- What’s Good: European styling and handling
- What’s Bad: Snug back seat
Myself and my ilk – those of us who’ve travelled to Europe or like to read Euro mags, anyway – have waxed about it for years: why can’t we North Americans have all those great hot hatches they get over there? The VW Up! GTI. The Focus RS, until recently. The last few Civic Type Rs before the current one; and that’s before we even talk about brands that don’t have a presence over here at all: The Vauxhall Corsa VXR. The Renault Clio Trophy. The Peugeot 206 GTI. All so cheap, so cool-looking, and so manual transmission-y. Not to mention so easy to drive in town.
Well, I’ve got news: I’ve found my funky European hatch, but here’s the thing: it’s not European. Nor does it have a manual transmission. It’s Japanese, and not only is it Japanese, it carries a nameplate that has long been maligned by me and my colleagues just as much as the Euro hatch has been loved. It’s the 2019 Corolla hatchback, and it wants to be taken seriously. As I’d soon find out: so it should be.
The looks do their part to make sure of it; with its aggressive headlamp lenses, boomerang taillamp lenses and two-tone rims, this particular Corolla looks like no Corolla before it; heck, it looks like few Toyotas before it, too. Sure; some may say that last year’s badge-engineered Corolla iM was a good precursor to this, but aside from a few bits of detailing, you could still see it was a tall-roofed, family hatch underneath it all.
Less so the ’19 car; this is a stance much more reminiscent of all those great, modern European hot hatches I just mentioned thanks to its big bumpers, upswept rear side window glass (lovely) and integrated roof spoiler. This looks a car properly crafted from a single block of steel, and has a much better air of quality about it because if it. The front fascia, meanwhile, benefits from having its grille moved further down, so all you get between the lights is a nice, low-profile strip of bodywork; the radiator grille has essentially been merged with the mesh of the front splitter, and it’s a very neat effect, and one that’s magnified by the fog lights either side of it.
Inside, the proceedings have been toned down a little; the dash is dominated by the very big “floating” infotainment display, similar to what’s seen on the Avalon, just on a slightly smaller scale. I don’t mind it, but like in its bigger sibling, I do worry that it may be a little much, a little too dominant for someone who sits closer to the wheel. Sure makes your album art look good, however, and Toyota has finally caught up with the competition by adding Apple CarPlay support; Android users will have to look elsewhere, however. If that one big screen isn’t enough for you, there’s also a digital gauge display if you spec the top XSE trim seen here. While it may look as bright as the main display in these pictures, night vision was never an issue.
It may not have quite the high-roofed look that the Corolla iM does, but don’t think that means there’s a lack of headroom inside; the seats are mounted nice and low, so headroom up front—and in back—was never an issue. Rear-seat legroom, however, is a different story; there’s just under 760 mm of it, which is less than what’s found in the Honda Civic, the Hyundai Elantra GT, Nissan Versa Note – pretty much less than everyone in the compact hatch segment. It’s more subcompact hatch-like back here which is strange considering Toyota has a subcompact hatch of its own in the Yaris. It’s OK up front in terms of legroom, but the footwell is a little on the narrow side; not too surprising as this is, after all, a compact hatch but the longer-legged amongst us should be sure to take note.
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Of course, as most will likely notice from the photos, there’s a somewhat long and ungainly shift lever sprouting from the centre console; that, of course, denotes the existence of an automatic transmission – strike one for many a sporty hatch-loving hot shoe. It’s not just any auto, either; it’s a continuously variable automatic; that’s strike two. I guess I would say that the lack of paddle shifters would be strike three but luckily, there is a pair.
There’s a reason the transmission doesn’t entirely strikeout, however, for it has a trick up its sleeve that comes in the form of a fixed-ratio first gear. That means you can get up and moving quicker than you typically can with these types of transmissions. Then, like other CVTs, the Corolla’s relies on “virtual” ratios to ensure that it at least feels like cogs – 10, to be precise—are being swapped. I’ve spoken with many manufacturers about this kind of tech, and they all say that it’s something their customers look for in a CVT. With this one, you get less annoying engine wail as it and the transmission try to get on the same page, and less of a drone once cruising.
The big takeaway, though, is a much more responsive CVT ‘box whose get up and go is properly zippy – I was consistently impressed throughout my test – and one that can actually be fun to modulate with the paddles. Would I have it over the manual? No, I would not but those considering a fun hatch shouldn’t be dissuaded from this one just because of the transmission.
For if they do, they would miss out on what it otherwise a well-tuned, zippy and genuinely fun little hatch. At 168 hp and 151 lb-ft the power is modest, but then, cars like this don’t require a boatload of power. That can drive up costs or hurt your fuel economy; better they focus on adding a little flare to the dynamics in the form of some more responsive steering, or maybe some slightly more reactive damper settings. Take the Corolla on a bendy road, and you’ll see that they have done; this is a fun car to nail apexes with, with steering settings and weighting helping keep the short-wheelbase Toyota hatch heading true through longer sweepers. Toyota’s also managed to turn the neat trick of keeping the car feeling athletic, but not brittle over the typical bumps encountered on the daily grind. As a result, the Corolla’s drive matches its styling in terms of both athleticism and quality.
It will be interesting to see if this new, more aggressive take on the Corolla name appeals to the folks who have bought various Corollas or Matrixes over the years for their packaging, ease-of-use, affordability and durability, if not their styling or fun-to-drive factor. That’s not to say that the Corolla HB doesn’t have those classic qualities as well; they just have to share more of the spotlight this time ‘round. 2019 sees the addition of a Corolla with a little more tinsel – well, quite a lot more tinsel, actually – a little more flair and attitude than previous. Call it an effort to woo buyers drawn to the compact and subcompact CUV craze like moths to a flame, call it a paradigm shift for Toyota’s cars; regardless, this here’s one mighty fine hot hatch.
And it’s not even European.