Slick design. The ubiquitous grille badge aside, the new 2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback manages to avoid the brand's latest design mantra of "let's just ladle on as many styling gimmicks as possible because that will make it look cool!"

Instead, both front and rear fascias are clean, tight, and expressive. More mesh is added for a bolder grille, while narrower LED headlights give it a sharper look.

Even the body sides are more interesting, with a rising upper character line that starts just aft of the front wheel wells and kicks up forward of the C-pillars. In back, the taillights are sharp but not overwrought, while XSE models feature a lower valance that houses a pair of chrome exhaust tips.

Versatile interior. The all-new body is wrapped around a simple, nicely-trimmed interior sporting a two-tier, horizontal dashboard that's dominated by an 8-inch center touchscreen.

The front seats offer all-day comfort with firm bolsters, decent thigh support, and plenty of head shoulder, hip, and leg room. Cabin materials are up to class standards, with soft-touch materials at most touchpoints, and a center console cover that slides forward for a convenient arm rest.

The hatchback also affords a versatility that the sedan can’t match: with the rear seats folded, we were able to transport a 52cm road bike without having to remove the front wheel.

At the same time, the 18-cubic-foot cargo area behind the back seat is down by 2.0 cubes from last year. Rear seat accommodations are tight compared to the sedan, with leg room wholly dependent upon the generosity of those up front. Meanwhile, the door cutouts are smaller than we'd like, making ingress and egress awkward at times. Finally, the plain look of the cabin isn't up to the standards set by the class-leading Mazda Mazda3.

Wide-ranging safety tech. Both hatchback trims feature Toyota's Safety Sense 2.0 suite of active safety systems that includes forward collision warning with pedestrian detection, automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning with steering assist, lane keeping assist, automatic high beams, adaptive cruise control (highway speed on continuously variable transmission models only), road sign assist, daytime and low-light pedestrian detection, and daytime cyclist detection.

Toyota Supra

Well equipped. All hatchbacks come with the usual power features, plus full LED headlights and taillights, heated outside mirrors, 16-inch alloy wheels, keyless push-button start, a 4.2-inch color TFT multi-info instrument panel display, automatic climate control, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob.

There’s also a new 8-inch touchscreen with an intuitive infotainment system that, in addition to Bluetooth and Siri Eyes Free, now offers Apple CarPlay capability.

Entertaining for a Corolla. Despite the fact that it'll be outsold a gazillion to one by the continuously variable transmission (CVT), the Corolla Hatchback performs best when mated to the six-speed manual, as it transforms the model's character from competent to almost fun.

Featuring a small button near the center console, when pressed, it engages an intelligent mode that matches revs on downshifts, and smooths out upshifts with small throttle adjustments for smoother operation during aggressive driving.

Although throws are a bit long, the shifter operates smoothly, and clutch take up is fluid and progressive. And while the CVT features a fixed first gear for better off-line performance, it still manages to reduce the fun factor by at least 50 percent, as the standard paddle shifters offer only a narrow window of operation before the eco-programmed ECU takes over control of the system.

The 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, which we would like to see offered on the Toyota Corolla sedan at some point, also appears willing to contribute to the fun, although most of it takes place higher in the rev range at around 6,500 rpm, which means only manual buyers can explore its true potential.

Meanwhile, the fully-independent suspension, offering plenty of wheel travel, absorbs even large bumps well, while even the SEL’s 18-inch tires – offering less sidewall than the more compliant 16-inchers found on the SE – do a nice job of absorbing road harshness.

Fuel economy is also very good, returning an EPA-estimated 28 miles per gallon city, 37 mpg highway, and 31 combined for manually-equipped models, and an even better 32/42/36 mpg (city/highway/combined) with the CVT. Our own observed, vehicle-measured fuel economy in a CVT-equipped SE tester was 35 mpg in suburban driving.

On the other hand, very little of what's happening under the tires is transmitted to the driver, the engine needs to be wrung out for the most fun, and although body lean is fairly well-controlled, the lack of grip from the eco-friendly, 205/55R16 Dunlop Enasave tires on SE models is enough to dampen any pretense of handling fun.

So, although entertaining by Corolla standards, the hatchback still lags behind class leaders like the Mazda3, Honda Civic, and soon-to-be-retired Ford Focus.

Final thoughts. Tight rear quarters, a diminished cargo area, a CVT that does the engine no favors, and a hardly sporty driving character will be turnoffs to families and enthusiasts.

Despite those drawbacks, the 2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback remains a solid choice in its class, with excellent fuel economy, and a long list of advanced safety features that should appeal to eco-friendly and safety-conscious buyers, as well as traditional Corolla shoppers interested in a bit more fun as well as the model’s well-established history of quality, reliability, and high resale values.

Check prices for the 2019 Toyota Corolla Hatchback »