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2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback First Drive

2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback First Drive

Conventional wisdom tells us that Americans don't like hatchbacks. Look at the current crop of compact sedans, however, and you'll find that nearly every one is available in that very configuration. Still, it's surprising that the 2019 Toyota Corolla, the next generation of one of the best-selling cars in the U.S., is available first as a hatchback. After some time behind the wheel in the roads just north of San Diego, it looks as if Toyota's gamble has paid off.

2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback First Drive

Back to the Drawing Board
You probably don't remember the previous Corolla hatchback. It began as the Scion iM shortly before Toyota shuttered the youth-focused brand. Even after it was adopted by Toyota — and renamed the Corolla iM — it never made a significant contribution to the Corolla's overall sales.

The 2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback is poised to change that, and not just because it's the only body style you can buy initially. It's a sharp-looking car that's far more distinctive than any recent Corolla. Up front is a wide-mouthed grille that you may recognize from other Toyota models. Though we haven't liked the catfish-faced theme on some other models, it seems to work with the hatchback's curvy new bodywork. The overall shape is lower, wider and shorter than the Corolla iM, while an increased wheelbase makes the back seat more livable for passengers. Unfortunately, the shorter length means the cargo area is a bit smaller, and maximum storage behind the rear seats decreases from 20.8 cubic feet to 18 cubic feet.

2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback First Drive

A Surprising Interior
While we liked the interior design of the previous Corolla, the materials looked and felt cheaper compared to those found in similarly priced rivals. The 2019 redesign does away with the old model's sea of hard plastics, replacing them with faux leather and soft-touch materials. The center console's glossy black trim highlights fingerprints, but when it's clean it looks nicer than the dull gray plastic on the outgoing car.

The Corolla feels pretty spacious in the front, thanks to a high roof and the amount of vertical adjustability for the driver's seat. Tall drivers will appreciate the generous range of steering wheel adjustment and complete absence of a sunroof. The front passenger won't be quite so comfortable; the seat bottom is pretty flat, so most will have to scoot the seat rearward to get thigh support. That means encroaching upon the legroom of the rear passenger, who doesn't have much to begin with.

There's decent headroom for those in the back, but legroom is definitely at a premium. The cramped rear quarters and narrow door openings also make it quite difficult to exit the car without scrunching up. Rear passengers might feel uncomfortable on long road trips since the seatback is set in a fairly upright position with no additional recline detents.

2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback First Drive

Acceptable Performance
The 2019 Corolla Hatchback rides on the same underpinnings as a number of newer Toyotas, from the Prius to the Camry. The smaller Corolla feels more nimble than those cars, but it's not necessarily more fun to drive hard on switchbacks. Our drive in the hills northeast of Del Mar offered long, sweeping turns that the Corolla tackled amicably, but a few tight left-right transitions revealed body roll and the telltale squealing tires of an economy car. Some manufacturers dial a little more sportiness into their hatchbacks, but it doesn't seem as if Toyota has followed suit.

A new 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine produces 168 horsepower and 151 pound-feet of torque — gains of 31 hp and 25 lb-ft over the Corolla iM's 1.8-liter motor. Buyers can choose between a six-speed manual and a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). As expected for a friendly commuter car, the manual's clutch pedal is light with an engagement point not too far from the bottom of the stroke. The manual also features automatic rev-matching for smooth downshifting, though the shifter's throws are a little long.

Most buyers will select the CVT automatic, which uses a physical first gear for smoother acceleration from a stop. Outright acceleration isn't especially quick with either transmission, but the extra power and the CVT automatic's fixed first gear should make it quicker than before. That's good, because in our testing it takes the outgoing Corolla about 10 seconds to reach 60 mph.

2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback First Drive

A Wealth of Tech and Safety Features
Toyota has traditionally shunned third-party phone integration, instead offering its Entune app suite. This solution has never worked as well as we'd like, so we're happy that Toyota has adopted Apple CarPlay into the Corolla Hatchback's entertainment system. The display has a clear, easy-to-understand interface that should present a soft learning curve for new users. Especially helpful are physical buttons for high-level operations.

The Corolla iM was notable for its number of standard advanced safety features, which included forward collision warning with automatic braking, lane departure warning and automatic high-beam control. The Corolla sedan included those plus lane keeping assist, adaptive cruise control, and a pedestrian identification feature for the forward collision system. The 2019 Corolla Hatchback moves the bar even further, with improvements to these systems for greater driver assistance.

The pedestrian identification system, for instance, can now spot people at night and bicyclists during the day. The lane keeping assist now identifies the edge of a road in addition to a lane marker, while the new CVT automatic-only Lane Tracing Assist feature keeps the Corolla centered in its lane. The adaptive cruise control system can bring the car to a complete stop on CVT automatic-equipped models — if you select a manual, adaptive cruise shuts off below 25 mph. Finally, an external camera can read certain road signs (including speed limit and stop signs) and display that information on the digital portion of the instrument panel.

2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback First Drive

It Takes Two
The 2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback is available in two trim levels: SE and XSE. Standard equipment on the base SE includes LED headlights, an 8-inch touchscreen, two USB ports, and all of the above safety features. The XSE adds larger wheels, heated front seats, and mixed leather and cloth upholstery, among other upgrades. Opting for the CVT automatic also brings more standard features and additional options, such as a JBL premium audio system and onboard navigation. Pricing and fuel economy information were not available at the time of this writing.

We Americans may still prefer sedans, and you can expect such a variant to appear soon. Even so, the 2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback is a definite step forward for Toyota, with an admirable number of standard features. More discerning buyers might be let down by the lack of performance and a relatively small back seat and cargo area, but most will be pleased by this new Corolla's expressive styling, vastly improved cabin, and comprehensive list of advanced safety features.