Driven: The 2023 Toyota GR Corolla Is The New King Of Hot Hatches
Three cylinders don’t sound like much to work with. Push the Start button on the console of a GR Corolla, though, and the trio under the hood comes to life with a purpose. The noise it creates exits individual exhaust pipes and from the driver’s seat, there are very clear indications that this isn’t like any other Corolla that’s existed before.
This hot hatch isn’t just another front-wheel drive, torque-steer-and-understeer-happy half-hearted attempt at luring young buyers. It’s a full-fledged performance car with incredible engineering, sensational capability, and a soul-stirring soundtrack. After having the chance to drive it on the road and on the track it’s plain to us that the 2023 Toyota GR Corolla has more polish and potential than we could’ve imagined.
Quick Facts › › ›
The GR Corolla Family
Toyota is going to sell three grades of GR Corolla starting at $35,900. All three share the same 1.6-liter three-cylinder turbocharged engine that develops 300 hp (223 kW). They also share a new AWD system that Toyota calls GR-Four. We’ll dive into it deeper a little later.
Power is sent to all four wheels through a six-speed manual transmission only. If you can’t drive a car with three pedals you can’t drive a GR Corolla. The bottom two trim levels, Core and Circuit, come with 273 lb-ft (370 Nm) of torque. The top-spec Morizo Edition trim gets a bump to 295 lb-ft (400 Nm).
Starting out with the Core, buyers get fabric-trimmed sports seats, an 8-inch infotainment system, Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, automatic climate control, aluminum pedals, two USB C charging ports, and Toyota’s Safety Sense 3.0 suite. It also includes automatic high beams, blind-spot monitoring, rear seat reminder, dynamic cruise control, and more.
Buyers can add three different packages to the Core. The most expensive is the Performance package ($1,180) which adds Torsen Limited-slip differentials to the front and rear axles of the GR Corolla Core along with slotted front rotors, red-painted 4-piston calipers up front, and red-painted 2-piston calipers in the back.
A Technology package ($770) adds a wireless smartphone charger, a JBL premium audio system, and dynamic navigation to the Core. Finally, a Cold Weather package ($500) adds heated front seats, heated mirrors, and a heated steering wheel.
The GR Corolla Circuit Edition ($42,900 and only available for 2023) includes all of those packages but also adds red trim details, a Morizo signed shift knob, Brin-Naub suede and faux leather-trimmed sport seats, and a forged carbon fiber roof. Both the Core and the Circuit come with Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tires and 18-inch alloy wheels.
The top trim, limited to just 200 units in total, is the Morizo Edition ($49,900). It actually loses its rear seats, rear window regulators, rear door speakers, and rear wiper but gains a set of Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires, 18-inch forged alloy wheels, and the additional torque mentioned above. In all, the Morizo weighs about 100 pounds (45 Kg) less (3,186 lbs / 1,445 Kg total) than the Circuit Edition (3,285 lbs / 1,490 Kg total) and has a lot more grip.
A Corolla On Steroids
Toyota does a nice job of making the GR Corolla stand out from lesser versions. The Core model gets a unique rear spoiler painted to match the body color and a large vent just behind the front wheel well. It also gets wider fenders both front and rear. It’s understated but powerful looking and the Core manages to link the regular Corolla to the Circuit and Morizo Edition trims seamlessly.
The Circuit Edition isn’t only distinguishable by its forged carbon roof. It also gets large hood vents and a unique spoiler. The Morizo Edition adds a unique Smoke Gray color but otherwise looks the same from the outside as the Circuit Edition. Altogether, the GR Corolla manages to branch away from the normal model’s sedate styling without looking gimmicky. The nips and tucks are both bold and subtle and we think it’s an attractive package both on the page and in person.
A Familiar But Special Cabin
Perhaps the biggest gripe some people will have with the new GR Corolla is that the cabin is not all that different from the normal Corolla. We’re here to tell you that’s true. It’s very similar in many ways. For instance, the dash is basically identical as is the 8-inch infotainment screen and the door cards too. The back seats are equally indistinguishable from a regular Corolla.
Things start to change after that though as the GR Corolla gets a unique steering wheel. It also has a fully-digital gauge cluster and of course, the center console area is different too. Aside from the manual gear knob, there’s a manual handbrake lever and a mode selector to change how torque is distributed across the axles. Of course, in the Morizo Edition, there are no back seats and instead of window buttons, a small GR badge in forged carbon takes that space.
Trunk space in all grades of the GR Corolla is cavernous, to say the least. Behind the second row, the Core and Circuit Edition cars have 17.8 cu-ft worth of cargo space. The Morizo Edition doesn’t have an official number as of this writing but just look at it. It’s big enough for a full set of extra tires and tools with room left over. Overall, it’s a clean cabin with little fuss and a great deal of focus on the driving experience itself.
Every GR Corolla comes with an 8-inch infotainment system equipped with both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. It functions well and we like the combination of physical controls with touch-sensitive ones that allow you to interact the way you prefer to. The physical buttons and switches on the steering wheel are another nice choice and they feel good to use in practice. Voice commands allow for adjustment of cabin temperature, audio controls, navigation routing, and more. We found them to respond quickly and for the most part, the system did what we asked it to.
A 12.3-inch display stares back at the driver from the gauge cluster and it provides data like speed, RPM, boost pressure, gear position, and even which drive mode the car is in. Different modes change the layout and while that’s a nice touch we wish it were more configurable. For example, in track mode, the RPM gauge is prominently displayed as a progress bar that fills from left to right. We’d love the ability to swap that back to one big traditionally-styled tachometer.
While this car might be mainly focused on driving enjoyment, practicality is just as important for any hot hatch. In the case of the GR Corolla, Toyota estimates that it’ll get 21 mpg in the city, 28 on the highway, and 24 overall. That’s by far the worst of the Corolla family as the closest in the bunch still gets 31 mpg combined.
It’s not bad compared to its biggest rival, the Civic Type R, which was rated at 22 mpg city, 28 mpg highway, and 25 combined back in 2021. We’ll have to wait and see how the all-new Civic Type R fares when it arrives. The GR Corolla beats the VW Golf R though as the latter only gets 23 mpg combined.
An Everyday Driver
Behind the wheel, it’s instantly obvious that this isn’t your daddy’s Corolla. The exhaust note tells that story all by itself and isn’t aided by any fake noise piped in through the speakers either. On startup, at idle, and up to 20 mph, the three exhaust pipes are totally open and that provides a really raspy bristly sound.
Above 20 mph, the center exhaust pipe actually closes to reduce the drone and we’re happy to report that it works well. Not only couldn’t we hear any form of drone during our testing but we also couldn’t hear the system flip from one setting to the other. It was seamless and quiet. That’s impressive considering how unrefined some of the normal Corollas can seem.
On normal streets, the GR Corolla feels sharp and taut, somewhat like a pro athlete going about their grocery shopping. Still, it’s not overly rough or stiff and managed to soak up whatever imperfections we encountered without issue. Visibility is good and there’s no major blindspot of any kind either. The only thing you might be unaware of is just how fast this little car is until you pin the throttle.
Eight Cylinders Worth Of Fun In A Three Cylinder Package
To put it lightly, this little three-cylinder engine puts to shame all those who said it couldn’t be powerful enough. As you tip into the throttle torque is quick to find its way to the road surface. There’s no noticeable turbo lag and as a result, the experience is highly engaging and satisfying whether you’re on the street or on the racetrack.
As we found ourselves on the latter it was clear to see that the engineers at Toyota have created something truly unique. The GR-Four AWD system is perhaps the most impressive part of the package. It really does send up to 70 percent of engine torque to the rear when asked. Even in its default 60:40 front:rear “Front” torque split the rear wheels are always engaged. The GR Corolla never goes into full front-wheel drive mode.
What’s more, each mode really does change its driving characteristics. 60:40 Front is actually quite playful and fun. Getting the rear tires to let go and slide a little was easier than when we swapped it to 30:70 Rear. When pushed really hard the GR Corolla will oversteer going into turns and understeer coming out of them but we get the feeling that more practice would’ve made those transitions smoother. Of course, getting the GR Corolla to do what we asked was easier thanks to outstanding feedback from the steering wheel and pedals.
In our experience, there was next to no numbness in the steering wheel at all. On center, it’s still communicating about what’s happening at the road surface and in turns there’s a small adjustment period while you learn how the car settles in. At times I found myself correcting course mid-corner because the car hadn’t fully settled into the line when I initially thought it had.
Once I had a hang of that it was easy to place the GR Corolla lap after lap right on the apexes and the racing line. The gear shifter provides nice action too though it seems to grind easily when there’s a heavy lateral load. The Core and Circuit Edition grades are sincerely great fun and very easy to drive fast. There’s no unexpected behavior or unsettling lack of braking or steering performance either even after more than two-dozen laps.
Then, of course, there’s the Morizo Edition which quite frankly is just a different beast altogether. Sure, it might not be all that different from the Circuit on paper but in practice is another matter. The Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires certainly deserve a lot of credit for the Morizo’s performance but they’re not alone.
Additional torque, more grip, and less weight come together to completely change how fast this little car is. Compared to the lesser two trims the Morizo was entering corners one gear higher and at much greater speed before having no problem bleeding that speed back off before exiting the corner again. It’s amazingly grippy in the bends.
To achieve this level of lateral grip and capability, the GR Corolla has 349 more spot welds and more than nine extra feet of adhesive to hold the car together and to keep it still and responsive on the track. The Morizo Edition actually has nearly 20 more feet of adhesive over the normal Corolla hatch.
It’s not going to go out there and compete against serious high-end track toys, but if one of those toys is being piloted by a subpar driver and the Morizo is helmed by a more experienced individual, well there might be some hurt feelings in the pits later.
The Civic Type R is coming and we’re confident that it’ll be good. Still though, we believe that the Toyota has it beat until it proves us wrong. The GR Corolla costs less (unless Honda sells the Type R for less than the last one) and has an outstanding AWD system that we expect to outperform the trick (but still bound by physics) FWD setup on the Honda.
Compared to the VW Golf R, the GR Corolla starts at just shy of $10k less. We’d love to compare the GR Corolla to rivals from Ford, Subaru, Hyundai, and others but the truth is that we’re looking at a three-horse race here and there’s a good chance that only one of them will start below $40k.
A Landmark Hot Hatch
For years it’s been common to hear about how cars like this can’t work. They’re too expensive to develop and they don’t sell in high enough volume to make them worthwhile. Certainly, that’s been the case regarding cars like the Subaru WRX STI and the Ford Focus RS. Can the GR Corolla buck that trend with its overwhelming demand? We certainly hope so. Perhaps the addition of the Morizo and Circuit Edition will help make a case for the GR Corolla by padding the bottom line a little.
Either way, we can confirm that for now, this hot hatch is the king of that castle. While unlikely, it’s such a well-rounded combination of fast, competitively priced, practical, fun, and reliable that we could see the GR Corolla spark a new wave of interest in cars from the generation just now starting to drive. Even if it doesn’t accomplish that herculean task, it’ll go down in history as one of the most engaging hatchbacks Toyota has ever been bold enough to build.
This brand has gotten a lot of flack over the years for its sports car partnerships but the GR Corolla is all Toyota. It’s a flag in the ground that proves what can be accomplished. It has real rally DNA, true everyday practicality, a seriously competitive starting price, and outstanding performance. We’re so glad that it’s here.