You’re a young professional with enough credit to your name that you can schlep down to basically any mainstream dealer and pick out a sensible and affordable hatchback, and you’d like the option of a manual transmission. Thankfully, right now, your options are basically limitless. Disregarding Ford’s asinine decision to drop the Focus from their showrooms for a moment, you’ve got the VW Golf, Mazda3, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, and even Chevrolet will sell you a Cruze hatch with a manual. Toyota, then, has been late to this segment, but showed up with competent product at a competitive price. After the Ooops! All Scion Corolla iM that Toyota accidentally added to their product line for a year or two, they needed a car on an all-new platform to really kick things up a notch. This Corolla is large enough to be a sensible daily driver that you can cram four adults into, plus the hatch will allow some gear transport as well, without looking too stodgy for the youths or too dramatically Toyota (like the Prius and Avalon it shares the TNGA platform with) to turn off normal folks. Do you need one? Read on to find out.
In the interest of full disclosure, Toyota flew me to San Diego to test the new Corolla Hatchback (as well as the new Avalon), they also put me up in a nice hotel and fed me nice food.
It’s amazing how technology and buyer expectations in the automotive space progress with the passing of time. If this Corolla hatchback had been released fifteen years ago, its 170-horsepower, four-wheel independent suspension (McPherson front, multilink rear), and four-wheel disc brakes would have found its place somewhere toward the sharp end of the hot hatch standings. In fact, those are very similar specs to what Honda was selling in the EP3 Civic Si back then, just furthering my point. In today’s market, however, the Corolla isn’t quite as quick as the turbocharged offerings from Civic and Golf, and that’s to say nothing of properly hot hatches like Focus RS, Golf R, or Civic Type R. Toyota doesn’t muck about with speed in the Corolla market, content to shout ‘SCOREBOARD’ while showing other brand execs sales numbers whenever they mention horsepower wars.
For a few years it has felt like Toyota was resting on the laurels of their sales successes, pumping out ever more mediocre middle-of-the-road kind of product, but this new TNGA platform is actually pretty impressive. Much like Volkswagen has done with their modular MQB platform, Toyota has made a move toward common platform tooling to cut costs and ultimately improve product. From my time with the Corolla Hatch (and the Avalon) it seems to have worked. With styling updates come a slightly smaller car (which is always good in my book, segment creep is a real problem), as the new hatch is a couple inches shorter than the outgoing iM, and with a slightly smaller cargo area, down 2 cubic feet to the old Scion. With my seat moved all the way back (I’m tall), I would not have been able to ‘sit behind me’, as the rear seat was a little tight, but that’s not a normal situation for a car like this. Kids will fit fine, and the rear door openings are huge.
Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 is standard on all models, making this a segment leader on safety equipment. Automatic emergency braking is possible below 37 miles per hour, which works in conjunction with cyclist detection, as well as an improved low-light pedestrian detection. Adaptive cruise control is also available (though it will not bring the car to a complete stop in the manual-equipped cars). Speaking of the manual trans, both the 6-speed manual and simulated 10-speed CVT are brand new units. If you want Toyota’s lane-keep assist software (which allegedly keeps the car dead center of the lane, rather than hunting side to side for painted lines like older systems), you’ll have to choose the CVT. Camera-based road sign detection is also standard, bringing stop, yield, and speed limit signs into the cabin and putting them right in your eyeline on the cluster. It’s a lot of standard safety equipment, to be quite frank, and some buyers will value that dearly.
Getting down to brass tacks, nobody reading this will want to buy the CVT-equipped model. I’ve never met a CVT I liked, and this one doesn’t change that. Simulating nine gear shifts on my way up to highway speed is dumb. Changing shift points and ‘gear ratios’ when switching to Sport mode is dumb. Having flappy paddle shifters for a CVT is dumb. Just don’t do that to yourself, and order a Corolla Hatch with a really nice 6-speed manual in the center console. It performs quite nicely for a Japanese-developed gearbox, experiencing very little of the vagueness and lightweight flywheel issues that are normal in other models. It’s easy shifting, nicely gated, and firm, while clutch takeup is quite nice. The car has enough torque (151 ft-lbs) to pull away from a stop without accelerator pedal application. Interestingly, it’s the only ‘normal’ car I’ve ever experienced with automatic rev-matching on downshifts, a technology previously reserved for Porsches, Corvettes, and Nissan’s 370Z. I like it!
Handling is reasonable for a 3000 pound hatchback, considered lightweight in today’s market. It’s not something you’d call inspired or even above average, but this car has more lateral grip than 99% of Corolla Hatch buyers will ever exploit. It corners reasonably flat, and doesn’t wallow or dive like you might expect. Given the stiff competition in this segment, I’m not sure I’d buy one of these over a comparable Golf 1.8t or Mazda3, but it’s certainly the best iteration of Corolla I’ve ever come across, which says a lot considering how quickly Toyota moves these things.
I drove the base model with 16″ wheels and a manual transmission in the morning, and an XSE model with a CVT in the afternoon. Aside from hating the CVT, the XSE was a nice upgrade over the base model, adding 18″ wheels, LED fog lights, leather insert power seats, dual-zone climate control, premium audio, and a full-width screen in place of the analog gauges. Toyota has *STILL* not released pricing information for the Corolla Hatch, but expect it to start around 18 grand. Depending on the price increase for the XSE package, I’d swing for it. The digital gauges are nice (even if there was no numeric readout for speed, just the sweeping needle), and the 18″ wheels are stylish. It’s a tough choice, but if you really want a Toyota, this is probably the best normal Toyota there has been in years.