The Toyota Corolla was born in 1966, and since then the Japanese automaker has sold more than 46 million copies, leaving little doubt that the Corolla is a commercial success.
In 2016, SportsCar was fortunate to be part of a memorable adventure, entering a first-generation Corolla in the Great Race as part of Toyota’s team as Toyota celebrated the nameplate’s 50th birthday. As we crisscrossed the country, we met countless people who either grew up with a Corolla or knew someone that did.
It was a fantastic way to spend the week, and we learned a lot about the Corolla’s heritage.
Toyota’s venerable small sedan has a well-earned reputation for reliability and value, and over the years a few variants have even made attempts to add “sporty” to that list. In 2005, Toyota brought us the Corolla XRS, which featured the 2ZZ-GE engine and six-speed manual gearbox from the Celica GT-S. Its 1.8L engine offered 170hp and, combined with a sport-tuned suspension, put some pep in the sensible sedan. It was not uncommon to see these on the autocross course or road racing with the SCCA.
Sadly, though, the XRS trim faded away just one year later, once again leaving little “sport” among the lineup.
With the introduction of the 2019 Corolla XSE, however, we began to see a glimmer of sportiness in the brand once more. The new hatchback features a 2.0L Dynamic Force engine, offering 168hp and 151lb-ft of torque — a considerable increase over the previous powerplant. And, to the surprise of many, one can even be ordered equipped with a manual transmission — a six speed featuring auto rev-matching for seamless downshifts. (Purists need not worry. If you think you can do better at heel-and-toe, you can turn the feature off.)
While 168hp is on the low end for the segment, it is still enough to propel the Corolla at a decent pace. We didn’t get a chance to take ours to the track, but our experience with other cars in this class leads us to believe that it would be both fun and competitive on the racetrack with just a few tweaks.
Toyota has been dipping into the blue color spectrum heavily across its entire line, and this light blue shade pairs brilliantly with the aggressive bodylines. Our loaded tester checked out at just over $24,000, showing that the latest Corolla still hits the value target.
On the road, the 2019 Corolla XSE is comfortable and does a brilliant job with fuel economy: We found the advertised EPA fuel numbers of 28mpg city and 37mpg highway easily obtainable. The XSE leather seats are very supportive, too, giving the impression of a car with far more performance potential.
Outfitted with Apple CarPlay, adaptive cruise control, heated front seats with power adjust for the driver, and a gaggle of other features, the interior leaves you wanting for little in this price range. That said, we aren’t a fan of the placement of the eight-inch touch screen display, which perches upon the dash almost as an afterthought.
If you’re buying the Corolla XSE for the sports car hidden within a reliable commuter, you won’t be disappointed. The six-speed manual transmission is quite good, and the rev matching on downshifts is great during the daily slog. In spirited driving, however, the rev-matching system does lag a little, but it doesn’t object to the driver tossing in a secondary blip of the gas.
Looking back at our time with the first-gen Corolla during the Great Race, it’s amazing to see how far the nameplate has come over the last 50 years, and we can’t wait to see what the next 50 years brings.