THE PROS & CONS
- What's Good: Head-turning looks, comfortable ride, smart transmission
- What's Bad: Sluggish, dull-looking infotainment, snug back seat
Honda Civic Sport, Volkswagen Golf, Mazda3 Sport – what do these all have in common? Well, while they reside firmly in the “affordable compact hatchback” category, they’re all known to have a slightly more sporting bent that they come by just a little more naturally than competition like the Nissan Versa Note or Hyundai Elantra GT.
And now, a year after it received a comprehensive re-design, you can add the Toyota Corolla to that list. Yes, you read that right: the vanilla car, the model that comes up in your head when someone says the word “car”, the head honcho of the “cars as an appliance” crowd, the Toyota Corolla now has what it takes to go toe-to-toe with the scrappier offerings mentioned earlier. Which is a problem for them because that scrappiness, that sporting verve has always been a bit of a leg up over the Corolla or its Matrix forebear, the Matrix essentially being a hatchback version of the Corolla when there was no hatchback Corolla to speak of.
For this latest car, the creds that help it earn its golden ticket into the world of the sporty hatch start with the looks. My tester is the Hatchback CVT SE trim – which is basically base – but it gets the Nightshade package which brings it into another dimension style-wise: 18” wheels, blacked-out rocker panels, spoiler, badging, grille surround, wing mirrors and door handles all contribute to deliver an absolutely sinister-looking little hatch. Which is likely the only time you’ll hear that adjective used to describe a Corolla. But there you go. Add that to the aggressive head- and taillight lenses the Corolla already has and heck, I’d say it’s even more badass-looking than the higher-spec XSE model I wrote about on this site last year. So distinctive is the styling that when I mentioned to inquisitive passers-by that it was, in fact, a Corolla, I was met with a chorus of “No WAY” and “REALLY?”
Inside, though, not much changes in the style department meaning while there’s a smattering of greyish-blackish plastic bits, it’s overall a fairly inviting place to be what with its contrasting white-on-black stitching, brushed aluminum highlights and sharp, easily-legible gauge cluster. Further, while the Nightshade package doesn’t add any styling past the leather-wrapped steering wheel (if you can even say that falls into the “styling” category), it does provide heated front seats and steering wheel, wireless charging, blind spot monitor and SiriusXM satellite radio as well as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility. I like that Toyota’s taking this tack of adding some substance to its appearance packages – it’s a similar case with the TRD Off Road version of the RAV4 Trail crossover.
One quality the Corolla doesn’t share quite so much with the RAV4, though, is interior space. Of course, the RAV4 is a larger vehicle and so is roomier, but it’s also roomier in comparison to many of its immediate rivals. The Corolla, not so much; the Hyundai Elantra’s back seat can teach the Corolla’s a few lessons, the Versa Note is airier feeling and the Civic is a cathedral to the Corolla’s local parish. The Corolla’s front seat and driving position, though, are quite good (the seats are a little on the firm side, but feature power adjustability including 2-way lumbar adjustment for the driver) and all the controls fall easily to hand. The infotainment display protrudes from the dash a little too much for my liking, but at least it falls neatly to your line of sight – and your reach – as a result.
While the Corolla hatch talks the talk in the exterior styling sense, one has to wonder if it can walk the walk in the drive sense. There are plenty of ways to make a car look the part; to engineer a car to drive the part is a whole different story.
Which, as it happens, is the Corolla’s version of the candy bar Charlie opened to get himself into that factory. This is a proper, zippy little hatchback that works as advertised, and it’s all down to one very specific detail: the transmission.
I know; it’s strange to say considering the Corolla makes use of a continuously-variable automatic, hardly the gold standard when it comes to driver engagement. The Corolla, however, has a CVT with a twist, in that it gets a traditional gear in first that acts as kind of a fast-launch boost to the rest of the powertrain. It helps reduce the lag often felt with CVTs from tip in and it provides a genuinely noticeable difference in the way the Corolla drives from launch.
After that, it’s more traditional CVT but at least Toyota has programmed in virtual shift points and you even get a set of shift paddles to help make it feel like you’re swapping actual cogs. Of course, I made very little use of these as there’s only so much one can do to “fake” the feeling of a real transmission, and the “shifts” are quite dull and slow. In the end, I just put ‘er in sport mode, slotted “D” and left it there, letting the 168 hp naturally-aspirated four-banger get on with it.
After heaping all that praise on the powertrain, one might think “well, there’s no way the chassis can follow suit.” Understandable, but incorrect as the chassis is more than up to the task of keeping everything in check.
It starts with steering, whose reactive, surprisingly well-weighted rack points to a compact hatch that’s just a little more serious in its performance intentions. In addition to the performance, it also lends an air of solidity and quality to the car as a whole. After all: the steering wheel is the most physical connection between driver, car and road and done right, it makes a world of difference.
In addition to that, you want your suspension to do its best to not only provide a smooth ride, but also to meter out any shakes and rattles cause by surface imperfections below. The Corolla does this well, too, adding a thin layer of almost-luxury to the proceedings. If you start to get a little more aggressive in the corners, you will get body roll but it’s not significant to the point of being troublesome. It’s not a bonafide sports hatch à la Golf GTI or Civic Si, this, but it’s darn close and a fun take on your average daily-driver hatchback.
At $22,050 ($26,490 with the Nightshade package), it’s also an affordable take on your average daily driver hatchback. The Civic and Golf both start at more than the Corolla, while the Mazda3 Sport and Elantra GT undercut it by just a few thousand dollars. The features the Nightshade adds, meanwhile, are absolutely worth it as they make the car look great and provide interior goodies that anyone will love, especially the heated seats and wheel. The wireless charge pad is a nice cherry on top as is CarPlay and Android Auto, especially when you consider how boring-looking and somewhat slow Toyota’s native infotainment interface is. It didn’t bother me much during my time with the Corolla, though.
This is a city runabout that I’d be happy to tackle the daily grind with and can envision myself regularly looking over my shoulder after parking it, for one last glance.