Don’t look now, but Toyota is suddenly the most enthusiast-friendly brand in the automotive mainstream. With the introduction of the 2023 Toyota GR Corolla, the hot hatch joins once-staid showrooms that also boast the GR86 and Supra sports coupes, a triple threat that covers a wide range of pricing and performance envelopes in one fell swoop.
For those keeping count at home, that’s one more thrill machine than you’ll find at your local Honda, Hyundai, Volkswagen, Nissan or Chevrolet dealer, three times as many as Ford or Mazda has to offer, and once the Hellcats are out of the picture at the end of this year, Dodge’s go-fast cupboards will only have the recently-released Hornet crossover to offer.
The GR Corolla expands Toyota’s adrenal kick by sending its popular Corolla hatchback to the same Gazoo Racing engineers who tuned its two-door 86 and Supra siblings. What came back from the lab is unsurprisingly quick, and certainly exciting to drive, but with a unique old-school feel that sets the Corolla well apart from the rest of its rivals.
Turbocharged Time Travel
The GR Corolla’s formula is remarkably simple, at least on paper. Take an affordable econo-car shell, stuff a guttural turbo 3-cylinder under the hood (borrowed from the not-sold-here GR Yaris), and install an all-wheel drive system to override any concerns over the perils of torque steer. Stir it all together with a six-speed manual gearbox — the only available transmission — and you have a 300-horsepower firecracker that’s entirely unlike anything else in the Toyota line-up.
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Turbocharged hatchbacks might be the coin of the pocket rocket realm these days, but few have executed in quite the same manner as the Corolla. Don’t look for endlessly customizable drive modes, pre-programmed exhaust cackles, or limited-time-only boost buttons. The GR offers a simple Sport mode (for sharper throttle response), a dial that biases torque toward the front, rear or dead center of its axles, and a nearly-hidden auto-blip feature for downshifts as its only real toys.
That simplicity is echoed by a distinctly unpolished driving experience that calls to mind the glory days of the original Subaru WRX more than it does the digitally-metered motoring of modern-day machinery. The three-cylinder unit shudders to life and shivers to a halt, with the natural imbalance of its odd-numbered pistons producing an alluringly inharmonious tremor in operation. The plunger-like action of its shifter gets the job done with the single-minded focus of a career civil servant, and its available Torsen limited-slip differentials front and rear eschew a software solution in favor of instantaneously-interlocking gear sets.
The buzz buzz buzz of the Corolla’s three-cylinder hive arrests its efforts at 6,500 rpm, and to sample the sweetest honey you’ll need to stay sticky within 3,000 rpm of that number (where most of the Toyota’s 273 lb-ft of torque lives). That’s an easy ask whether bumping around town or swarming down a switchback, with the car’s workman-like gearbox a chummy, if not always graceful co-conspirator when seeking out an appropriate downshift.
Matching its uneven engine rumble is the flickability of the GR Corolla’s available 70% rear power shunt. There’s a willingness in its square wheelbase to respond to handbrake inputs around a corner, giving it a near-kart connection to the road, and the sum total is a good time even before you push to the limits of its chassis.
The above agitation is only slightly attenuated during the commute. Keeping engine speeds low and slipping the clutch makes for unbothered around-town driving, but when comparing to similarly-endowed hatches don’t look for anything like the smooth stealth-executive aspect of the Volkswagen Golf R. Likewise, the Corolla lacks the Honda Civic Type R’s clinical precision regardless of how hard or soft it’s being coached through a corner.
A Wrinkle in Time
Bouncy over lumpy roads, pleasingly hoarse in its exhaust note, and distinctly plain in its interior presentation, the GR Corolla’s focus on fun overpowers nearly any other concerns. Toyota clearly had no qualms about keeping options and features basic, and the lack of any self-shifting transmission on the order sheet is a clear telegraph to its customer base as to who should be seeking out this particular vehicle.
The automaker also has little hesitation about asking a near-luxury price for this distinctly rough-and-tumble vehicle. Base GR Corollas sticker for just under $36,000, while the Circuit (more track gear) and the Morizo (both pumped up and stripped down for motorsports with extra torque and a rear-seat delete) stretch to $43,000 and $50,000, respectively. These numbers push up against, and even past, quicker and more comfortable competitors (even posting within a few thousand dollars distance of Toyota’s own 382 horsepower Supra at the top end). Choosing the GR Corolla is a clear case of paying more for a desired experience behind the wheel, rather than left-braining one’s way through a spec sheet and making the most logical, by-the-numbers choice.
In many ways, the GR Corolla feels like a throwback, a fitting tribute to the era when making a cheap car feel quick was accomplished by heading to the warehouse and knocking together off-the-shelf parts rather than firing up the AutoCAD to sketch out bespoke hardware. Lest you get the wrong idea, this is by far the most charming aspect of the Toyota’s character, and in no small part what makes it stand out from the increasingly excellent field of entry-level scorchers. It’s an old school vibe, but without the constant maintenance worries that come with keeping a 25-year-old auto alive, and that’s an impressive accomplishment in our age of increasingly sanitized speed.
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