DEL MAR, CA – Just a few short years ago if you wanted a compact hatch in the U.S. the pickings were slim.

Now the sub-segment is bursting, with nearly every C-car sedan manufacturer offering a 5-door variant. Automakers wishing to make their mark (i.e. sell a lot of compact hatches) need to bring their A-game.

Toyota sort of does with the redesigned ’19 Corolla Hatch on sale in the U.S. in July.

It is better than its predecessor in terms of engine output and ride and handling. But it has styling issues, and fewer variants than some competitors.

We drive here three Corolla hatchbacks: an SE base grade and two XSEs, one manual and one with a CVT, and quickly find Toyota has remedied one issue with the car’s predecessor.

The outgoing Corolla iM hatch (iM the name of the car when it launched as a Scion in 2015) had a paltry 137-hp engine. It was more of a “barely warm” than “hot” hatch.

That was with Toyota’s 1.8L DOHC 4-cyl. from the Corolla Eco sedan. That engine, matched to the iM’s CVT and in Sport mode, droned almost non-stop in our June 2015 test of the car in L.A. We also found the CVT’s simulated “downshifts” lacking in bringing about added torque for hill climbs.

None of those issues, barring a slight engine drone on one particularly challenging incline, are present while driving the new ’19 Corolla Hatch.

The second-gen 5-door is powered by Toyota’s new Dynamic Force 2.0L 4-cyl. making 168 hp and 151 lb.-ft. (205 Nm) of torque, the latter a 25 lb.-ft. (34 Nm) increase from the outgoing iM – although coming 800 rpm higher at 4,800.

The engine, matching the 40% thermal efficiency of the Prius’ 1.8L 4-cyl., is the latest in a series of Toyota mills to use the formerly Lexus-exclusive D-4S direct- and port-injection technology. It is smaller and lighter than the outgoing 1.8L, aided by a lighter-weight timing chain, which also limits cabin noise and reduces friction.

The engine includes dual variable valve timing with intelligence on the exhaust side and dual VVT-iE on the intake side, with the ‘E’ referencing the electric motor used in place of oil pressure to control valve timing. Both enhance engine output while cutting emissions and boosting fuel economy, Toyota says, adding it doesn’t yet have EPA-estimated mileage.

In WardsAuto’s three test drives, we average a fantastic 39.0 mpg (6.0 L/100 km) in a long journey in the SE base grade, 29.9 mpg (7.9 L/100 km) in a short jaunt up Pacific Coast Highway in an XSE manual, and 24.5 mpg (9.6 L/100 km) on a short, aggressive leg in an XSE with a CVT and Sport drive mode turned on.

In the SE in Normal mode, we force downshifts via its paddles as the car labors up certain gradients.

In the XSE with its CVT and Sport mode on, “downshifts” through its simulated gears are automatic and quicker than with the car in Normal drive mode. It also could be our more aggressive braking on the route. The CVT has G AI (artificial intelligent) shift control that downshifts based on braking force.

The CVT is new. Dubbed Dynamic Shift, like most CVTs today it is made to feel like a step-gear automatic.

It has a fixed launch gear, which Toyota claims as a world’s first for a CVT, to lessen the labored, wind-up acceleration CVTs suffer from a stop and at lower speeds. Toyota claims 20% faster “shifts” with the new CVT and says it improves fuel economy 6% vs. the iM’s CVT.

The car’s new 6-speed manual transmission is 15 lbs. (33 kg) lighter and an inch (25 mm) shorter in length than the unit it replaces.

Noticeable in the manual XSE is its driver-selectable rev-managing intelligent manual transmission (iMT) technology. Turning it on smoothes out upshifts as claimed, with first-to-second and second-to-third noticeably less jerky.

The new Corolla Hatch rides on the “C” version of Toyota’s New Global Architecture (TNGA) platform, which underpins redesigned Toyota cars and is touted for its low center of gravity, light weight and high strength and rigidity.

The new platform, plus tuning of the car’s carryover MacPherson-strut front suspension and new multilink rear suspension, makes the Corolla hatch an even better canyon carver than the iM, with less lean in fast driving through the switchbacks of rural San Diego County.

Friction reduction in sliding parts and revisions to damping force and spring rates are changes to the front suspension, while the rear suspension has lower-arm locations to improve toe-in-angle during high-speed driving.

While styling is subjective, certainly many have made it clear they don’t like the new faces of Toyota. They’re growing on us, but for some potential buyers the Corolla Hatch’s big-mouth low grille is going to be a turnoff.

The car is more attractive in profile, with bigger wheel flares, and a more forward-raked C-pillar pushing the rear end lower.

The largely black interior of our SE and one XSE falls flat. Piano black and white stitching are the main decorative flourishes in the car.

The SE has all-black cloth seats and the XSE mixes black-with-white or white-with-back leather and cloth. The cloth on both have interesting patterns, but are placed oddly in the lower back-and-butt zone.

The XSE with white-with-black seats lightens things up with its white soft-touch dash and door trim. Still, we’d like to see some brighter colors and patterns, something akin to the red-orange-trimmed seats in the Kia Forte5 or the infamous “Clark Plaid” cloth seats in the VW GTI.

Toyota’s adaptive cruise control and lane-departure-alert technology in the SE keep a good long distance between us and the car in front of us on the highway, despite a medium following-distance setting. Its lane-centering Lane Tracing Assist tech is not too intrusive, and (don’t try this at home, kids) we are able to leave our hands off the steering wheel for what feels like an eternity – at least 20 seconds.

ACC and LDA are part of Toyota’s Safety Sense 2.0 suite of advanced-safety technologies standard on the car that includes several new technologies, influenced by it being available in Europe as the Toyota Auris, including cyclist detection and low-light pedestrian detection.

A note: the car’s pre-collision system now can reduce speed by 37 mph (60 km/h) in an impending collision situation with a preceding vehicle. We don’t attempt to test this claim. An older version of PCS cuts speed by 25 mph (40 km/h), Toyota says.

The Corolla hatch is the second Toyota in the U.S. to receive Apple CarPlay, after the Avalon large sedan, and now boasts two (instead of one) USB ports, a standard 8-in. (20-cm) touchscreen, Amazon Alexa and Verizon-powered WiFi. Optional on the XSE with CVT is a JBL 8-speaker, 800-watt audio system with Harman’s Clari-Fi music-restoration technology.

Fit-and-finish and comfort generally is good inside our pre-production test cars, with no visible pins on grab bars and front legroom is more than adequate thanks in part to a smaller dash made possible by TNGA.

Rear legroom is cramped for taller passengers, though, and the soft-touch material is lumpy on the upper front doors in one of the XSEs.

Kudos to Toyota for the exceedingly extendable middle head restraint, a rare feature in a car in this class.

We suspect more sound-deadening cabin insulation ate into the materials budget. While there is more soft-touch than in the iM, the headliner still is faux circular knit and cupholders are plastic holes with no nubs, although their bottoms are textured.

Toyota wants to increase the iM’s 7% ratio of Corolla sales and mimic Honda’s 20% take-rate for the Civic hatch.

Sales will rise as this is a better car than the iM, but 20% may be difficult given the Civic hatch and the Volkswagen Golf, both primary conquest targets for Toyota, offer a wider array of models, some with higher-horsepower and torquier turbocharged engines.

In Europe, the Auris will have three powertrains, including two hybrids, one of which mates the new Dynamic Force 2.0L to an electric motor and churns out 179 hp, roughly the Civic’s hatch’s output.

Hopefully that will come here. Auris and Corolla Chief Engineer Tatsuro Ueda says the automaker is studying the hybrid powertrains for the U.S.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com