Redesigned Corolla SE Hatchback is Toyota icon

John Gilbert

The venerable Toyota Corolla is entirely redesigned and engineered for 2019, starting with the fashionable Hatchback. Photo credit: John Gilbert
The venerable Toyota Corolla is entirely redesigned and engineered for 2019, starting with the fashionable Hatchback. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Distinctive rear styling houses a large storage area on the new Corolla.  Photo credit: John Gilbert
Distinctive rear styling houses a large storage area on the new Corolla. Photo credit: John Gilbert
The inside if clean and free of gimmicks and gadgets. Photo credit: John Gilbert
The inside if clean and free of gimmicks and gadgets. Photo credit: John Gilbert

We’ve been driving Toyota Corollas in this country ever since 1966, which was the dawn of the influx of Japanese economy cars into the U.S. It has never gone away, and, in fact, battles its Camry sibling as the top-seller on the car side of Toyota’s ledger.

A sign of the times: The RAV4 compact SUV is now Toyota’s biggest seller, and its Prius hybrids were becoming the corporate icon, until lower gas prices brought the current surge in SUV popularity.

Nonetheless, we have not become so crazy as to completely ignore worthy cars that can combine a little bit of sportiness, a little bit of room, a whole lot of fuel economy, and all for a modest price.

The 2019 Corolla SE Hatchback steps boldly into that role, and I was pleasantly surprised by the new car’s looks, and performance, as Toyota continues to compete with the best and most trouble-free vehicles in the world. The Corolla had slipped a bit, in my estimation, into a canyon of unexciting transportation modules in recent years. It made me start believing the theory that Toyota has so engaged itself with the masses who only want trouble-free commuting that it seemed they were making cars for people who really didn’t enjoy driving.

It was heartening to realize that Akida Toyoda, scion of the family, had taken control with the mandate that all new Toyotas would escape fro the boring segment and try to be more exciting, aiming to capture a few true enthusiasts.

 Low, aerodynamic nose gives the Corolla a shapely way to cut through the wind. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Low, aerodynamic nose gives the Corolla a shapely way to cut through the wind. Photo credit: John Gilbert

The Corolla SE Hatchback makes it most of the way.

A sedan has just now been introduced, but the Hatchback, which most of us will probably call the Coupe, has a stylish nose that slopes low for the front extremity, and follows some stylish curves on its way to the rear, which has a distinctive small-SUV-like hatch area. It is not unlike the Mazda3 hatchback, which will be one of its competitors, along with the Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, Volkswagen Jetta, and others. Interesting that Mazda also has partnered with Toyota on some new factory ventures, and the diminutive Mazda2 has been selling as a Toyota Scion and now Yaris.

The styling works, and the interior is also nicely redone, with supportive bucket seats that encapsulate front occupants in definitely sporty fashion, and instrumentation that has the new and trendy motorcycle-like clarity.

What I’ve been waiting for is the introduction of some all-new engines from Toyota, and I haven’t yet heard if the 2.0-liter 4-cylinder is new or simply the existing engine with some new tricks. For example, it has both port and direct fuel injection. That is interesting, and seems efficient, but it doesn’t make it a new engine. It has 168 horsepower, which is adequate, and 151 foot-pounds of torque, which isn’t much, and which doesn’t reach that peak until a very high 4,800 RPMs.

Most small cars with high-tech engines take a while to reach their horsepower peak, but give you all the torque at something under 2,000 revs, which can launch you in sporty fashion.

The Corolla SE does two tricks to get you launched with proper quickness. First, you get steering wheel paddles that let you shift down, or up, manually, even though they are operating on a CVT - continuously variable transmission. The trick is the CVT has a fixed-ratio setting in first gear, for takeoffs, and then it switches over to the CVT, which is capable of that droning technique so despised by enthusiasts, but which is eased in its nuisance factor greatly by the paddles.

Revisions to the 2.0 engine give it 13-1 compression, but regular gas requirements. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Revisions to the 2.0 engine give it 13-1 compression, but regular gas requirements. Photo credit: John Gilbert

I was able to get the Corolla SE out on the freeway for a couple of long-distance jaunts, and found it very willing to get up into the high-30s and nearly 40 on cruise control.  The EPA estimates you shuld get about 32 mpg in city driving and up to 42 on the highway.

I figure if I had held it right at 70, instead of trying to pace myself with the resat of the freeway cruisers who were at 75 or higher, it might get to 40. It seemed that when I didn’t have closet racers sharing my part of the freeway, I was in heavy congestion, heavy construction in the Minneapolis area, or in a bit of early snowfall that slowed everybody down.

The front-wheel-drive Corolla had no problem with the slithery conditions, and overall, the car handled better when you flipped the little console switch to “sport.” Toyota has moved its new-model sedans over to what it calls the TNGA platform, which is a modular design that can be shortened or lengthened for streamlined manufacturing, and it feels comfortably firmer, which aids handling. It has MacPherson struts up front and multilink rear suspension, and it is coordinated well with the electric power steering.

The brief encounter with some snow was accompanied by some 15-20 area temperatures, and I was disappointed to find out that the inclusion of a rear-wiper system was offset by the fact that this, a brand new vehicle, couldn’t make the wiper touch the low-to-middle half of the rear window.

I could see Toyota adding some pizazz to the engine and stiffer suspension to make a sporty version of the Corolla Hatchback. The interior, while straightforward and simple, is just what sporty drivers prefer.

For normal, everyday driving, the Corolla is top-flight. It has all the necessary safety technology, including radar cruise control, lane-departure alert and assistance in getting you back if you need it, lane-tracing assist, plus smart-stop technology.

It also has LED headlights and taillights, and it has an impressive sound system with Entune 3.0 audio, and while I don’t know what that entails, it could be code for “impossible to tune the radio easily.” It also has the Bluetooth tricks for hands-free audio and phone.

In some ways, I keep thinking that Toyota sometimes tries too hard. The connecitve phone things are so impressive in new cars that the first thing I do when I get a test car these days is to connect my iPhone to be answered remotely by the car system. I tried, several times, and my wife, Joan, tried also, and we compared notes to learn that neither of us succeeded in connecting our phones to the system.

Some competitors are so easy to hook up to it’s ridiculous. You click on it, it asks if you’d like to pair your phone, you click yet, and it tells you you’re connected. Toyota, which has been ahead of the competition in a lot of ways for a lot of years needs to simplify the connectivity and the audio.

Otherwise, it is a very worthy car, at a very good price point. The SE Hatchback has a base price of $21,090, and when you add gth ePrefered Package for the audio upgrade and 8 speakers, and the USB media ports with Apple CarPlay, and the blind spot monitor, you only boost the price to $23,639 - including freight.

I’m anxious to also drive the sedan version of the Corolla, but after one taste, I find the Hatchback to be the more enticing choice. 

Corollas have been stylish or stodgy through the years, and the 2019 is arguably the best of the batch. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Corollas have been stylish or stodgy through the years, and the 2019 is arguably the best of the batch. Photo credit: John Gilbert