On Autos: Redesigned Toyota Corolla hatchback takes on the Europeans


The redesigned 2019 Toyota Corolla hatchback now feels upscale for a compact car, but it favors a sporty vibe over a spacious interior. Photo by Brady Holt

In much of the world, the Volkswagen Golf stands at or near the top of the automotive best-seller list. This compact hatchback combines sensible functionality with an upscale driving experience at attainable prices — a winning strategy for many car buyers.

But not for most Americans. Here, the Golf is a slow seller even for Volkswagen. The standard hatchback model found fewer than 7,000 buyers in the U.S. last year, less than a single month’s volume for VW’s Tiguan crossover or Jetta sedan — and less than a single week for the Toyota Corolla.

The Corolla outsells the Golf globally on the strength of its U.S. sales alone. But it’s also set to gain ground elsewhere. The redesigned 2019 Corolla hatchback offers a more sporty and luxurious experience — making it a worthier rival to the Golf for those few Americans who appreciate its approach to the economy-car segment.

For the last couple of years, Toyota had been selling two loosely related Corollas in the U.S.: a budget-focused sedan, and a hatchback called the Corolla iM, which was brought over from Europe and featured sportier handling. However, the iM suffered from the same mediocre acceleration and dated interior decor as the sedan, and it had few luxury features available.

The new 2019 Corolla hatchback addresses both of those shortcomings. It also previews the 2020 Corolla sedan, which is coming this spring with similar styling and similar advances to its performance and luxury.

A key similarity to the Golf is the new Corolla hatchback’s quiet composure on the road. It feels buttoned-down and solid, and it inspires confidence in fast cornering. This isn’t a boisterous sporty car with razor-sharp responses, but its polished refinement makes it feel upscale.

The 2019 Toyota Corolla hatchback shares its styling and mechanical components with the upcoming 2020 Corolla sedan, not the current 2019 sedan. Photo by Brady Holt

A new engine keeps pace with the improved ride and handling, and it improves both acceleration and fuel economy. This 2.0-liter four-cylinder makes 168 horsepower — up from 138 horsepower in the old Corolla iM — and the EPA estimates it will now achieve up to 36 miles per gallon in mixed driving, up from the iM’s 31 mpg.

The new Corolla hatchback’s cabin is also much luxurious, with fancier materials, superior fit and finish, and a more attractive, more functional touchscreen infotainment system that now supports Apple CarPlay smartphone integration (though still not Android Auto for non-iPhones).

Where the Corolla hatchback diverges from the Golf is in its approach to utility. The boxy Golf maximizes cargo room in a small footprint. Toyota, on the other hand, followed the Mazda3 in making its hatchback more about sporty style than maximum functionality. Low and sleek, the Corolla hatchback has a tighter rear seat and less cargo room than the Golf — or the Corolla iM, or the Honda Civic hatchback.

Still, plenty of buyers will be swayed by the Corolla hatchback’s outstanding fuel economy alone, along with its newly upscale interior and improved driving experience. Prices start at $21,305.

Buyers interested in upscale five-door hatchbacks would also do well to consider the globally successful Golf — particularly in D.C., where its space-efficient body combines useful interior volume with an easy-to-park footprint.

The 2019 Volkswagen Golf combines a fun driving experience with an easy-to-park size, everyday comfort and cargo space, and a premium feel — particularly in this sporty GTI model. Photo by Brady Holt

The Golf measures just 168 inches long, shorter than every direct competitor. Yet it has among the most cargo space in its class: 23 cubic feet behind the rear seat and 53 cubic feet with the rear seat folded own. And while the rear seat can be tight, it’s still better than the Corolla hatchback’s.  

For 2019, Volkswagen has resolved one longtime issue with the Golf: gas mileage. Americans could only buy the Golf with a powerful yet fuel-thirsty 1.8-liter turbocharged engine with a zesty 180 horsepower, which could achieve a mere 28 miles per gallon in mixed driving.

Now, a 1.4-liter turbo — shared with the VW Jetta sedan — is standard on most Golf models. Power slips to 147 horsepower, but it’s still peppy and it’s now rated at a more competitive 32 miles per gallon. That engine combines with the Golf’s agreeable ride and handling to create a highly pleasant driving experience. Prices start at $22,740.

Buyers interested in more zest can step up to the Golf GTI, which is priced from $28,490 and comes with a 228-horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, along with a firmer suspension for sportier handling.

The GTI is a city-friendly sporty car, with a smooth ride and an easygoing demeanor when you want to drive gently, yet the capability to provide invigorating thrills when you get out of D.C. onto an open road. And it’s just as useful as other Golfs, similarly prioritizing cargo space over sporty styling.

Some folks will consider the GTI to be too expensive for a compact hatchback, or not flashy enough to be a great sports car. But good luck finding a similar blend of performance, refinement and utility at any remotely affordable price.

To see more photos of the tested 2019 Toyota Corolla hatchback and Volkswagen Golf, you can visit tinyurl.com/corolla-golf-current.