First drive: 2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback [Video review]

The Corolla hatch is back, but is it better?

The Toyota Corolla iM was just one of those automotive accidents. The Corolla iM was originally sold under the Scion brand — then known simply as the iM — but Toyota was forced to find another home for the funky hatchback when it shuttered its youth-oriented brand in 2016. The iM wasn't up to Lexus' luxury standards — and the division already had the similar CT — so it packed its bag for Toyota showrooms and took on the Corolla name.

The 2019 model year marks the iM's first major update since launching in the United States in 2015, and everything is all-new — right down to its name. But does new really mean improved? Come with us as we take a closer look at the 2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback.

New, new, newFor the 2019 model year the Corolla Hatchback switches to Toyota's new TNGA platform, which also underpins the Camry and Avalon sedans. The Corolla Hatchback is obviously smaller than those vehicles, but it's longer (+1.5-inches), lower 9-1.0-inch) and wider (+1.2-inches) than the Corolla iM it replaces.

Power for the Corolla Hatchback comes from a new 2.0L four-cylinder engine. The new engine is not only more powerful than the 1.8L that was used in the Corolla iM, but it's actually lighter and more compact too.

Buyers can pick between a six-speed iMT with downshift rev-matching or a new CVT that has a clever trick up its sleeve. Toyota has fitted the Corolla hatchback's CVT with an actual gear for low speed operation. That gear helps mask the CVT's rubber band feeling when pulling away from a stop, and it's pretty effective. At higher speeds, however, the transmission still feels like a conventional CVT.

For those that want an automatic but don't necessarily want to give up the sensation of gear changes, Toyota has equipped the Corolla hatchback with a sport mode for the CVT that uses the car's steering wheel-mounted shifters to simulate a 10-speed automatic.

The Corolla Hatchback will be available in two different trim levels — SE and XSE. Despite its base designation, the Corolla Hatchback SE is far from spartan. Materials are largely soft-touch throughout its cabin, and standard features on the SE model include LED head and taillights, an 8-inch touchscreen infotainment screen that runs Apple CarPlay, and Toyota Safety Sense 2.0, which boasts advanced features like adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning and traffic sign recognition. Stepping up to the XSE model nets 18-inch wheels, LED fog lights, leather seats with cloth inserts, color LCD gauge cluster, heated seats, dual-zone climate control and an available Adaptive Front Lighting System.

Selling the sportThe Corolla nameplate isn't known for its sportiness, but Toyota wants to change that with the 2019 Corolla Hatchback. To that end, Toyota has improved the construction of the hatch's body, resulting in a 60 percent improvement in torsional rigidity. Toyota has also totally revamped the Corolla Hatchback's MacPherson strut front suspension and multi-link rear setup. The car's center of gravity has also been lowered by 0.8-inches.

On the roadDuring our time in Southern California we were able to drive both an SE model with a CVT and the XSE trim with a manual. The driving experience in both was nearly identical; the only notable differences between the two were the transmissions and wheel sizes (16-inches vs. 18-inches). The suspension and steering setups are identical in both models.

Let's start things off in the SE trim, where we were pleasantly surprised by how much of a difference Toyota's low-speed gear actually makes with the CVT. When pulling away from a stop the CVT acts much like a regular automatic, without the kind of rubber band feeling typically associated with a CVT. However, that sensation doesn't last long, with the CVT reverting to its normal, droning operation when speeds approach the 15mph mark. Luckily Toyota has also included software that can make the CVT act as though it's a conventional automatic, and there are even steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters for those that want more control.

With a 168 horsepower (+34) and 151 lb-ft of torque (+16), the new 2.0L is peppier than the outgoing 1.8L, but it's far from being a powerhouse. In fact, even with the Corolla Hatchback's relatively light curb weight, the four-cylinder still feels burdened when asked for more power, especially when hooked to the CVT. The six-speed manual does a better job of extracting the engine's available power, but it still feels sluggish for a car Toyota is promoting as "a driver's hatchback.”

One interesting feature of the six-speed manual is an intelligent mode that automatically blips the throttle on downshifts and can also reduce jerkiness between shifts. The system works well and gives the Corolla Hatchback a small dose of sport.

The suspension in the Corolla Hatchback is more firm than the setup you'll find in the Corolla sedan, but it's not sporty in the broad sense of the term. The Corolla Hatchback still leans a bit through the corner, and the suspension just doesn't feel up to the task of carving corners. On the upside, the Corolla Hatchback is sprung softly enough to provide a comfortable ride. And despite being a smaller vehicle, the Corolla Hatchback still does a good job of ironing out pot marked pavement.

Steering is the Corolla Hatchback's weakest point. It's vague, over-boosted, and lacks any kind of on-center feel. The steering system in the Corolla Hatchback is easily the biggest detractor from Toyota's fun-to-drive claim. We weren't expecting to find race car steering in the Corolla Hatchback, but we certainly expected better than a 1970s Lincoln.

Despite its less-than-sporting components, Toyota saw fit to equip the Corolla Hatchback with an understeer mitigation system. The system works by detecting g- and yaw-rates, and then applies braking force to reduce understeer. But, to be frank, the Corolla Hatchback lacks the power and confidence-inducing steering and suspension required to push the car to the point of understeering.

Interior volume is good for a compact, with plenty of room up front and adequate space in the back seat. Comfort, however, isn't a Corolla Hatchback strong suit. As we mentioned earlier, the hatch's suspension is comfortable enough, but its front buckets could use some extra work.

In the spirit of upholding its sporty narrative, Toyota equipped the Corolla Hatchback with aggressively bolstered seats — as in the kind of seats you'd expect to find in a hatchback like the Ford Focus RS. Needless to say, they're simply overkill in the Corolla Hathcback, which will be used to commute to work, not set lap records. The seats also lacked adequate lumbar support and overall we just had a hard time finding a comfortable seating position.

Toyota's standard safety suite is a welcome addition to the Corolla Hatchback, but we really wish Toyota would have included blind spot monitoring. After all, it's a system drivers would likely use the most, and it would help to mitigate the blind spots caused by the Corolla Hatchbacks thick C-pillars.

Fuel economy and pricing remain a mystery at this point as Toyota hasn't announced either. The onboard computer in our SE test car displayed a rather disappointing 24.5mpg, but we suspect the Corolla Hatchback will be rated for at least 30mpg in mixed driving when it's finally evaluated by the EPA. Pricing should come in around the $20,000 mark for the Corolla Hatchback SE model.

Leftlane's bottom lineThe Toyota Corolla Hatchback is all-new for 2019, but we're not sure that it's actually improved. The steering is far too soft to match Toyota's sporty sales pitch, and the Corolla Hatchback's seats are far too hardcore to be comfortable for daily commuting.

But on the upside, the Corolla Hatchback provides a comfortable ride, spacious cargo area and a long list of standard features. So while Toyota might not have made a better Corolla Hatchback, they may have stumbled upon a better Corolla sedan.

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