2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback XSE Review - Getting Closer

Tim Healey
by Tim Healey
Fast Facts

2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback XSE

2.0-liter four-cylinder (168 horsepower @ 6,800 rpm; 151 lb-ft @ 4,800 rpm)
Continuously-variable automatic, front-wheel drive
30 city / 38 highway / 38 combined (EPA Rating, MPG)
7.5 city, 5.8 highway, 6.7 combined. (NRCan Rating, L/100km)
Base Price
$22,990 (U.S) / $27,980 (Canada)
As Tested
$25,418 (U.S.) / $30,599 (Canada)
Prices include $920 destination charge in the United States and $1,745 for freight, PDI, and A/C tax in Canada and, because of cross-border equipment differences, can't be directly compared.

Y’all are probably gonna flay me for what I am about to write. I know, because one of our contributors took it on the chin (no pun intended) earlier this year after writing up the 2020 Corolla sedan.

That’s okay. I can take it. You guys out there fling arrows at us sometimes and we’re cool with it. It’s part of the job. Still, I am ducking (metaphorically speaking, do you know how hard is to type while ducking? Hurts your neck, man).

Here goes – I’ve never cared much for any Toyota baring the Corolla badge. At least, not any Corolla produced since, say, the early ‘90s or so.

I swear this isn’t suburban snobbery. My first car was a barely-running Bronco II and I followed that with an otherwise-functional Fox body that had all sorts of rust issues. So I wasn’t sneering at Toyotas while riding in a Lexus LS or anything like that.

I just never liked the car. I long felt that Toyota decided that since it was an affordable economy car that sold like hot cakes, the brand just didn’t care (the same accusation was, of course, aimed at Camry many times over the years, but I always felt that Toyota put more love into its midsizer — or certain generations, at least).

Every time I’ve driven a Corolla (which was many, in my former life as a front-of-house service grunt at a Toyota store, in addition to the ones I’ve tested in this career), I found the seating position awkward, the steering out to lunch, and the interior a little too well-matched to the price. One could at least forgive the Camry it’s beige reputation, as that car tended to coddle, and certain generations were even sort of engaging to drive. But the Corolla just wasn’t for me.

Yes, true, those cars were all sedans. Yes, true, the Corolla hatch isn’t based on the outgoing sedan or even the Corolla iM. Still, even though my rational brain knew this Corolla was all-new and shared nothing with those cars but a name, the moniker triggered unkind memories.

Toyota has made strides in recent years, especially in the fun-to-drive department. I’ve already written favorably of the current Camry, and I have nice thoughts about the new Avalon. It’s almost as if putting a car enthusiast in the big chair has helped.

Enter the Corolla hatchback, which, as noted, is separate from the previous sedan model and the old Corolla iM (nee Scion iM) it replaces. Confused yet?

No? Cool, let’s keep rolling. The Corolla hatch bowed last year and shares its platform with the new-for-2020 Corolla sedan, but it’s marketed as the sporty one of the family.

I’m a sucker for compact sporty cars, so the Corolla hatch intrigued me. Has the brand finally figured out driving dynamics? Would I finally enjoy a car with the Corolla label slapped on?

In a word: Sort of (yes, that was two words). Toyota dialed up a car that’s sporty enough, but not to the level of, say, a VW Golf (non-GTI version). It feels like the brand got nine-tenths of the way there when it comes to steering feel – there’s just something about the electric power-assisted rack-and-pinion unit that makes the feel just a tad too light and artificial. It’s not as dialed in as the Golf or the outgoing Mazda 3 (I have yet to get my mitts on the new one, but Corey’s had a turn or two).

The 2.0-liter four-cylinder (168 horsepower, 151 lb-ft of torque) provides adequate acceleration, and I found the ride to lean towards sport without being overly punishing, although some stiffness ruffled my feathers on cracked pavement.

I’d have preferred the six-speed manual to the available continuously-variable automatic (with 10 “step” speeds), as CVTs don’t exactly scream “fun,” but this unit was well-behaved enough that I felt no need to rage-tweet at Toyota.

Toyota styling can be a bit, um, questionable, these days, and the Corolla gives me mixed feelings. I like the relatively clean design, but I’m not sure where I’m at with the large front fascia and the evil grin formed by the headlamps. Out back, I’m further confused by taillamps that extend into the liftgate and the bulbous rear fascia.

Inside, the story is the same – a clean-looking dash with simple lines and minimal buttons is marred by the by now all-too-familiar slapped-on infotainment screen. At least the simple gauge cluster, dominated by a sweeping speedo, looks cool.

Sport isn’t the only reason to buy a small hatchback, of course. For many, it’s not even a factor. Utility, content, and fuel economy play a big role in the purchase decision.

My test car cost $25,418 after options and the $920 destination fee – with a base price of $22,990. Standard features included 18-inch wheels, blind-spot monitoring, lane-departure warning with steering assist, radar cruise control, pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, dual-zone climate control, Bluetooth, two USB ports (one is charge only), satellite radio, Apple CarPlay, heated leather front seats, tilt/telescope steering wheel, and keyless entry and starting.

Options included adaptive LED headlights, a coin holder/ashtray cup, body-side molding, carpeted floor mats, door edge guard, rear window spoiler, and a tablet holder.

Fuel economy is listed at 30 mpg city/38 mpg highway/33 mpg combined.

Toyota has upped its hatchback game by a lot, but in terms of driving dynamics, there’s still a ways to go before catching the Golf or the Mazda 3. Yet the price is right, the fuel economy is commendable, and the styling is, if not pretty, at least head-turning.

The Corolla hatch is perhaps the first Corolla I’ve had any affinity for. A tweak here or there, and the brand will move from “close enough” to “just about right.”

[Images © 2019 Tim Healey/TTAC]

Tim Healey
Tim Healey

Tim Healey grew up around the auto-parts business and has always had a love for cars — his parents joke his first word was “‘Vette”. Despite this, he wanted to pursue a career in sports writing but he ended up falling semi-accidentally into the automotive-journalism industry, first at Consumer Guide Automotive and later at Web2Carz.com. He also worked as an industry analyst at Mintel Group and freelanced for About.com, CarFax, Vehix.com, High Gear Media, Torque News, FutureCar.com, Cars.com, among others, and of course Vertical Scope sites such as AutoGuide.com, Off-Road.com, and HybridCars.com. He’s an urbanite and as such, doesn’t need a daily driver, but if he had one, it would be compact, sporty, and have a manual transmission.

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2 of 35 comments
  • MorrisGray MorrisGray on Dec 10, 2019

    RedBat... Thanks, I am looking for something to replace my 2006 Mazda3 sedan 5sp that has been reliable and still fun to drive. I would simply buy another Mazda if they offered the manual in a sedan (3 or 6)but they don't and I don't like the Mazda hatchback. I find the Elantra GT , Corolla and GTI attractive, but not the Mazda hatchback. .... Did you consider a GTO or the GLI? or the Corolla sedan? ........ must be manual transmission for me!!!

  • Redbat01 Redbat01 on Dec 10, 2019

    Hi MorrisGray, No, I didn't consider buying a GTI, GLI or Corolla sedan. I'm sure I would enjoy the Volkswagen - my mother in-law leased one for a while and it was a great driving car. But I'm put-off by their reputation for reliability. Over the years, I've owned a Fiat and a Renault. After having suffered through their frequent and expensive maladies, I'm not about to try yet another European car As noted above, I greatly prefer hatchbacks. They're handy for hauling all sorts of things, like recycling bins, yard clippings, big bags of water softener salt, tires, car parts, etc. I've owned an Escort GT, Mazda MX-3, Toyota Yaris and they've all fit my need for utility without having to buy a pickup truck, SUV or CUV. That's why I didn't check-out any sedan while I was in the market. However, if you're interested, I see Toyota is now offering a Corolla XSE sedan for 2020, which has the same engine as my hatch. A bit more power. Those are just my opinions and I would never criticize anybody else's choice of vehicle.

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