It seems as though Toyota is out to turn its reputation for being boring upside down – or perhaps try and prove it was inaccurate all along.
After all, this is a brand that will gladly sell you a 300-hp family sedan, a midsize truck with a manual transmission, and the choice of not one but two coupes, both of which can also be outfitted with three pedals. And then there’s this – the 2023 Toyota GR Corolla.
Tiny, playful, and with tons of power, this little hot hatch is an absolute weapon on a winding road or a race track, and yet it manages to be docile in a way some of its predecessors simply haven’t. Unfortunately, limited availability and massive markups mean far too few fans of classic sport compacts will ever get a chance to truly appreciate one of the greatest cars of this era.
Look, it’s not as if other generational sport compacts have been available in massive quantities. Such is the nature of this niche corner of the automotive market, where demand is high and production numbers are generally low. It certainly helps drive a whole bunch of the hype for the GR Corolla, with an air of exclusivity that comes with it almost by default. Toyota Canada has remained tight-lipped about exactly how many have been made available to customers here, but some online rumours suggest the number could be in the low double digits.
It’s also not often that we touch on anything but the manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) in our reviews, but the going rate for one of these has been absolutely bananas from the very start. The rules of supply and demand are in full effect here, with even the entry-level Core trim tested here commanding upwards of $60,000 at the time of this writing – significantly more than its MSRP of $45,490.
Driving Feel: 10/10
In spite of the outrageous asking prices that exist out there, all it takes is one stint behind the wheel to seriously contemplate paying whatever it takes to park one in the driveway. OK, that’s a bit of a stretch, but this is a car that’s almost hypnotic to drive. Believe it or not, the conventional Corolla hatchback this one’s based on has some playfulness hidden barely below the surface. That bodes well for all the go-fast bits here to work about as optimally as they should, with the GR Corolla delivering a holistic drive experience instead of something more one-dimensional.
Variable all-wheel drive with limited-slip differentials front and back ensure all 273 lb-ft of torque can be put down on whatever surface happens to be beneath the tires, while the six-speed manual transmission is a treat to operate. (Sorry-not-sorry to those who prefer automatics – this hot hatch is offered only as the car gods intended.) The adjustable torque split is as fun as it is effective, allowing the back end to hunker down under hard acceleration in its rear-biased setting while simultaneously letting the front wheels claw for traction.
Yes, that also means the rear end will slither and slide on gravel or snow, but if the 30/70 split isn’t your style simply spin the console-mounted dial back to the default 60/40 setting that feels far more neutral. (So, too, is the 50/50 split intended for track use.) Regardless, the ability to make effective use of all this car’s turbocharged punch pairs well with its tidy and tossable dimensions. Add in the responsive steering and braking systems, and the GR Corolla is an absolute joy to drive.
There’s something almost comical about the big numbers the turbocharged 1.6L under the hood spins up – not that they’re a laughing matter by any means, but rather that it’s hilariously absurd for a three-cylinder to generate so much output. At 300 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque, the latest Honda Civic Type R makes more of both measures at 315 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque, but then it does so with an extra cylinder.
User Friendliness: 8/10
Of course, there’s way more car here than can – or should – be uncorked on public roads; however, it’s not quite as much of a handful to drive in a civilized manner as, say, the Subaru WRX STI or even the Ford Focus RS (RIP to both). Yes, there are constant reminders of its otherworldly capabilities, like the three-cylinder engine that’s seemingly always ready to sing. Plus the clutch pedal and gear stick are perfectly weighted and gated, while the ride errs on the stiff side. But where both of those cars always felt a little more raw and required extra effort to drive them like the commuter cars they were based on, the GR Corolla comes across as a little more refined and relaxed.
Unsurprisingly, the GR Corolla is tightly sprung, which is great during spirited driving sessions but less so when cruising casually – particularly during longer outings. It’s not as if the ride is explicitly uncomfortable, but adaptive dampers would be a welcome addition. (For what it’s worth, the Civic Type R comes with them, as does the Volkswagen Golf R that’s available with the choice of manual or automatic transmissions.)
There’s also the matter of the exhaust, which tends to drone a bit at lower revs. It’s another situation where it wouldn’t be fair to deem it a deal-breaker by any stretch, but it’s something Toyota could have – and should have – addressed. But then even the base trim has supportive and reasonably comfortable seats up front, and the absence of a sunroof means most occupants should fit inside even when helmets are required on the race track.
Fuel Economy: 7/10
Next to the regular Corolla hatch, this performance version is expectedly thirstier, with an official combined consumption rate of 9.8 L/100 km. However, that number is reasonable amongst its competitive subset, with the Civic Type R coming in at 9.7 L/100 km combined, and the manual-equipped Golf R ringing in at 10.2. (All three run on premium-grade gas.) It was also easy to overachieve, with an average of 8.6 L/100 km across the first 230 km or so of testing. Meanwhile, the full week ended right on the official combined number of 9.8 across 515 km.
The equipment here is all about performance, so expectations for lavish features should be tempered. Yes, there’s an eight-inch touchscreen infotainment system, wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connections, heated front seats, and automatic climate control. There’s also keyless entry and push-button start, plus power windows and locks, but that’s about it.
The driver-assistance and advanced safety suite is a far more robust affair, with stuff like lane departure warning and tracing assistance, forward collision warning with pedestrian and cyclist detection, automatic emergency braking up front, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, automatic high-beam headlights, and adaptive cruise control. Since it comes with a manual transmission, it’s not a full-speed system, but it’s handy when cruising on the highway.
While we’d normally advocate for picking an exterior hue other than white, it works well against the contrasting black accents – and all without straying too far towards the Star Wars stormtrooper look. The tri-tip exhaust is something of an acquired taste, but the bulging fenders front and rear accentuate the form as well as the function of this hot hatch, as does the gaping grille up front.
If anything, the cabin is a little dull. Sure, there are a few GR badges sprinkled throughout; and the front seats look a little special, even without the Circuit Edition trim’s suede upholstery. But compared to the Civic Type R and its red seats and carpeting, this could be any other Corolla. A few colourful panels or inserts would’ve livened the space up a little, which it desperately needs.
The ultra-exclusive GR Corolla Morizo Edition skips stuff like the rear seats as part of weight-saving efforts, which may as well be the case here. While not quite entirely useless, the bench in the back isn’t nearly as roomy as the one in the Civic Type R, with just 759 mm (29.9 in) of legroom compared to 950 mm (37.4 in). The back doors are also narrow and don’t swing open very wide. Likewise, the trunk is significantly smaller (504 L versus 697 L).
Even so, the front half of the cabin is spacious and easy to get settled into. The only odd omission is the centre console bin every other Corolla – and, indeed, almost every other car – has. That it’s missing here means there’s nothing to lean on when getting in and out of the driver’s seat.
Taken as a whole, the 2023 Toyota GR Corolla is nearly as raucous as its rival from Honda, except it’s more a matter of controlled chaos than an outright riot. There’s a sense of predictability here, which has its pros and cons. On the bright side, it makes this a car you become deeply in tune with after a brief familiarization period. However, those longing for a bit of a raw edge won’t find it here.
There’s also the matter of the astronomical asking prices this Corolla has been commanding since it launched, which are exacerbated by its limited availability. It all adds up to a car too few fans will ever get a chance to enjoy. However, its greatness simply can’t be denied, and this truly is one of the all-time great sport compact cars.
|Engine Cylinders||Turbo I3|
|Peak Horsepower||300 hp @ 6,500 rpm|
|Peak Torque||273 lb-ft @ 3,000–5,500 rpm|
|Fuel Economy||11.1 / 8.3 / 9.8 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb|
|Cargo Space||504 L|
|Model Tested||2023 Toyota GR Corolla Core|
|Price as Tested||$47,350|