Ever since Toyota pulled the curtain on the GR Corolla last March, enthusiasts have been eagerly awaiting the hot hatchback. Although the GR Yaris was not homologated for the United States (we have very different safety requirements than the rest of the world), the Gazoo Racing (GR) brand took the spirit of that car – along with the engine – and injected it into the Corolla -platform. The result is a vibrant vehicle that celebrates the art of driving. Simple actions such as turning the steering wheel and shifting gears provide so much more connection between car and driver in the GR Corolla.
→ The new 1.6-litre three-cylinder turbo engine is surprisingly strong.
→ Torsen differential lock on both axles finds traction from scratch.
→ The manual transmission feels heavy without being uncomfortable, shifting is smooth and instills confidence.
- Base Price: $35,900
- Engine: 1.6-litre turbocharged three-cylinder
- hp: 300 hp
- Torque: 273 lb-ft
- 0-60: 4.9 seconds
- Transmission: 6-speed manual (no automatic option)
- Drive: four-wheel drive
What you should know
Here in the United States, car enthusiasts have been kicking and screaming for Toyota to bring its compact GR Yaris hatchback across the pond. Rather than adapt the Yaris to American safety requirements, Toyota chose to add a stripped-down, pumped-up version of its Corolla hatchback. The vehicle, now called the GR Corolla, will be available in three different flavours:
- Core: $35,900 MSRP
- Circuit: $42,900 MSRP
- Morizo: $49,900 MSRP
Unfortunately, the Circuit Edition will only be available for the 2023 model year.
I recently flew to Salt Lake City, Utah, to ride the new GR Corolla on the track at the Utah Motorsports Campus.
GR-Four four-wheel drive
Toyota’s GR-Four all-wheel-drive (AWD) system is one of the clear focuses of the GR Corolla. The Core (with the optional performance package), Circuit and Morizo editions all come with Torsen locking differentials on both axles; these clever diffs send more torque to the wheel with the most grip and are much faster than a sticky differential lock. It almost feels like the differential sucks the car into the apex of the turn, making the hot hatch feel spunky like I’ve never driven before. The improved traction was very confidence inspiring, but definitely forced me to get more comfortable with how much more speed I could carry through the corners.
Toyota’s representatives talked about the adjustable torque distributions made possible by the GR-Four AWD system. This means that the percentage of power going to the front and rear wheels can be adjusted between three settings: 30/70, 50/50 and 60/40. The goal is to influence the handling, but I didn’t really understand the different modes in dry conditions. The 50/50 felt fantastic and offered an ultra-strong front axle that allowed me to tip the car into any corner at just hilarious speeds. However, moving more torque forward or backward only made the car worse, resulting in more understeer. Ironically, I’d only use rear-facing mode in wet conditions to make the rear of the car pop out a bit.
To keep things even, I ran all three different trim levels in the 50/50 torque split to get a good basic feel of the car. In this setting, I was impressed by the sharp changes of direction and playful handling. Even in its most basic Core model, the GR Corolla was incredibly forgiving given the amount of grip it had. This meant that at the end of the day I even scared myself with the cornering speeds it was capable of.
Three cylinders, 300 hp
New for 2023, the GR Corolla features the same turbocharged 1.6-litre three-cylinder engine as the GR Yaris. Despite some bottles containing more soda than the engine displaces air, the Corolla’s powerplant feels strong. With 300 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque, it won’t set the world on fire. But wow, is it a snappy engine.
Peak torque is delivered fairly low between 3,000 and 5,000 rpm. That might sound pretty high revving, but there’s actually quite a bit of meat in the mid-power range. With Utah Motorsports Campus’s mix of medium and fast corners, I was able to leave the GR Corolla in third gear – sometimes shifting to fourth – and it had enough oomph to pull me through some corners. That’s not to say we were at 4,400 feet, which isn’t unimportant when it comes to hindering engine power.
The three-cylinder engine features three exhaust points at the rear that actually play a supporting role in delivering this power. In addition to giving a big car sound to such a small vehicle, the exhaust system features a trick set of valves that reduce back pressure to optimize power delivery. Too much back pressure generally leads to reduced exhaust gas flow and thus slightly less power. That’s not to say the triple exhaust just looks fantastic; aesthetically, three endings are better than two and funkier than four.
One of the major marketing initiatives with the GR range (GR Corolla, GR 86 and GR Supra) is that all three vehicles are available with a manual transmission. However, the GR Corolla is unique in that it is the only one of the trio available with a stick only, meaning it must be good.
I am happy to report that the gearbox in the GR Corolla is sublime. The tosses between gears are very nicely weighted, with the gear stick making a satisfying thump as it moves into position. Toyota has also chosen to disable its intelligent manual transmission feature as standard. This automatically corresponds to the engine speed when you downshift via the gearbox, and in my view is more annoying than good. Fortunately, the vehicle does not need it because it is already well designed.
In addition to the knockout manual transmission, I was overjoyed to see Toyota had a mechanical handbrake. Why the excitement? It’s all in the sacred art of performing a perfect handbrake turn (in a safe and legal environment, of course), a maneuver simply impossible with an electronic handbrake. The mechanical e-brake not only appeals to everyone’s inner high school teen, but also adds to the car’s analog feel.
The GR Corolla’s cockpit was a comfortable and exciting place to be, even in the most basic Core trim level. The seats were well braced and held me tight as they gave the hot hatch a workout on the track. These snug-fitting seats are important for powerful driving, as poorly designed buckets force you to prop yourself up with your knees to turn the steering wheel properly. Being a fairly short person, I generally get thrown around on the track quite a bit. But the GR Corolla’s seats held me in place.
That said, I’m very curious how these seats (and car) are weekly to live with. The Core trim comes with fabric covering, which isn’t terrible, but doesn’t feel the most premium either. If you shell out the extra $7,000 for the Circuit edition, you get suede and synthetic leather-trimmed sports seats with red stitching and GR badges in the headrests.
All three versions get aluminum sports pedals as standard, which look and feel like they belong in a real sports car. The pedal placement was equally positive, allowing heel-to-toe downshifts for a weekend warrior like me.
There will always be car enthusiasts looking for an affordable four-wheel drive car. The standard option has long been the Subaru WRX – the latest version starting at $30,000. That leaves the Volkswagen Golf R (starting at $44,090) as the only other AWD hot hatch that’s brand new. The GR Corolla fills the price gap between the two vehicles at its modest $35,900 for the most basic Core trim. If it can remain immune to dealer markings, the sporty GR hot hatch could certainly do some damage in its segment.
Matt Crisara is an Austinite born with an unbridled passion for cars and motorsport, both overseas and domestic, and as Autos Editor for Popular mechanics, he writes most of the automotive reporting on digital and print. He was previously a contributing writer for Motor1 after internships with Circuit Of The Americas F1 Track and Speed City, an Austin radio broadcaster focused on the world of auto racing. He received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Arizona School of Journalism, where he raced mountain bikes with the University Club Team. When not at work, he enjoys sim racing, FPV drones and the outdoors.