The Best Corolla In 30 Years

by Michael Satterfield

When most automotive reviewers make a statement like "the best" it's because many of them are 'kissing the ring' to keep their flow of press vehicles coming or because the automaker is a major advertiser in their publication. I, on the other hand, have been officially blacklisted by some automakers because I don't simply praise every mediocre car they make. So when I heard Toyota had a sporty version of the Corolla I wasn't too optimistic. Their last attempt to jazz up the Corolla resulted in the abysmal Corolla "S" which was little more than a badge and a poorly tacked on body kit. So when I tell you this Carolla is the best car to wear the badge since the AE86, I really mean it.

While the all-new Corolla hatchback is not the RWD AE86 GTS we all know and love, it is the first real sporty Corolla hatch to be sold in the US since the late 80s. With a DOHC 2.0-liter direct-injection inline VVT-i four-cylinder engine making 168 horsepower and 151 lb-ft of torque, a standard six-speed manual transmission, handsome styling, and a wild paint job, the Corolla XSE ticks all the hot-hatch boxes.

The iMT (intelligent manual transmission) takes the heel-toe work out of the equation with rev-matching and can even keep up on more spirited downshifts, making it fun to drive, and you can always turn off the iMT if you want to work the pedals like Paddy Hopkirk. The fun factor was a surprise considering Toyota hasn't been known for making exciting fwd cars.... really ever. The only thing that did throw me off was the lack of weight in the clutch pedal and disconnected feel of the shifter.

For those who aren't looking for a manual, the paddle-shifted CVT is supposed to simulate a 10-speed gearbox, while I haven't driven the auto version of this car many have reported that it has an inconsistent feel in the paddle-shift mode. Besides, if you are going to get a bright blue sporty hatch-back it should be a manual.

To aid in handling Toyota also did something not very Toyota-like they added a sporty suspension to the XSE. Descriptions like stabilizer bar, lower center of gravity, improved toe-in angle, are not things you see in a Toyota car media kit. But shockingly enough, it's not just words on paper, this car is fun to drive, feels balanced, and is well composed in the bends.

You do have to go without a real handbrake, which does significantly hurt the XSE's hot-hatch status, but if you can overlook the inability to impress your friends with sweet handbrake turns the Corolla still has enough fun factor to put it on your short list of cars to consider. The XSE trim level is really an impressive value, with 18-inch wheels, the sporty styling, chrome front grille surround, LED headlamps and taillamps, and loads of standard equipment.

Inside Toyota went for a minimalist design that makes the cabin feel much larger than it is. The center stack layout is simple and intuitive and the storage in the center console is well thought out, with a smartphone tray tucked up out of the way but easily accessible. To keep drivers focused the 8-inch touch screen controls Apple Carplay and Android Auto, as well as navigation, radio, and all the other standard infotainment functions. The interior is well appointed with great fit and finish, with the heated leather-trimmed sports seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel, and 8-way power driver's seat are also standard on the XSE.

I have to admit that when the Corolla as dropped off I wasn't expecting much, Toyota has always been known for building good but slightly bland cars that will run forever. So when most people think of a fun hatchback,  the Gulf GTI or Civic SI spring to mind. But the team at Toyota has not only managed to make the Corolla fun again, but they have also packed a lot of content into a car that starts at a very reasonable $22,990 plus destination.

My test vehicle has no optional extras, for $23,910 (including destination fee) it comes with a nicely trimmed interior, heated seats, a great infotainment system, good looks, and sporty wheels. When cross-shopping against the Chevrolet Cruze RS comes in at $27,975 thanks to the required Sun & Sound package, while the Civic Sport is just $23,170 it doesn't really have as many standard features or style as the Corolla, but does have 11 more horsepower.

Overall I think Toyota has taken a major leap forward towards making fun, interesting cars again, while it could use a little love from TRD and the automotive aftermarket, the Corolla XSE might be the best value in the hot hatch segment on the market today.

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