Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda is a racer, through and through — a motorsport enthusiast with high-octane fuel coursing in his veins. So why, with someone like Toyoda at the helm, does most of America look at Toyota as a milquetoast car company? Especially despite the brand’s incredibly capable off-roaders like TRD (Toyota Racing Development) versions of the Tacoma and 4Runner, not to mention the ridiculously entertaining GT86? Because last year alone, three-quarters of one million Americans bought either Toyota Corolla or a Camry — cars not exactly known for their pulse quickening features. Not enough of the general public is buying the exciting vehicles Toyota keeps pumping out. That’s about to change.

It’s safe to assume all performance cars should handle well, but not all great-handling cars are necessarily ‘performance’ cars. It’s easy to get swept up in the mythology and iconography of classic cars like the Datsun 510, BMW 2002, original Nissan Skyline or Alfa Romeo Giulia, which by today’s standards are revered as ridiculously well-handling cars but labeled as ‘enthusiast cars’ as a result. Consuqeualty, brands capitalized on that with modern reincarnations built as expensive, high-performance machines for a small group of die-hard fans familiar with the history — the modern cars couldn’t be more unrelated to the originals. They forgot about the customer base that made them so successful: the average buyer.

The key to all those cars’ initial successes — the 2002, the Skyline, the Giulia — was that they handled well and were affordable and approachable to the average buyer. That’s what Toyota is trying to bring back with the Corolla Hatchback. They want to bring a good handling car of their own back to the people. Sure, the GT86 can hustle, and the hype around the second coming of the Supra will in all likelihood follow through, but only a handful of people will buy those cars. The trick is to make the car 330,000 Americans are already buying a blast to drive.

The Good: Three critical factors have to work together to create an inspiring and entertaining car: the engine, the transmission and the handling. If the engine is a piece of crap, you’ll dread every waking minute your foot has to venture towards the gas pedal; if the transmission lags behind the engine — even if it’s a good engine — it’s the same story. Likewise, if the car can’t take a turn to save its life, it’ll be no fun to move around. Luckily for the new Corolla Hatchback, all three work together wonderfully.

Exterior design and interior styling also get top marks. Compared to its Civic and Golf competitors, the Corolla’s bodywork lands in a relieving middle ground. That is to say, it’s not nearly as over-designed as the Civic, but carries more character lines, creases and angles than the minimalist Golf. Inside, thankfully, Toyota employed some cloth upholstery. While there is some leather, the driver and passenger seats get a nicely woven cloth in crucial areas on the seat and lower back.

Who It’s For: Not the enthusiast street racer, thankfully. The new Corolla hatch is intelligently aimed at the average buyer, someone who wants a small, affordable city car. It just happens to handle in a class above. And it’s about time this demographic experienced that.

Watch Out For: I’m not sure if it was because of the Corolla XSE I drove was a pre-production prototype or not but the infotainment system and interface was noticeably laggy. When changing satellite radio stations or inputting any other commands directly into the center-dash interface, there was a delay between hitting the button or screen prompt and the action actually happening.

Even though the Corolla isn’t trying to go tit-for-tat with the Civic Si, the passenger legroom in the back was old-school hatch cramped. If a new or younger driver has their friends in the back, it might not be a problem, but for the adult owners using this as a city car or commuter, I wouldn’t recommend volunteering to drive the office carpool — unless you hate your coworkers. Additionally, as a city car or people carrier, the stiffer suspension is something to get used to. It’s not a deal breaker, but the low profile tires will cause a few wincing moments if you don’t keep an eye out for deep potholes ruts.

Alternatives: The segment Toyota is going after with Corolla Hatchback XSE is no cakewalk. Diving into these waters means the Corolla Hatchback will have to outdo a more affordable, more spacious Honda Civic SI ($24,100) and the performance the Volkswagen Golf GTI ($26,415). Although the last generation Toyota Corolla was one of the best selling cars in America, it never actively went after these two segment stalwarts. Now that Toyota has upped the Corolla Hatchback’s game, Honda and VW should keep an eye on their sixes.

Review: It could have been easy to start marketing the new Corolla hatch directly at the enthusiast crowd by boasting about how good the handling is, or by making it manual-only, etc. But at the same time, Toyota would have set impossible standards for itself. Marketing the Corolla as a regular car and letting the astonishing handling and surprising performance speak for itself is the smartest thing Toyota could have done — not just for the Corolla, but for their brand.

The 2.0-Liter inline-four has enough punch and grunt to keep things interesting but not so much so to get a new or inexperienced driver into any sort of trouble. Connect that to Toyota’s Dynamic Shift CVT, which has a separate first gear to get the car moving off the line quicker than a conventional, lethargic CVT. A point worth making too is when you use the steering-wheel-mounted paddles and call on the next gear, it actually shifts — and rapidly too. Not just for a CVT, but compared to any other semi-automatic transmission out there. Finally, and critically, the Corolla Hatchback can hustle in and out of turns with ease. The sport-tuned suspension and low-profile tires skate the line of almost too stiff on pitted city streets, but going around any turn — combined with all four wheels positioned as far to each corner of the car as possible — the Corolla feels planted and stable at every direction change.

Not only did I thoroughly enjoy my time in the Corolla slicing through city traffic and cutting across northern New Jersey’s sweeping, rolling highways, but I also got a handful of compliments and intrigue from pedestrians as well. It might have been the electric blue paint or the low, sharp, angular design — or a combination of the two — but I kept wanting to say, “you know it’s just a Corolla right?” — a simple, sub-$30,000 hatchback, not some track-tuned weeknight swap-meet special.

Verdict: Toyota knows the Corolla Hatchback XSE won’t go punch for punch with the Civic Si, but that isn’t the mission. What Toyota did with the new Corolla is what they should’ve been doing all along — incorporating the performance knowhow it builds into the GT86, its race cars and the upcoming Supra (which has been a 10-year-plus project) into the cars it sells in the hundreds of thousands. Customers who typically buy cars like the old Corolla and Camry probably don’t put performance and handling at the top of their car-characteristic priorities, but that doesn’t mean the cars should go without them.

Accessibility and approachability are what the Toyota does so damn well. Yes, Toyota could have gone full force on the performance and enthusiast crowd and sling the manual hard in its marketing, but not everyone is buying a manual. In fact, hardly anyone is. It’s important Toyota simply offers a manual — it shows Toyota’s intentions and openness to the analog die-hards — but it’s twice as crucial for the CVT can keep a smile on the driver’s face too. As far as the brand’s reputation is concerned, the Corolla, a big part of its North American bread and butter, is a dynamite car — in much the same way legends from BMW, Nissan and Alfa Romeo got their start.

What Others Are Saying:

• “It’s been a very long time since the Corolla could truly be called sporty, but this hatchback takes steps in that direction. Built on Toyota’s TNGA platform and riding on a sport-tuned suspension, the 2019 Corolla hatch has moves that place it in another class of responsiveness and fun above the American-market sedan. It’s no Civic Type R, of course, nor is that the Corolla hatchback’s mission.” — Zach Gale, Motor Trend

• “Competing at the most price-sensitive end of the market, Toyota couldn’t afford to splurge on the interior pieces. But almost counterintuitively, the discipline of keeping costs down has resulted in an exceptionally clean design executed with restraint.” — John Pearley Huffman, Car and Driver

• “But it was on curvy roads that we found the Corolla Hatchback to feel most in its element. We were surprised by its entertaining handling for a Corolla, as it took corners without hesitation, with nicely responsive steering, around our test track.” — Mike Monticello, Consumer Reports

Key Specs

Engine: 2.0-Liter Inline-Four
Transmission: Dynamic-Shift CVT
Horsepower: 168 horsepower @ 6,600 RPM
Torque: 151 lb-ft @ 4,800 RPM
Drive: front-wheel-drive
Price: $20,910+ ($27,025 as tested)

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