MALIBU, California — “Which Corolla are you driving?” fellow senior editor Nelson Ireson asked.
“The XSE hatch,” I said.
“Oh, the good one,” he replied.
I guess my confusion must have been reflected in my face, because his own expression changed to the exasperated Yet-again-I-must-explain-myself-to-the-humans look that I have come to know so well.
“I didn’t say it was good,” he explained. “I said it was the good one.”
After a couple of days of intensive driving, I will, yet again, beg to differ with Ireson; I think the 2019 Toyota Corolla XSE Hatchback we had in for some evaluation is good, full stop. To be fair, we’re both coming from the same place: No gearhead expects anything from a Corolla sedan beyond a couple hundred years of trouble-free service—it’s really Lunesta on wheels when it comes to excitement. But the Corolla hatch really is in a different category.
Allow me to lay out the evidence, gathered on a fast trip down my favorite curvy roads northwest of Los Angeles. I have driven a Corolla sedan on these very same roads—tried to, at least—and as expected, it proved itself as an under-tired, understeering mess. But the Corolla hatch, which is essentially a rebadged European-market Toyota Auris, shows signs of a pulse, and a rather strong one at that.
My first impression was that this car belongs in the curves. The grip is very good, and when the front end starts to let go—preceded by a reasonable wail of warning from the tires—it does so gently and progressively, with the chassis giving the barest hint that the back end might come into play if one manipulated the controls well (or badly) enough.
No, it’s not perfect; in fact, it’s quite a distance away. The springs are a bit too soft and the dampers not quite effective enough. Hit a big bump mid-corner and the body bounces like a pogo stick, severely enough that the car loses grip on the upswings. Understandable; the Corolla’s first obligation is to avoid grinding vertebrae to dust on the daily commute.
Though the 2.0-liter engine sounds promising at 168 hp, it’s not enough power to motivate the XSE all that briskly. Our colleagues down the hall at Motor Trend timed the manual version to 60 mph in 7.5 seconds, with the automatic coming in at 8.5. The bigger problem is that the engine is slow to rev. Our test car had a manual transmission, and it seemed to take forever to climb into the upper rev ranges where it does its best work. The driver has to stay closely tuned in to keep the engine in its powerband, but the tall fuel-economy-minded gearing means that downshifting isn’t always an option on the tightest and slowest of bends. Still, we’ve had similar complaints about other sporty cars, and declared them good.
And there’s plenty more about the Corolla XSE that is more than good. Back home in Europe, the Auris is pitched as an upscale car, and the interior reflects that, with high-quality materials, nicely-finished surfaces, and Lexus-quality switchgear. Though luggage space appears to be in short supply at first glance, the published numbers reveal a trunk area slightly larger than the Volkswagen Golf GTI. The Corolla Hatch is also reasonably quiet, at least when it comes to engine and wind noise. Unfortunately, the wheel-and-tire combo (18-inch alloys wrapped with Yokohama Avid GT all-seasons) generate a hollow drone—an issue we’ve encountered in several modern cars with low-profile tires.
Bonus bits on this particular test car included an electronic parking brake and dual-zone automatic climate control. There’s also a rev-matching feature that spins the engine up for easier downshifts, and the cruise control doesn’t disengage when you change gears. (I’m not sure how many modern cars have that feature—it’s not like there are many stick-shift cars left on which to try it out—but the last one I remember with that feature was a BMW.)
The bottom line is that the Corolla XSE is a top notch, all-around hatchback and a bright spot in the Toyota lineup. Is it so bright that we’d spend our own cash on one? Probably not, because the Hyundai Veloster R-Spec delivers more fun for quite a bit less money. Still, this is certainly the best Corolla we’ve driven from an enthusiast’s perspective. A more energetic engine and a stiffer set of shocks and springs could turn this hatch from warm to hot.
Ireson’s right; the XSE hatchback is the good Corolla. But he’s also wrong—if you’re willing to sacrifice best-possible driving dynamics for a comfortable day-to-day ride, the XSE hatch is good, period.
|2019 Toyota Corolla XSE Hatchback Specifications|
|PRICE||$23,910/$24,325 (base/as tested)|
|ENGINE||2.0L DOHC 16-valve I-4/168 hp @ 6,600 rpm, 151 lb-ft @ 4,800 rpm|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD hatchback|
|EPA MILEAGE||28/37 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||169.9 x 69.9 x 57.1 in|
|0-60 MPH||7.5 secs|
|TOP SPEED||110 mph (est)|