2020 Toyota Corolla Hatchback XSE: Putting Boring In The Past

If you would’ve asked anyone 15, 10, or even 5 years ago what Toyota would be doing, I’m sure the majority of answers would center around a few key things. One would be reliability. The other affordability. And lastly, probably hybrid technology. No one, would’ve envisioned sporty cars, like the return of the Toyota Supra, or regular cars that are fun to drive. No, not from Toyota. And yet, here we are, covering a Toyota Corolla XSE Hatchback that looks athletic and has a six-speed manual transmission. How odd.

It’s funny really. The majority of automakers are taking manuals off the menu, shifting their focus to crossovers and SUVs, squashing small cars like pesky mosquitos. But Toyota? The third-best selling automaker (as of January 2019) continues to come out with all-new compact vehicles, including the Corolla Hatchback. Maybe Toyota knows something everyone else doesn’t. Or maybe, just maybe, they’ve finally realized that the old way of doing business won’t fly anymore.

Toyota Corolla Hatchback

Nonetheless, the Corolla Hatchback is great. The all-new model represents a seismic shift for the nameplate and really makes one rethink how to look at Toyota. There are some issues with the hatchback, as nothing in life is truly perfect – even “Avengers: Endgame” has its issues – but as a complete package, the Corolla Hatchback manages to shed itself of the monotonous problems that have characterized the nameplate.

Performance

It’s easier to start with what the Toyota Corolla Hatchback isn’t than what it is. So let’s get some stuff out of the way to manage expectations. This isn’t a Volkswagen Golf GTI hunter. Nor is it a sushi-dicing master like the Ford Fiesta ST. It isn’t the annoying valedictorian of the class like the Honda Civic Hatchback, either. It’s somewhere in between all of those, which isn’t a bad place to be.

Turbochargers are more popular than avocado toast in the auto industry, as nearly everyone in the business has an engine with the circular component that makes wooshy noises and boosts performance. Toyota hasn’t joined the party yet. The Corolla Hatchback features a 2.0-liter inline-four that generates a modest 168 horsepower and 155 pound-feet of torque. The motor may be called “Dynamic Force,” but it’s not exactly forceful and it doesn’t have dynamic performance. So it’s a bit of a misnomer.

Toyota Corolla Hatchback

While the engine may not be a stunner, the real kicker with the Corolla Hatchback lies with its transmission choices. There’s a six-speed manual transmission, which is what our test car was fitted with, while the other option is an interesting CVT. I haven’t spent time with the CVT, but the manual gearbox is obviously the choice to get. At a time when sporty and luxurious brands, ahem, BMW, are moving away from manual transmissions, Toyota, the maker of all things boring, is offering a six-speed on both the hatchback and the sedan Corolla. Crazy times we live in.  

With the aggressive body design, rev-happy engine, and six-speed manual transmission, one would expect the recipe to result in a Corolla hot hatch. But that’s not the case. You can guise up Baltimore with a fancy harbor, but it’s still Baltimore. It’s the same case for the Corolla. Make it look nicer, give it a sporty transmission, and increase performance, but it’s still a Corolla. And Corolla roots are deep in the ground.

The engine needs to be revved out to make any semblance of power and even hammering on the motor doesn’t provide the same grunt to what’s found in any other hatches on the market. The six-speed manual, though, is a treat. It clicks through the gears with a satisfying feel that manual gearboxes are known for. If there’s one downside, it’s with the clutch pedal. Finding the clutch’s bite point is difficult because there’s little feel to it. The bite point itself is higher than in other manual cars, too.

Toyota Corolla Hatchback

Corolla Hatchbacks with the manual transmission come with an iMT button that includes rev-matching downshifts and smoother upshifts by adjusting engine speed. If you’re reading this review, you’re probably sneering at the idea of an iMT button because of heel-and-toe, bro. But even with my 11-size shoe, I wasn’t able to heel and toe properly because of the placement of the brake and accelerator pedals. So for me, the iMT button was always engaged. And it worked really well. Not only fitting into the overall character of the Corolla as being a compact that’s easy to drive, but improving fun factor, as well.

Ride wise, the Corolla Hatchback is on the softer side of things. While that means you won’t be able to corner flat around an off ramp, it translates to being able to hit a pothole without wincing. While the majority of writers and readers on this website would trade comfort for driving pleasure, a lot of regular drivers wouldn’t. With that said, the new TNGA platform has a touch of magic brought about by pixie dust that endows the compact with a more rigid body than ever. So no, it’s not the sportiest hatchback on the market, but it’s the sportiest Corolla there’s ever been. That means a lot.

Toyota Corolla Hatchback

Another upside to the Toyota Corolla Hatchback is fuel economy. With the CVT, you’re looking at 36 mpg combined. The range-topping XSE trims aren’t as efficient, capable of getting up to 34 mpg combined. The manual XSE tester we drove is rated by the EPA to get up to 31 mpg combined. Those figures hold up in the real world where we saw 30 mpg after a week.

Exterior

Jagged, edgy, futuristic, Toyota’s really embracing the gaping mouth look at the front and it totally works with the Corolla Hatchback. If Toyota were to introduce a sportier variant, all it would have to do is fiddle with the suspension and engine. The hatchback already looks like a true hot hatch. Compared to the old iM, it’s more energetic. But it also manages to be more subdued than full on-riot machines like the Honda Civic Type R. It’s even more stylish than the Civic Hatchback.

Toyota Corolla Hatchback

The all-new Corolla Hatchback gets Toyota’s now regular front-end design with sharp headlights, a slim, almost nonexistent grille, and a wide-open front intake. It’s like the Corolla Hatchback’s always excited to see you. The back end is a little more boy racer with two exhaust outlets in chrome, a spoiler, and sharp taillights. Controversial at first, but now my favorite part of all of Toyota’s cars, the front end is clearly the best angle on the hatchback.  

Since it’s a Toyota, the Corolla Hatchback comes with a bunch of standard equipment. Even the base SE trim comes with LED headlights and taillights, heated exterior mirrors, 16-inch wheels, and a chrome rear diffuser. The XSE trim adds 18-inch wheels, larger tires, and LED fog lights.

Interior

Quality and interior design isn’t something that stands out in compact vehicles. Affordability plays a big role in this segment, so having a standout blueprint is like getting to your favorite Italian deli and being able to grab the last loaf of fresh focaccia – surprising. In an attempt to keep things under a certain price point, Toyota actually penned a handsome cabin.

Toyota Corolla Hatchback

The dashboard has similar sharp edges as the front end, but it doesn’t come off as being garish. It’s a sharp design that also carries over to the front “sport seats.” The only design element that’s just meh is the center console, which follows the trend of simply being tacked on. There’s an ugly black trim piece that surrounds the infotainment system and the HVAC controls that’s also a magnet for fingerprints.

Beyond that, the Toyota Corolla Hatchback has that Toyota sensibility. Things are well labeled and easy to reach. The leather-trimmed sports seats on the XSE we tested had fabric inserts for your buttox and lower back, making for a handsome design. The seats themselves are comfortable and have a lot more bolstering than you would expect from a Corolla. In the front, the Corolla lives up to Toyota’s standards of being a nice place to be.

Toyota Corolla Hatchback

Slide into the back seats and it’s a different story. The backseat of the Corolla is tight. Like third row in some SUVs tight if you’re on the taller side of things. More importantly, it’s tighter than other rivals in the compact segment. That same cramped thing carries on to the hatchback’s cargo space, where it only offers 17.8 cubic feet. Without context, that sounds like a good figure. Hey, 17.8 just sounds good. Except, the Civic Hatchback can hold 25.7 cubic feet, while the Volkswagen Golf’s cargo space measures in at 22.8 cubic feet. Doesn’t sound good anymore, does it?

If you don’t need the rear seats on a daily basis and don’t see yourself cramming multiple Costco packs of water bottles in the back every weekend, the Corolla Hatchback is still a usable hatchback. It’s just not that usable.

Standard features are plentiful in the Corolla Hatchback. The SE comes with a leather-trimmed tilt-and-telescopic steering wheel, two USB ports, Toyota’s Entune 3.0 system, Apple CarPlay, Wi-Fi hot spot, and fabric sport seats. The XSE adds dual-zone climate control, a 7-inch display in the instrument cluster, and heated leather seats.

Toyota Corolla Hatchback

It’s also most important to note that the Toyota Corolla Hatchback has one of the more extensive lists of standard safety features. With Toyota Safety Sense 2.0, everything you could ever want in terms of the latest safety equipment is offered. Not every compact on the market can say that.

Conclusion

Toyota gets a lot of flack for being a boring automaker. On some level, the brand deserves the rep. But after driving three of Toyota’s new cars – the Camry, Avalon, and now the Corolla Hatchback – I’m here to tell you that things are different. Toyota’s cars aren’t boring anymore and are getting more enjoyable to drive every year. It’s the same case with the Corolla Hatchback.

For enthusiasts that enjoy taking their cars to the track or doing the occasional autocross, the Corolla Hatchback isn’t for you. For everyone else – the drivers that have to commute every day to work, people that enjoy the occasional windy road, or even the few that go out on a Sunday cruise – the Corolla Hatchback is a fine choice. Saying that the Corolla Hatchback is much better than any other Corolla and especially worlds apart from the old Scion iM is a bit of a cop out. The Corolla Hatchback is an old-school hatchback in all of the right ways and it’s flat-out good.

Toyota Corolla Hatchback

No, the motor isn’t the most powerful. No, it’s not the sharpest handling vehicle out there. No, the manual gearbox won’t earn you any points at Cars and Coffee. But you won’t have to hide your face when you mumble that you own the Corolla Hatchback that’s parked a little too closely to the Ferrari 488.

If anything, the Toyota Corolla Hatchback is an affirmation that the old Toyota of the past is gone. And the ability to get the hatch with a six-speed manual at a time when everyone else is moving away from them is a ballsy move. Hopefully, there’s a hotter version of the Corolla Hatchback in the pipeline, because it’ll be great.

Bonus Pics