In the maelstrom of electrification, semi-autonomy, and a return to self-indulgent decadence weighing as much as a small island nation, it’s easy to feel forgotten. Fie on the $5 million hypercars we’ll never get a chance to even breathe on. Where are the enthusiast cars that were built by people like us for people like us? I’d lost hope for a little bit there, but thankfully, the 2023 Toyota GR Corolla came smashing in and set me straight.
To have a brand-new sports car with all-wheel drive and a manual transmission—and also be a hatchback—is unheard of on this side of the new decade. The Ford Focus RS and Subaru Impreza WRX STI hatchback are dead and buried. The Volkswagen Golf R is … fine? Taking advantage of this dearth of hot AWD hatches, Toyota could have easily phoned it in and waved us off with a warmed-over Corolla with some bolt-on bits and told us to be grateful for what we got.
But it didn’t. What it gives us instead is a 21-gun salute to driving, one that was developed with Akio “Morizo” Toyoda himself intimately involved in every step of the way. With such a driving force behind a car’s development, how could it possibly be bad?
Deprived and critically dehydrated, we sucked down every last drop of GR Corolla information that dripped out in the months leading up to this.
Kristen Lee, left. Toyota, right.
We know it’s being offered exclusively with all-wheel drive (which can be adjusted to deliver a 60/40, 50/50, or 30/70 torque distribution) and a six-speed manual transmission. It has a rally-bred, turbocharged, 1.6-liter, 300-horsepower, three-cylinder engine called the G16E-GTS—thus putting it in the same cylindrical league as the Smart Fortwo, Ford Fiesta and Focus, and BMW i8, if you want to think about it that way. We know why it has three exhaust pipes and a manual handbrake, a rarity today! We know about the track-focused Morizo Edition, with its rear-seat delete and extra torque.
Most of the seat time Toyota gave us on the GR Corolla media preview was on the sweeping, two-mile circuit at Utah Motorsports Campus, so this review will be largely based on that.
A Circuit Edition GR Corolla's shifter and AWD toggle. A Core-trim GR Corolla's pedals. Toyota
With a helmet on, it was difficult to properly evaluate the car’s NVH qualities, but who actually considers the GR Corolla for its cabin serenity?
Rolling off the clutch—nicely weighted and with a progressive engagement point—the GR Corolla hooks up smoothly. And because it uses an Aisin gearbox, itself a variation of the one found in the GR Yaris, the hefty shift feel was tight and precise. It’s the type of clunky push and pull that makes you want to shift just for sensation’s sake. Naoyuki Sakamoto, the car’s chief engineer, told me that he and his team added stiffer shifter cable bushings and that, overall, the GR’s shifter stroke is 25 percent shorter than it is in the normal Corolla.
Rumbling along in second gear out of the pits and onto the track, the engine buzzed with fizzy anticipation and potential like a bottle of shaken-up ginger ale. Then I was clear to floor it, so I did.
All four tires dug in to launch the GR Corolla toward the first corner, the G16E-GTS pulling mightily to the top of its rev range. A Formula 1-style horizontal rev indicator flashed at the bottom of my peripheral vision, indicating it was time to shift. My first upshift was a touch sloppier than I intended it to be—the throttle pedal is a little more responsive than I’m used to—but, man, that shifter. Do it fast or do it slow, but grabbing a new gear always feels like an event.
Rear-biased all-wheel drive meant I could flick the car into a corner with less precaution; it rewarded fast hands with a snappish dart of the nose and a healthy lean on the outside rear tire. Despite it being an electronically assisted system, the steering chatted constantly about what the front was up to and offered good weight, too. It felt like pushing the car around the turn actually required some effort on my part. At the same time, the seats were properly bolstered and held me in place well, unlike in the new Nissan Z.
Braking felt very one-to-one between how much pedal pressure I applied and how much the calipers bit down. There didn’t appear to be any dead zone in the brake pedal, either, so balancing the brake with throttle application was a fluid affair.
More of the Morizo. Kristen Lee
The suspension was damped to remain hard-riding but without the brittleness of other performance cars that bounce you off your line if you like riding the rumble strip on the apex. Mostly, it felt like it was there to provide yet another point of communication.
And the engine? Stellar. With a swell of torque Robert Kelly Slater would covet, power delivery in the GR Corolla is riotous but smooth. It likes being floored, it likes pinging off the rev limiter (which makes an awesome and mechanical braaap noise).
Here, too, was proof of its Toyota-ness: we thrashed the ever-loving shit out of these cars during the media event. Outside temperatures held at a toasty 95 degrees Fahrenheit all day and we tracked the GR Corollas non-stop, most of them with the AC running. With just a short, 30-minute break for lunch, everything ran well until it was time to leave at around 4 p.m. The clutches were a little hot by the end, though.
The Core-grade GR Corolla. Toyota
I feel compelled to break out the limited Morizo Edition into its own section just because it deserves extra attention. I was highly offended when I first saw its price tag—$51,000 for a fucking Corolla, are they out of their goddamn minds!?—but after a couple of laps in the Morizo, I was reminded of a powerful lesson: drive before you dunk. In essence, the car indeed delivers a $50,000 driving experience.
Just as how the GR Corolla isn’t merely a Corolla with some bolt-on go-fasty bits, the Morizo Edition isn’t merely a GR Corolla with some mods slapped with a higher price tag. Its engineers really worked it over and created a track car that likely even the most devoted modders won’t be able to easily (or cheaply) recreate with just a handful of aftermarket parts.
Not only does the Morizo Edition benefit from a weight-saving rear-seat delete, two structural support braces, and a forged carbon roof, but it also has front and rear Torsen LSDs, stiffer spring rates, forged alloy wheels, Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires, more boost which means 22 lb-ft more torque, and shorter gearing.
In practice, it drives like a completely different car.
Nothing—and I mean nothing—felt like it could unsettle this thing. Brake at the ultimate, very last millisecond, rip at the wheel and the shifter like they owe you money, slam back on the gas—none of it mattered. The Morizo Edition refused to lean, refused to slide, refused to give up grip. As a matter of fact, it actually seemed to be able to do some spooky witchcraft, magicking up even more grip where there should have been none.
So unruffled was the car that I felt myself relaxing around it, trusting it more and more, and becoming more willing to poke it harder. It was like being back on the playground at recess and someone was giving me a dare.
Toyota says the back seat-less Morizo Edition can fit four tires to take to the track. Toyota
Pitting back in, I had no words for what I’d just experienced. I could only laugh.
Like any good sports car, there aren’t a ton of options with which to festoon your GR Corolla. The biggest differences come down to the various trims. But seeing as both the Circuit and Morizo Editions will be sold in extremely limited numbers—1,500 and 200 units, respectively—I anticipate most people will wind up with the $36,995 Core trim. It’s a very great place to be.
Sure, it’s missing the forged carbon roof and the forged wheels, but it’s got all the basic good stuff like the wasps’ nest of an engine, AWD system, and transmission. As for optional packages, I’d recommend the Performance package, which gets you the dual LSD for $1,180, and the Cold Weather package if you live in the Northeast as I do, which gets you heated front seats and a heated steering wheel. Forget the Technology package; why listen to music when you’ve got the thrum of a three-cylinder?
Again, provided there’s no dealer meddling, my suggested spec comes to an MSRP of $38,675. A VW Golf R starts at more than $44,000. And it’s no GR Corolla.
If you frequent a track, then I'd say Morizo Edition all the way. But if you're looking to merely cohabitate with the car, the base Core trim with those two packages will do just fine.
The GR Corolla is one of those rare sports cars that works with you rather than against you. Seeing as it has the correct amount of horsepower, you never feel in danger of the engine clapping back as you’re feeling out its limits (as well as your own), nor do you ever feel like you’re disappointing the car if you don’t go fast enough. It’s perfectly happy keeping pace with you, like the world’s chillest and most supportive professional dance partner. All it cares about is if you have a good time. Most of us don’t even have friends this good.
I enjoy basking in the smugness of, “I told you so” just as much as the next person, so I’ll go right ahead here: Since 2018, I’d known that offering the hatchback Corolla with a manual would be a big deal. Just because it’s an affordable economy car doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t also be fun. (Our own Peter Nelson agrees, and recognizes the base Corolla’s tuning potential.)
But never in my wildest dreams did I think something like the GR Corolla would ever happen—and for us here in the United States to boot! When I reported back from the car’s official unveiling at the end of March, I called it an STI slayer. But after having driven it and now sitting here, thinking more about my experience, I take it back.
You win some and you lose some; the new GR Corolla is a monstrous deal because it very well may be Toyota’s farewell to ICE-powered performance—and what a glorious middle finger to electrification and autonomy it is. Yet, it’s also unlike any STI I’ve ever driven. In fact, it’s not like any car I’ve driven in a very long time.
Instead, ghosts of the old Mitsubishi Lancer Evolutions, specifically the X Final Edition, live on in this car. Suddenly, its revviness, wont for abuse, and Herculean levels of grip become the echoey but familiar intonations of a long-lost, nearly forgotten language. Realize that, and we can recognize the GR Corolla isn’t new territory. We’ve been here before.
It’s just really, really good to be back.