What We’re Driving: 2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback

“What we’re driving” is SAE’s series of quick-strike vehicle reviews.

The hatchback body style returned to the Corolla nameplate for 2019 using Toyota’s TNGA vehicle architecture. (Toyota)

For the 2019 model year, Toyota rediscovered and reintroduced the hatchback body style for the Corolla. Take the sheetmetal as you will – to me, some angles appeal, others don’t – but the more-important story is the Corolla’s move to the company’s TNGA architecture that now underpins just about all of the brand’s transverse-engine models.

The most striking angle to consider the Corolla’s 5-door lines. (Toyota)

That means you get an independent rear suspension (when there are plenty of contemporary compact/subcompact cars working with a solid axle back there), 60% more torsional rigidity, thoughtfully tuned damping and a roomy 103.9-inch (2,639-mm) wheelbase 1.5 inches (38 mm) longer than the ’18 Corolla. It all feels unusually refined and not at all pitchy. When you encounter some road undulations or potholes, there’s a long-stroke, confident feel in the primary ride reactions that’s often lacking in compact cars.

The Corolla hatchback’s base transmission is a 6-speed manual paired with a comprehensive engine rev-matching functionality. (Toyota)
The Corolla’s cabin has trendy architecture and materials of mixed satisfaction and benefits from a longer wheelbase. (Toyota)

And yes, Virginia, Toyota will sell you a manual transmission. This one’s a light-shifting 6-speed that Toyota’s dubbed iMT for “intelligent manual transmission,” meaning it’s got engine-management software that attempts, with a rev-optimizing algorithm, to smooth downshifts – which ain’t nuthin’ new – but also upshifts starting from a standstill.

The iMT might indeed help novices get the hang of things, but as someone who’s used manuals continually since my first pre-teen dirt motorcycles, I found just the opposite: I seemed to be continually trying to out-think this iMT, and it me. There is a defeat button, but the instrument cluster telltale is too small and the indicator on the center-console button is much too dim to see in daylight.

The Corolla hatch’s 2.0-L Dynamic Force (that name’s a bit breathy) engine is a healthy size for a contemporary compact car, but by bucking the turbocharging trend, its 168 hp (125 kW) and 151 lb-ft (205 Nm) falls in arrears to turbocharged fours of lesser displacement (Volkswagen’s turbocharged 1.4-L is down just 21 hp while out-torqueing the Toyota by 33 lb-ft and Ford’s getting 181 hp and 185 lb-ft from its turbo 1.5-L).

Development dedication marks to Toyota engineers, however, for a lengthy list of interesting and worthwhile detail enhancements such as combining direct and port injection, electrically-actuated variable valving for the intake cam, a 13:1 compression ratio on regular unleaded fuel and painstakingly shape-optimized pistons. This engine revs sweetly and cruises quietly, but it’s just not as punchy as smaller turbocharged competitors and the 31-mpg average we saw in 700 miles (1,127 km) of mixed-use driving should’ve been better.

A few other nits include a laggy touchscreen (no navigation at this $24,000-plus price point), and a high cargo floor that seems to undercut the hatchback configuration’s utility quotient. But in terms of total-vehicle development and mechanical refinement, this TNGA-based Corolla presents the same run-forever-at-low-cost prospects for which the nameplate has become deservedly famous.

2019 Toyota Corolla hatchback XSE

Base price: $22,990

As tested: $24,325

Highs: Supple ride and confident handling; meticulously engineered 4-cylinder

Lows: Non-turbocharged engine’s power delivery seems staid; some hard cabin surfaces

Takeaway: Hatchback body-style utility is a useful upgrade for this compact-car totem