My 1977 Toyota Corolla liftback — a two-door, small wagon of sorts — got me through college. When the silver paint faded from so much Alberta sun, I repainted it navy blue. The little hatch with the manual transmission and desirable SR5 package carried my girlfriend and I across Canada in an epic, cross-country drive. The same Corolla became my daily commuter for work until it was finally supplanted by a company car. And during all those years, it never broke down or resulted in any major repairs. I don’t recall ever changing the oil.
Today, the Corolla has come a long way since the first generation in 1966, and for 2019, a new hatchback replaces the former iM. The new hatch rides on an revised sport-tuned suspension built on the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) platform that will underpin the coming 2020 Corolla sedan and hybrid.
A sport-tuned suspension does not, however, automatically equate to a sporty car, but the XSE hatch in Blue Flame [Far better than the “dark beige” Corolla hatch in our comparison test. —Ed.] brings Toyota as close as it as ever come to building a hot hatch. That does not mean it will subjugate buyers of GTIs, Veloster Ns or Mini Coopers — but it will broaden the Corolla’s appeal to those looking for a car with a sense of style mixed with historically excellent reliability, bundled with an agreeable price.
At $21,000 to start and $28,000 all loaded up with an automatic transmission, the XSE hatch has a lot going for it, aside from that sassy exterior. The transmission, a continuously variable automatic, has what Toyota calls a launch gear for quicker jumps off the line. Indeed, mash the throttle, and the front tires will rotate a little as the 2.0L inline-four dumps its 168 horsepower and 151 lb.-ft. of torque through the gearbox. Acceleration feels plenty brisk, and the CVT tries hard to simulate a 10-speed, aided by paddle shifters that almost make it feel like driving an automated manual.
Well, almost. There’s quite a bit of buzz and commotion as the engine and transmission team up to deliver full performance, but the CVT does a good job of not embarrassing itself, and paddle shifting does alleviate the otherwise mundane nature of the CVT. For those who want more intimacy in their ride, the six-speed manual will undoubtedly feel more engaging, and the manual is available on the XSE.
Actually, the Corolla does offer intimacy — in the back seat, where legroom disappears unless the front seats are pulled forward. Cargo space, hampered somewhat by the angled slope of the hatch, improves from a meager 17.8 cubic feet behind the 60/40 split-folding rear seats to an acceptable 23.3 with the rear seats down. The normal utility of a hatch, however is mostly lost on the Toyota due to its design.
Some of that can be forgiven, however, by a ride that is more sharp and more defined than any Corolla before, much of it thanks to a rear suspension that abandons the old torsion-beam setup for a more sophisticated multi-link configuration. Crappy roads do not send shudders into the driver’s seat; the car feels tighter, and handling is surprisingly stable up to the point where the tires begin to lose grip. Steering is sharp with moderate feedback, and braking comes with a firm pedal with minimal dive. It’s the point and shoot of compacts, even if it lacks turbo power.
Available in S, SE or XSE trim levels, the Corolla hatch comes plenty well equipped in the XSE form, gaining a heated steering wheel, LED headlamps and fog lamps, LED turn signals (finally!), 18-inch wheels, dual-zone automatic climate control, an eight-inch colour touchscreen display, and push-button start with SmartKey access, along with an eight-way power-adjustable driver’s seat. The seats, made of fabric and leatherette, are on the firm side but comfortable. The backup camera is clear, and wireless charging is a bonus. Entune 3.0 offers a large suite of apps, from weather to NPR radio.
Instrumentation could be more interesting — it turns from blue to red in Sport mode — but behind the multi-function leather wrapped wheel nests a seven-inch TFT multi-information display in the instrument cluster that shows turn-by-turn navigation and various vehicle settings. Apple CarPlay is standard, but not Android Auto, meaning those with Samsung smartphones won’t be thrilled. An electronic parking brake is standard, as is contrasting stitching in the seats, dash and doors. A host of safety equipment as part of Toyota’s Safety Sense 2.0 package, including automatic high beams, is included.
Sadly, there won’t be any two-door manual hatchbacks coming like my 1977 Corolla, but history suggests the 2019 Hatchback will stick to the same, long and happy Corolla storyline — offering outstanding reliability at a decent price, but for now shedding its perception as the most beige car anyone could drive.