Payne: Toyota Corolla Hatchback is wallflower no more

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Waiting at the Pittsburgh airport arrivals curb to pick up my son for a race weekend at Pittsburgh International Raceway, I was approached by one of the fiercest cops I have ever seen. Built like Mt. Rushmore and just as tall, he bristled with more weaponry than an Army battalion. Double-barrel shotgun, twin hip holsters, a billy stick.

Good lord, what had I done?

“Is that the new Corolla?” he thrilled like a kid on Christmas morning, ogling the 2019 Toyota hatchback tester I had driven from Detroit. Phew, he just wanted to talk cars.

Yes, yes. I know what you’re thinking. He wanted to talk about Corollas? But Toyota’s seventh generation is not your typical Corolla appliance.

Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda has let it be known that he wants his Toyota and Lexus brands to have more curb appeal, and nothing is immune — not even his entry-level egg beater. For decades Corolla has been a perennial best-seller in the class thanks to its bulletproof value equation. Pick up a Corolla in the appliance aisle and it will run forever — as reliable as a collie and never asking anything in return save the occasional fill-up at the pump. Corolla’s reliability has won over generations of buyers.

But it has never made anyone’s heart beat faster. Until now.

The 2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback sports a 2.0-liter inline-4 cylinder engine that pumps out 168 horsepower.

I remember one of my first comparison tests as a Detroit News reviewer featuring Chevy’s now-defunct Cruze. GM was eager to show it off against the class competition — the sexy Mazda 3, sporty Ford Focus, nimble VW Golf. And, oh yes, Corolla.

The Corolla was the dog of the stable. Homely, with uninspired styling inside and out, it was the acknowledged value leader — but that didn’t mean you wanted to drive it.

“It’s a comparison test, so I guess we have to include the class best-seller,” groaned the assembled media. Zipping around GM’s Milford test track, the Corolla leaned this way and that, its torsion beam rear suspension catapulting my head into the roof over bumps like a trampoline.

With the new Corolla, Toyota is rewarding its generations of loyal subjects with a snazzy hatchback XSE they can finally enjoy for driving as much as it'll save them in the wallet. My new cop friend was not the only admirer on my Pennsylvania round trip. More than a couple cars shadowed me on the Ohio Turnpike.

At the race track, a longtime Corolla owner strolled by. “Can I sit in it?” he asked.

That's a Corolla? Vanilla appliance no more, the 2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback sports a digital instrument display and tablet screen for just $25K.

There’s a lot to drink in for generations of starved Corolla owners.

Begin with the racy grille anchored by the Toyota logo. The lights sweep toward the fenders like winglets, while the whale-like grille below could swallow an ocean of krill. The lines roll backward across a raked windshield to an aggressively sloped rear window that gives Corolla the appearance of speed even when it is standing still. The look is capped off by a dramatic roof aerofoil.

My test package was wrapped in a dramatic "Blue Flame" wardrobe that reminded me of the BMW Z4 toy I recently tested — or the Skittle row of bright blue, green, yellow and red Dodge Challengers you’ll see lined up at the Dream Cruise. Yes, this new Corolla wants to be noticed.

The 2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback boasts 36 mpg; under the lead foot of The Detroit News' Payne, it recorded 33.

Inside, Corolla’s once bland furniture has been transformed into an electronic wonderland, with a fully digital tachometer and table console screen. Sure, the electronics often over-nanny you (a Toyota family trait), but tech is a good thing and Corolla is even updated with Apple CarPlay, which Toyota has long resisted.

Riding shotgun, Mrs. Payne instantly configured Apple CarPlay for crisp directions on our multi-state journey. The rest of the console is less clever — storage space, for example, is awkwardly shoved deep under the console buttons — but this is also the result of dramatic lines that envelope the stick shift.

Stick shift, Payne?

Yes, the new Corolla hatch even courts the few, the proud motorheads who want to row the box — my speed-addled, 20-something sons included — the target demo of this $25K value pack. The six-speed tranny even offers adaptive cruise control — rare in a stick.

Fold the rear seats flat and the 2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback makes more cargo room.

Under the cane, the manual is nicely calibrated for precise shifts — and it is mated to a chassis that wants to play.

Throw the Corolla into a cloverleaf and its stiff, new Global Architecture (which also undergirds the much-improved Camry) begs for more throttle. You want more, and that is where the 168-horse Corolla comes up short.

For while the 2019 Corolla is the best ever, it must compete in a ferociously competitive class that has not stood still while Toyota baked its tasty new muffin.

There are hatchbacks galore in this segment, and they are all nice bargains with a little more character than the Corolla. There’s Corolla’s chief rival, the Honda Civic, which loads the segment with more model flavors than Baskin-Robbins. There’s the Sport hatch (in manual, natch), and the Si coupe, and for the really ambitious, the brawling Type R.

The 2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback is a big step up in style and handling to compete with class leaders like the VW Golf and Mazda 3. This little "Blue Flame" number goes for just $25K.

With more rear-seat room and a peppier 1.5-liter turbo mill, the Civic is Corolla’s value mach. As is the Subaru Impreza hatchback. While its all-wheel-drive is available at the same price as Corolla and standard features galore, the ‘Ru is affordable utility that can climb Everest in winter.

And then there are my class favorites, the athletic Mazda 3 hatchback and VW Golf. 

Their neat, conservative stylings are attractive and timeless. And they will run circles around the Corolla. The Mazda boasts 18 more horsepower from its 2.5-liter four, while the Golf’s turbo 1.4-liter pumps out a stump-pulling 184 pound-feet of torque.

The 2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback has a cool, coupe-like roof, though that cramps cargo room to the tune of 17.8 cubic feet — five feet shy of a VW Gold hatch.

Eschewing Corolla’s sculpted rear window for squared-off utility, the Golf’s rear hatch will swallow three more cubic feet of cargo — a difference my family noticed in our back-and-forth forays to the airport/hotel and track where the Corolla’s angled rear window made multiple bag storage a challenge.

With a used market full of 228 horsepower Golf GTIs, my sons figured they would go that route for a new Corolla price, but with much more room and raciness to show for it.

That said, it’s good to see Corolla in the game. For the first time in memory, Corolla is a car that turns heads. Makes the heart beat faster. Begs to be driven.

Just ask the smiling cop approaching you at the airport.

2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, five-passenger compact hatchback

Price: Base price $21,220, including $930 destination charge ($25,686 XSE as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0nlin-liter ie-4 cylinder

Power: 168 horsepower, 151 pound-feet of torque  

Transmission: 6-speed manual

Performance: 0-60 mph, 8.2 seconds (Motor Trend); top speed, 114 mph

Weight: 3,000 pounds (est.)

Fuel economy: EPA mpg, 32 city/42 highway/36 combined 

Report card

Highs: Modern interior; fun to drive

Lows: Engine lacks kick; cramped rear cargo

Overall: 3 stars

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.