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The hatchback body style returned to the Corolla nameplate for 2019 using Toyota’s TNGA vehicle architecture. (Toyota)

What we’re driving: 2019 Toyota Corolla hatchback

“What we’re driving” is SAE’s series of quick-strike vehicle reviews.

For the 2019 model year, Toyota rediscovered and reintroduced the hatchback body style for the Corolla. Take the sheetmetal as you will – to me, some angles appeal, others don’t – but the more-important story is the Corolla’s move to the company’s TNGA architecture that now underpins just about all of the brand’s transverse-engine models.

That means you get an independent rear suspension (when there are plenty of contemporary compact/subcompact cars working with a solid axle back there), 60% more torsional rigidity, thoughtfully tuned damping and a roomy 103.9-inch (2,639-mm) wheelbase 1.5 inches (38 mm) longer than the ’18 Corolla. It all feels unusually refined and not at all pitchy. When you encounter some road undulations or potholes, there’s a long-stroke, confident feel in the primary ride reactions that’s often lacking in compact cars.

And yes, Virginia, Toyota will sell you a manual transmission. This one’s a light-shifting 6-speed that Toyota’s dubbed iMT for “intelligent manual transmission,” meaning it’s got engine-management software that attempts, with a rev-optimizing algorithm, to smooth downshifts – which ain’t nuthin’ new – but also upshifts starting from a standstill.

The iMT might indeed help novices get the hang of things, but as someone who’s used manuals continually since my first pre-teen dirt motorcycles, I found just the opposite: I seemed to be continually trying to out-think this iMT, and it me. There is a defeat button, but the instrument cluster telltale is too small and the indicator on the center-console button is much too dim to see in daylight.

The Corolla hatch’s 2.0-L Dynamic Force (that name’s a bit breathy) engine is a healthy size for a contemporary compact car, but by bucking the turbocharging trend, its 168 hp (125 kW) and 151 lb-ft (205 Nm) falls in arrears to turbocharged fours of lesser displacement (Volkswagen’s turbocharged 1.4-L is down just 21 hp while out-torqueing the Toyota by 33 lb-ft and Ford’s getting 181 hp and 185 lb-ft from its turbo 1.5-L). 

Development dedication marks to Toyota engineers, however, for a lengthy list of interesting and worthwhile detail enhancements such as combining direct and port injection, electrically-actuated variable valving for the intake cam, a 13:1 compression ratio on regular unleaded fuel and painstakingly shape-optimized pistons. This engine revs sweetly and cruises quietly, but it’s just not as punchy as smaller turbocharged competitors and the 31-mpg average we saw in 700 miles (1,127 km) of mixed-use driving should’ve been better.

A few other nits include a laggy touchscreen (no navigation at this $24,000-plus price point), and a high cargo floor that seems to undercut the hatchback configuration’s utility quotient. But in terms of total-vehicle development and mechanical refinement, this TNGA-based Corolla presents the same run-forever-at-low-cost prospects for which the nameplate has become deservedly famous.

2019 Toyota Corolla hatchback XSE 
Base price:    $22,990
As tested:      $24,325
Highs:             Supple ride and confident handling; meticulously engineered 4-cylinder
Lows:              Non-turbocharged engine’s power delivery seems staid; some hard cabin surfaces
Takeaway:      Hatchback body-style utility is a useful upgrade for this compact-car totem

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