Skip to main content

2019 Toyota Corolla XSE First Drive: The Most Exciting Corolla Ever

I recently had a chance to travel to Southern California to drive the 2019 Toyota Corolla and after spending a few hours behind the wheel, I find this to be the most exciting Corolla ever from a driver’s perspective – providing the fun of a “hot hatch” without the big price tag that comes with many high performance compacts.


For a very long time, the Toyota Corolla has been one of the bestselling small cars in the United States and around the world. While the Corolla did everything needed to make it one of the most successful small cars in the history of the global auto industry, many versions of the vehicle that wore the name lacked the fun-to-drive factor that has become so important in today’s compact cars.

There has been a steady improvement in the driving dynamics of the Corolla over the past 20 years, but with the arrival of the 2019 model, the newest Corolla is, without a doubt, the most exciting car in the 50+ year history of the nameplate.

To experience the 2019 Toyota Corolla, I traveled with the Japanese automaker to Del Mar, California where I spent the day behind the wheel of this new hatchback. I expected an improvement in fun-to-drive factor, but this car far exceeded my expectations.

2019 Corolla Mechanical Details
The 2019 Toyota Corolla is built on the new Toyota New Global Architecture, the same basic underpinnings as the current Prius and the C-HR, but you wouldn’t guess it from driving the three. The chassis and suspension setup of the Corolla is stiffer and sportier, providing a better feel for the road without creating an unpleasant ride.

Under the hood is a new 2.0-liiter 4-cylinder that delivers 168 horsepower and 151 lb-ft of torque. This isn’t as much power as you will get from the higher-priced, performance-focused compacts, but this isn’t a performance model – this is simply the next Corolla hatchback. As non-performance-focused models go, the power of the new Corolla makes it one of the stouter models in the segment while likely having a far lower price point than the dedicated high performance hatchbacks.

The power is sent to the front wheels via a CVT (continuously variable transmission) with simulated shifts, but my choice would be the 6-speed manual transmission. For the first time, Toyota has equipped the Corolla with active rev-matching, so when you downshift (with the system activated), the engine automatically revs to offer the smoothest possible shifts. This is a feature that has traditionally been reserved for expensive, high performance vehicles and in the new Corolla, it really enhances the performance driving feel.

The combination of the 6-speed manual transmission and the new 2.0-liter engine makes the Corolla surprisingly quick from a stop, with the transmission affording quick, smooth shifts from gear to gear. When you get to a portion of twisty road, the rev-matching system allows you to quickly downshift while keeping the engine speed up, so after slowing for a tight turn, you can zip right out of it on the other side.
This drivetrain likes big RPM and with the help of the rev-matching system, it is fun and easy to drive this car like an pricier hot hatch.

Cruising SoCal in the Corolla
My day in the 2019 Toyota Corolla was spent cruising around southern California, on some of the country’s best-know, scenic roads. This included long straight stretches along the coast followed by a collection of twisty roads as we headed inland, at which point we could really experience the curve-loving nature of the new compact hatchback.

With the 18-inch wheels of the XSE trim level, you can toss the Corolla into turns with some confidence and the small car will stick to the road nicely. Accelerating too hard out of a tight turn in a lower gear will get the tires to spin a bit and while it doesn’t have a fancy-and-expensive performance braking package – the standard stoppers do a nice job of slowing the car down as you approach a turn at higher speeds.

More importantly to many buyers, the Corolla in its sportier XSE trim offers solid ride quality when you aren’t hammered through the twisties. As mentioned above, you do feel more of the road with the low profile tires of the XSE package, but by no means is it excessive, so what you gain in handling and general driving dynamics more than offsets any depreciation in ride quality.

The Final Word
Overall, I really enjoyed driving the 2019 Toyota Corolla far more than I expected. I enjoy driving sporty little compacts and I expected that the new Corolla would improve on the old Scion iM (that I also enjoyed), but the 2019 Corolla is leaps and bounds better than the outgoing model. The engine offers solid power with excellent throttle response, the manual transmission rev-matching system makes high performance driving easier for everyone and the suspension setup does a fine job of combining road handling with ride quality.

If you have liked past Corollas but you wished that they were a bit more fun to drive, the 2019 Toyota Corolla XSE might just be perfect for you. On top of the improved driving dynamics, it offers an aggressive exterior design from front to rear that allows it to stand out from the black compact segment while the interior is chock full of standard technology, including a big, bright touchscreen infotainment system.

We don’t know the pricing yet, but when the 2019 Toyota Corolla arrives later this year, it is sure to be a hit with long-time Corolla owners by continuing to do everything that past models have done well, while drawing in those buyers who want a more engaging driving experience.