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A 2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback.

Handout/Toyota

Car testers love to visit racetracks to find the limits of performance, and when there’s not a track, an airfield will do. Any place with lots of asphalt and nothing to crash into. So which exotic cars were at the end of this strip of runway here at the Sherbrooke airport?

The new Toyota Corolla Hatchback and its predecessor, the Corolla IM, that’s what. Hardly exotic and hardly performance, but Toyota wanted to show off the improvements to its new hatch by letting me race it through a coned-off slalom course.

First, I drove the IM. This used to be the Scion IM until Toyota killed its youth-oriented nameplate, and it was designed to be fun and affordable. Truth is, it was never really fun and it started at $22,750, which is about $6,000 more than the basic Corolla sedan. The IM developed some speed through the cones, swung back and forth a bit on the curves, then slid out in the final corner. Typical.

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Then the 2019 Corolla Hatchback built a little more quickly up to speed and held its lines through the slalom and all the way around the curves. Its handling prowess and extra acceleration were obvious. It’s not a performance car, but the difference was remarkable, and this is for a vehicle that starts at a less costly $20,980.

Actually, I already knew the new hatch is a nimble little beast because I’d hustled in it to get to the airfield. I was running late, so tap-tap-tapped up and down through the paddle shifters as I sped along winding country roads to the course. It’s still a Corolla, but it’s built on Toyota’s new and much stiffer TNGA platform, with an entirely new engine and a choice of two new transmissions, and it held its own all the way.

The lower fuel consumption on the hatchback is from models equipped with the continuously variable transmission (CVT), which is stepped to mimic a 10-speed automatic.

Handout/Toyota

The new engine is a highly efficient 2.0-litre four-cylinder that makes 168 horsepower and returns a combined fuel consumption of just 6.7 litres/100 km. It’s a safe bet it’ll be under the hood of the sedan’s next generation, which currently makes 132 hp from its 1.8-litre engine, returning an average of 7.5 litres/100 km.

The lower fuel consumption on the hatchback is from models equipped with the continuously variable transmission (CVT), which is stepped to mimic a 10-speed automatic. All three of the lower trim levels also offer a six-speed manual transmission for $1,000 less, while the top-of-the-line XSE trim is only available with CVT, for $27,980.

The CVT is very clever. Toyota says that a challenge for CVTs, which generally use belts and pulleys instead of gears and cogs, is that initial acceleration is comparatively slow while everything winds itself up. So this system, for the first time, uses a single real gear for first gear before switching over to the CVT for everything else. It won’t snap your neck back, but it’s no slouch off the line.

The manual transmission, however, is just as clever. It comes with an “IM” button (for Intelligent Manual) that automatically matches the engine speed when down-shifting. This removes the jerkiness that drivers often like but passengers abhor when changing down a gear. Its cheaper initial cost does come with a price for extra fuel consumption though, returning an average of 7.5 litres/100 km. That’s still no worse than the current IM, of course.

Toyota is going its own way with the new Corolla Hatchback. Car sales are down while crossovers and SUVs are up, and in the United States, other automakers actively avoid calling a five-door vehicle a hatch because they say it kills sales. Toyota’s counting on the popularity of the Corolla to help sell the Hatchback, however, and included the term right in the name. Its U.S. marketing campaign even includes eggs hatching with cute baby chicks.

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The manual transmission comes with an 'IM' button (for Intelligent Manual) that automatically matches the engine speed when down-shifting.

Handout/Toyota

“Since the Corolla is the world’s best-selling nameplate of all time, there’s a golden opportunity here for us to change the perceptions of this generation,” says Stephen Beatty, Toyota Canada’s corporate vice-president. “We recognize that some Canadians value the performance and handling that only a car can deliver, so as other manufacturers have decided to abandon passenger cars to focus on SUVs, we’re happy to welcome those drivers to Toyota.”

The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.

Tech Specs

  • Base price/As tested: $20,980 / $27,980
  • Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder
  • Transmission/Drive: six-speed manual or 10-step CVT/Front Wheel Drive
  • Fuel economy (litres/100 km): Manual: 8.4 City, 6.3 Hwy., 7.5 combined; CVT: 7.5 City, 5.8 Hwy., 6.7 combined
  • Alternatives: Volkswagen Golf, Honda Civic Hatchback, Mazda3 Sport

Looks

That large front grille is love-it-or-hate-it, as with all the Lexus vehicles these days, but it does help the new hatch stand out in the mall parking lot from its beige competition. And thinking of colours, it’s available in a sassy new blue (“blue flame”), red (“smoked paprika”) and grey (“oxide bronze”), as well as four more traditionally dull colours. There’s a rear spoiler as standard and flared wheel arches to look a bit snarly, and even 18-inch wheels as an option. The whole vehicle is a bit longer, lower and wider than the Corolla IM, thanks to the new TNGA platform. Standard LED headlights and taillights help bring everything up to date, too.

Interior

The interior isn't made of luxurious leather and aluminum by any means, but is above-average for a vehicle in this price range.

Handout/Toyota

It’s nice inside, with comfortable seats and easy-to-access seating for two in the back, three at a pinch. Those rear-seat passengers had better have short legs, though. There’s a large eight-inch central touch display screen that’s easy to use and swipe around, and the materials and stitching just feel right – not luxurious leather and aluminum by any means, but above average for a vehicle in this low-20s price range. The most expensive XSE trim has a fancy seven-inch information display screen between the two instrument gauges, while other trims have a more conventional 4.2-inch screen.

Performance

The new Corolla hatchback has more power, better transmissions and a chassis that’s 60-per-cent stiffer than before.

Handout/Toyota

More power, better transmissions and a chassis that’s 60-per-cent stiffer than before – what’s not to like? It even has “Active Cornering Assist” for the first time which, Toyota says, “controls the drive force with adapting the brake to change the yaw rate,” which helps fight understeer. This will never be a sports car, but get it up to speed and it’ll hum along nicely. Paddle shifters are standard on all the CVT-equipped cars, but the manual transmissions are satisfying to shift and the magic IM button will let your passenger forget the hatch is a stick.

Technology

The new Corolla Hatchback benefits from Toyota’s latest package of safety technology, called Toyota Safety Sense 2.0, meaning not just more stuff but also more effective stuff. All models come with lane-departure alert and steering assist, dynamic cruise control and precollision detection that works at a greater range of speeds than before, needing less light now to identify pedestrians in the road. All models also come with Apple CarPlay (Toyota is still working on Android Auto, held up for reasons of maintaining privacy, apparently), while XSE trims get EnTune Audio with navigation and satellite radio.

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Cargo

It helps that the 2019 Corolla's rear seats fold flat.

Handout/Toyota

Sorry, but the rear cargo space is tiny: 503 litres, compared with 589 litres in the Corolla IM. That’s not much bigger than the trunk of the sedan, which is 369 litres. It helps that the rear seats fold flat with a 60/40 split. There is at least a spare tire under the floor and the rear hatch door is made of lightweight resin to make it easy to lift and close.

The verdict: 9.0

This is a great little car. It’s not a hot hatch, but it is a solid and affordable performer with fun-to-drive dynamics and exceptional fuel consumption. If Toyota’s trying to woo drivers back into cars and away from SUVs and crossovers, the new Corolla Hatchback should do the trick.

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