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2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback First Drive: Too Little Too Late?

Toyota is a capable of stunning strokes of genius, but somehow, on occasion, the world-dominating automaker is also capable of being strictly amateur.

Case in point, Toyota rolls out its new Corolla Hatchback late in a very competitive market.

Too late, maybe? Possibly…  

A missed chance
Until a few short years ago, Toyota offered a model called the Matrix, which sold well here in Canada, but not so much south of the border.

As a result, the model was pulled from the market at the end of 2014.

The following year saw Toyota introduce its iM model under the Scion banner. Less than three years later, it too was gone.  

This week I drove the model that should have replaced the Matrix back in 2015, just now entering the market in 2018.

New model
The Corolla Hatchback is a new creation, yes. And this time, the elements we would have liked to get a few years ago seem to be in place. These include an attractive design, a proper list of equipment and a decent driving experience (thanks to a decent chassis). The new model rests on the new TNGA (Toyota New Global Architecture) architecture Toyota is gradually installing under all of its products. In short, this platform enhances the driving experience thanks to greater stiffness. To be exact, the new Corolla Hatchback’s frame is 60% more rigid than the iM’s. Clearly, the Corolla is off to a good start with that kind of underpinning.

The right ingredients
Esthetically, the new model is not inventing anything, but it does play a good tune. The brand’s signature look is discernible, but it’s nice to see a Toyota-badged car with attractive lines. Compared to the iM, it’s wider (by 30 mm), and lower to the ground (by 25 mm), giving it an aggressive stance. Perfect for making buyers feel like they’re getting a car with real sporty attitude. What’s more, the wheelbase has grown right along with the total length (by 40 mm). Sadly, all of this doesn’t translate into a particularly vast interior. Rear passengers get a bit of a short shrift, and rear trunk space is limited.

The good news is that, overall, the actual drive matches the look. The Corolla Hatchback delivers a solid driving experience and can be pushed hard without causing any trauma among the driver or passengers. The rear suspension is a little rude, however, which is not shocking given the horrid condition of so many Canadian roads. The 18-inch wheels on our tester probable exacerbated that a little as well. Nonetheless, the car reacts well to commands. Braking is competent without particularly standing out.

Mechanically, the Corolla relies on a 2.0L 4-cylinder engine, which delivers 168 hp and 151 lb-ft of torque. This is more than adequate for the use most owners will make of the car. The engine can be combined with a 6-speed manual gearbox, which includes a function for controlling RPM while downshifting, as if you’re doing a perfect heel-and-toe manoeuvre.

This trick has been seen in Porsches and on the Nissan 370Z. And now on the Corolla Hatchback also…

Did we mention Toyota is trying to shed its boring image?

The system works well, even if you can feel a small vibration under the clutch pedal with each downshift. For those who like to “drive”, take note that it is not activated in normal drive mode. It can only be used when in Sport mode.

The other transmission is a CVT, and it comes with a twist this year. Toyota calls it a launch gear. We’ll explain it this way: imagine the first gear of a traditional automatic transmission at the start, then a transition to the belt mode of the CVT.

During our test drive, we actually drove a manual-gearbox version virtually the entire time. We’ll have occasion to try out the CVT properly when we do a full review of the Corolla Hatchback.

As for the manual gearbox, the gear shifter, while precise, doesn’t offer the close-gear experience that sports cars do. And to really get something out of the mechanics, you really have to make it sing; torque is cruelly absent at low RPM.

In fact, as per the horses and torque, their maximum output is available at 6,000 and 4,800 RPM, respectively.

Versions and equipment
The Corolla Hatchback comes in three trims: S, SE and XSE. The first two of these can be had with either of the two transmissions, while the XSE is only available with the CVT. Buyers of the SE can add the Upgrade options package.

From the start, though, the equipment included is pretty generous, starting with keyless entry and automatic climate control. The SE trim adds heated seats and available heated steering wheel. Climb to the top-end model XSE, and you get navigation , 7-inch multimedia screen and 18-inch wheels instead of 16-inch.

Across the range, the Toyota Safety Sense suite of safety and drive assists systems is included standard. In fact, we’re talking about the 2.0 version of the package, and we’ll save time by saying that it includes, well, everything. That includes a cyclist detection system, pre-collision warning and lane keep assist.

As for the price, for the S, SE and XSE trims they are $20,980, $22,580 and $27,980, respectively. Those wanting the CVT on the first two of those will fork over another $1,000.

Looking at these numbers, you can say that Toyota is not giving its new Corolla Hatchback away. Consumer will need to do their homework and see what other offers are out there on the market before they decide if Toyota is offering a good deal here. Just keep in mind that the range-topping XSE will set you back over $30,000 once all the fees are factored in. In my view that’s simply too much.

This is especially evident when you consider what some of its rivals are available for, for example the Mazda3, the Honda Civic hatchback and the Chevrolet Cruze.

Toyota’s reputation counts for much, no doubt, but it has a mighty struggle ahead of it as it tries to carve a share of the market for the Corolla Hatchback in a jam-packed segment.

Success is not guaranteed.

Strong points
Impressive driving experience
The manual gearbox, and not only on the base model
Good contours

Weak points
No torque at low RPM
High floor in the trunk and disappointing volume
Pricing of the XSE version

 

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2019 Toyota Corolla
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2019 Toyota Corolla
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Photos:D.Rufiange
Photos of the 2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback