2019. Sort of. It replaces the iM that was originally a Scion. In a world where cars seem to be growing entire segments in a single generation, the 'Rolla Hatch holds the line: It's 0.6 inches shorter than the car it replaces.

But despite the very similar dimensions, this car shrinks inside. Less headroom, and a massive 71 mm less legroom in the back. What was a large car inside is now cramped compared with anything else in the class, and even smaller passengers noted the tight quarters. Does that mean more cargo space? Nope. Even the trunk is tiny compared with the competition. And almost no space for storing stuff like your phone in the front either. That reduced headroom hurts outward visibility since you're looking through the roofliner in multiple directions.

Style: 8/10

That small interior manages to look distinctly Toyota without sharing much of anything with the brand's other current models. But it's decidedly dull despite the attempts to add some contrast stitching and leather-look material on the dash. The door panels are acres of dark and hard plastics that look as cold as they feel.

It's a shame because this is a good-looking car on the outside. It bridges the gap between the future-robot Civic and the far-too-sleek Mazda3. It's a look that, like the interior, is 100 percent Corolla while sharing no specific elements with its predecessor. Forget Volvo's Thor's hammer accent lights, these headlights look like a weapon straight out of Game of Thrones, and it's pretty cool. The wing's a touch boy-racer, but it's smaller than ones Mercedes is using these days so it must be tasteful.

Safety: 9/10

This is a Toyota, so it comes loaded with about a hundred billion standard active safety features. Ok, that's an exaggeration, but there are a lot. Toyota's Safety Sense 2.0 with a pre-collision system that can see pedestrians and cyclists by day, and vehicles and pedestrians by night, plus lane-departure alerts with steering guidance, auto high-beams, lane-centering, and full-speed radar cruise. All on even the base cars. Surprisingly, though, blind spot warnings are limited to SE Upgrade and XSE.

Driving Feel: 9/10

This is the real challenge for the new Corolla. Is it as fun to drive as Toyota is saying? Well, yes, it is. Despite the 40-series tires on my test car making sure you feel every single pavement imperfection, it's well damped. The steering has great weight, and it actually responds to whatever you're doing with the loud pedal. In fact, I would say that this is one of the most involving drives in the segment, and it starts with the manual gearshift.

This isn't rifle-bolt-like precision and a tiny snick from gear to gear. Instead, it feels miles longer than it actually is, giving you the impression you're moving your hands practically across the car to shift. But it's not sloppy, and it's a load of fun. This is shifting gears in its bare form. The kind of shifts you envisioned as a child, making engine noises and grabbing for imaginary gears. A full arm motion, not a tiny movement of the wrist. It's fun, and involving, and even though the vague mechanism means I grab third at a stop instead of first, or fourth instead of second when downshifting in traffic far too often, I don't care. This is why the manual should be saved. The rev-matching on downshifts adds to the experience, because even if you can't heel-and-toe to save your life, you'll look like a pro here.

Power: 6/10

And it's a good thing that shifting this is so much fun, because you'll need to do a lot of it. The 2.0L four offers 168 hp and 151 lb-ft of torque. Which are good numbers. And it will pull from 1,000 rpm in third without complaint and then make great noises up top. But these horses feel ready for pasture when you're accelerating, and all the time on the highway. I don't live in the mountains, but any highway hills required a downshift to fifth to maintain 100 km/h, and many needed fourth. This car always felt slow once you got above 40 km/h. Which is fine if the fuel consumption justifies it, but here it doesn't.

Fuel Economy: 6/10

The manual 'Rolla is rated for 8.4 city and 6.3 highway, and unlike most manual cars where I can beat the sticker, I averaged mid 7's here. It's competitive in class on paper, but that's fully 2 L/100 km worse than my own manual Civic hatch and worse than my own experience in other cars in this segment. The CVT version, sadly, beats it handily on paper.

Comfort: 7/10

The seats are well-bolstered front and rear, but the cramped cabin means that it's difficult to get comfortable here. And the 40-series 18-inch wheels and tires don't help. I'd be pushing the dealer to trade for the base car's 195/65 15s for cost and comfort.

Features 7/10

This SE Upgrade comes with all of those safety features and the 18-inch alloys I don't like, but also gets a heated leather-wrapped wheel, heated front seats, wireless charging, and an 8.0-inch audio system that finally adds Apple CarPlay. So it comes very well equipped for this class.

User Friendliness: 8/10

Toyota has loaded the Corolla Hatchback with buttons. That's a good thing. Some of them, like for the heated wheel, however, are hidden down by your left knee. The volume and tuning knobs, plus easy to read and reach controls for the climate control, help redeem that button placement. The latest Entune infotainment is much easier to use than Toyota's previous systems, but it's still dull in appearance and lacking Android Auto connectivity.

Value: 7/10

The SE Upgrade comes with tons of stuff, for pricing that lands in the middle of the segment. Which means that if you're buying by the cubic litre it's not the best deal. If space isn't your top priority, then it represents a better equation thanks to the driver aids and feature content.

Conclusion

The all-new Corolla Hatchback is a genuinely involving compact, with most of the safety kit and plenty of comfort features that drivers demand. But sluggish performance and its tiny interior size keep it from moving to the head of the pack. It's the one I'd most like to drive on a winding road, but not on the highway or in the city.

2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback SE Upgrade
Engine Displacement: 2.0L
Engine Cylinders: I4
Peak Horsepower: 168 hp @ 6,600 rpm
Peak Torque: 151 lb-ft @ 4,800 rpm
Fuel Economy: 8.4/6.3/7.5 L/100 km city/hwy/comb
Cargo Space: 510 L
articles_PricingType 2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback SE Upgrade
Base Price $20,980
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,645
Price as Tested $25,725
Optional Equipment $3,000 – SE Upgrade Package $3,000
Optional Equipment
10 0
Scoring breakdowns 7.2
8 Styling
6 Powertrain
9 Quality
7 Comfort
5 Practicality
9 Drivability
7 Usability/Ergonomics
7 Fuel Economy
7 Features
7 Value