2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback First Drive Review: Techier than ever

Read the full 2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback review

The hatchback formerly known as the Scion iM was reborn as the Toyota Corolla iM when the Scion brand was "sunsetted" in 2016. Now, it has once again been born anew as the 2019 Corolla Hatchback.

This is no mere renaming. It's a ground-up redesign with a whole new chassis, new and more efficient powertrains and more safety tech than you'd expect from an entry-level compact car. As far as we're concerned, it's one of the best modern Corollas yet.

Toyota Dynamic Force engine

Under the hood you'll find Toyota's new Dynamic Force 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine, powering the 2019 Corolla Hatchback to the tune of 168 horsepower and 151 pound-feet of torque, increases of 31 horsepower and 25 pound-feet over the outgoing Corolla iM.

You might be surprised to learn that Toyota is offering the hatchback with a six-speed manual transmission. There's even a bit of software intelligence built in that enables rev-matching for downshifts, smoother upshift engagement, hill assist and stall suppression. To activate these features, the "iMT" mode must be toggled on. The shift assist software annoyingly defaults to off when the ignition is cycled, whereas I'd prefer that it just stay in whatever mode I'd left it in.

Most 2019 Corolla Hatchbacks will feature the new continuously variable transmission, but even this is no mere CVT. It features a fixed clutch-engaged first gear that improves off-the-line performance and feel. From a stop, there's none of the lagginess that makes most CVTs feel weird and rubbery. Above about 15 to 20 mph, that gear disengages and the transmission reverts to regular continuously variable operation with faux "virtual gears" that can be selected with paddle shifters.

Underpinning a body that is lower, wider and longer than before is Toyota's new TNGA platform. This new backbone means the hatchback is 60 percent stiffer than the outgoing iM, giving its multilink rear suspension and MacPherson fronts a more solid stage upon which to perform. Lighter components, such as the resin composite rear hatchback door, help keep the 2019 model's 3,060-pound curb weight in line with the previous generation despite it being larger with more equipment.

All of this conspires toward improved fuel economy relative to the outgoing model. However, Toyota has not announced specific numbers and my time with both the CVT (around 29 mpg) and manual (about 23 mpg) models was perhaps too short to be meaningful.

2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback XSE

Beneath the hood is Toyota's new, more efficient Dynamic Force engine.

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What's good for economy, it turns out, has also been good for the Corolla Hatchback's performance. This is no hot hatch, but the handling feels more engaging and refined than the previous generation did. The then-Scion iM felt mushy and vague in corners and lacked steering feel. The new Corolla hatch still lacks feel and connection, but is much more planted, predictable and responsive around bends. I'd still rather be behind the wheel of a Volkswagen Golf or Mazda3 on a truly great road, but this is a pretty solid showing by Toyota and, frankly, good enough for a budget commuter.

Standard Toyota Safety Sense 2.0

The 2019 Corolla Hatchback steps the safety game up not just for the model, but for the entire brand. It will be the first Toyota model to boast the second generation of the automaker's Toyota Safety Sense driver aid technology, TSS 2.0, as standard equipment.

The upgrade includes improvements to the automatic emergency braking. The system can now totally stop the car at speeds below about 37 mph, preventing collisions below that speed. Cyclist detection has been added to its bag of tricks and low-light pedestrian detection has been dramatically improved, boosting safety at night.

When equipped with the CVT, the Corolla hatch also features standard full-speed adaptive cruise control that can bring the car to a complete stop if traffic ahead slows down. With the manual gearbox, you still get adaptive cruise, but it can only be activated above 25 mph and will disengage if speeds drop below 15 mph to prevent stalling.

2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback XSE

The new look seems to borrow more than a little inspiration from the second-generation Mazda3 hatchback.

Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

CVT models also feature standard Lane Tracing Assist that uses cameras to detect lane makers or, if the markers can't be seen, the preceding vehicle to actively center the Corolla in its lane, rather than just bouncing between the boundaries like older lane keeping assist systems. This hands-on-the-wheel system works only on the highway when adaptive cruise control is engaged.

Off-highway, lane departure warnings (which work at speeds above about 35 mph) have also been improved with better road edge detection and a new driver alertness monitor that suggests taking a break if it detects too much swerving from the driver.

TSS 2.0 also includes a camera-based sign assist system that reads road signs (such as stop, yield, speed limit or do not enter) as they're passed and displays up to the three most recent signs in the instrument cluster.

Add the standard reversing camera to the mix and that's a lot of standard safety equipment for a budget hatchback. Drivers also have the option of adding blind-spot monitoring, but I'm told only on the CVT model.

Meet Entune 3.0

Cabin tech also gets an overhaul for the 2019 model year with the addition of standard Entune 3.0 infotainment in the dashboard. The software is mostly identical to the dashboard tech that we recently saw in the 2019 Toyota Avalon with the same strengths and weaknesses.

This generation of Entune also features new Verizon 4G LTE-connected technologies, including remote access and monitoring via Toyota's phone and smartwatch applications and Alexa Skill integrations.

2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback XSE

Apple CarPlay is standard for the new generation of Entune, but Android users must make do with Scout GPS Link app integration.

Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

I like the organizational improvements to the menu system, but think the visuals could use some brightening up. The 8-inch touchscreen is vibrant, crisp and really shines when used with the standard Apple CarPlay connectivity. Android Auto is not available for this generation -- a huge disappointment -- but Scout GPS Link app connectivity is standard, giving users an alternative low-cost navigation option.

Stepping up to the optional Entune 3.0 Premium system adds onboard navigation to the mix, as well as an 800-watt, eight-speaker JBL audio system that sounds heaps better than the standard six-speaker setup.

A solid compact competitor

The new 2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback looks and feels sportier, but the biggest improvements to this budget compact are to its comfort and safety. That TSS 2.0 setup will be class leading stuff when the Hatchback hits the road in July 2018, making this a solid choice for parents looking for a safe first car for young drivers.

The new CVT powertrain will boast better standard safety equipment than the manual option and will likely also boast the best economy, making it the model to get. From there, potential owners will have to chose between SE and XSE trim levels, the latter feature more styling and comfort amenities. Pricing for the 2019 Corolla Hatch will be announced closer to launch.

If, like me, you're looking for a bit more heat in your hatch, consider the Volkswagen Golf and Mazda3, which should be priced competitively against the Corolla Hatchback, or save a bit more money for the Volkswagen GTI, Roadshow's favorite hot hatch. I'd also toss the promising next-generation Hyundai Veloster into that mix when it arrives later this year.

2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback XSE

For those who value safety, the new Corolla Hatchback with standard Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 is a compelling and budget-friendly option.

Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

Editor's note: Roadshow accepts multiday vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews. All scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms. However, for this feature, the manufacturer covered travel costs. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists.

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