It’s a great time to be a driving enthusiast. Yes, average sales prices are up and yes, there is a push for driver assistance and yes, electrification is coming. But with that come the “last hurrah moments,” some of which have come from unusual brands. Toyota is not one I’d have guessed would double down on sports cars with manual transmissions, but their GR sub-brand has done just that. Previously encompassing the Subaru-collab Toyota GR86 and BMW-partnership Toyota Supra, the 2023 Toyota GR Corolla rounds out the lineup in the United States and is one hundred percent Toyota in its design.
My first experiences of the 2023 Toyota GR Corolla came in late February. Toyota had a car in the DC metro area and offered it up for a few days, an offer I couldn’t refuse. I spent a fun yet grueling Saturday heading out to the best “fun roads” the area has to offer, driving as hard as I could on mountain roads with very cold Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires, and Cannonballing home late that night. My friend Adam joined me for the day, having just taken delivery of his GR Corolla the week before. So yes, we had two of them in one place.
Last weekend, I got the chance to drive Adam’s GR Corolla in more appropriate weather and more fun conditions – our spring rallycross at Summit Point Motorsports Park.
What Is It?
The 2023 Toyota GR Corolla is a bonkers little hatchback. Saying it’s “based on the regular Corolla” is like saying the White House is just another house where people cook and watch Netflix and sleep. Toyota builds the GR Corolla alongside the not-for-U.S. GR Yaris on a special assembly line where another 349 spot welds and 19-some feet of structural adhesive can be applied by hand. This extra work does unfortunately limit the production speed and thus, availability of the car.
Being built next to the GR Yaris is a deliberate act in that both vehicles share the same engine – a 1.6 liter turbocharged three-cylinder. In GR Corolla guise, it makes 300 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque. Power is routed through a six-speed manual with no two-pedal option, then to the wheels through a standard all-wheel drive system with variable split front to rear.
Exhaust is routed through a triple-tip system at the rear, and bigger brakes adorn all four corners. Four-piston calipers clamp down on 14-inch rotors up front, while two pistons and an eleven-inch disc handle the rear axle. Eighteen-inch wheels are shod in 200-treadwear 235/40R18 Michelins as mentioned above.
Curb weight on this little turbonugget is roughly 3,250 pounds at its most basic “Core” trim level.
Running Gear: Core vs Circuit
Having access to Adam’s white GR Corolla alongside my gray test car offered a rare opportunity to compare the total base-spec car to the one Toyota chose to send us journalists. Adam’s is a “Core” with standard open differentials, where my test car was a loaded “Circuit” with limited-slip diffs on each axle, among many other goodies.
Choosing the Circuit trim also adds a forged carbon fiber roof, a unique hood with functional vents, a unique rear spoiler, gloss black grille and red-painted brake calipers. Inside, the Circuit gets “ultra suede” material on the front seats, a leather shift knob, and JBL audio.
Those limited-slip differentials are optional on the Core, and add just ten pounds to the car’s curb weight. Toyota claims my loaded Circuit model was 30 pounds heavier than Adam’s car.
2023 Toyota GR Corolla On the Street
My drive route for the gray GR Corolla Circuit involved about 150 miles of highway driving to reach the aforementioned “fun roads.” The GRolla is only okay here, showing its Corolla roots the most at 80 miles per hour pointed in a straight line. There’s no fun to be had, but the car isn’t really relaxed, either. Fixed-rate dampers are on the stiffer side, for handling, and are just a touch harsh for my taste when there’s no handling going on.
The cabin is noisy, with the JBL audio doing its best to drown out wind and tire drone and succeeding – to a point. Seat comfort is good, though, and Toyota’s latest Safety Sense 3.0 does a nice job with lane centering and radar cruise.
But really, if you want a luxurious, entirely-non-fatiguing highway experience, the Camrys and Crowns are thataway.
Following an always-great lunch of sticky nugz and chicken and waffles, it was time for The Good Stuff. And this is where I forgot all about the highway, because the GR Corolla felt right at home. It’s a perky, peppy little car with a delightful engine that likes to rev and makes strong power throughout the tach’s range. You manage that power with a fantastic manual transmission that has perfect throws and is paired to an easy clutch. I drove a manual Corolla SE a few years ago and didn’t find the manual transmission very engaging or “worth saving,” as enthusiasts say. This is the exact opposite.
As the road became more twisty, I started playing with the all-wheel drive. Dubbed GR-FOUR (yes, in all caps), the system defaults to distributing power in a 60:40 front/rear split. But there’s a magic little dial between the front seats that changes it up instantly. Want some oversteer? Twist to the right and you get 30% up front and 70% out back. Push the dial in and the system locks in to a 50/50 split Toyota says is best for track use. It’s like a Bop-It for driving enthusiasts.
And the GR-FOUR system works, readily. “Pull it!” Understeer through the first corner, safely but a little slowly. “Twist it!” Power goes rearward, you drift through the next. “Bop it!” Oh, this is what I wanted, it’s neutral and rotates just so. That suspension, a bit stiff for highway expansion joints, is well-matched here, as is the steering, which offers good feel and appropriate weighting.
Slowing down after all the fun is easy, with the big brakes providing ample stopping power and great pedal feel. Despite running The Good Stuff over and over and over, I couldn’t get any fade out of the system.
2023 Toyota GR Corolla Rallycrossing
I didn’t plan on rallycrossing a GR Corolla, but Adam eagerly signed up for our Rainbow Road Rallycross with my promise that no, he (probably) wouldn’t tear the front bumper off and (probably) would have a lot of fun. And then after sending his car through two days of dust, dirt, and mud, he tossed me the keys for a few runs myself.
“Okay, don’t break the car, but like… send it a bit” was my general approach as I rolled up to the start line. As our starter counted down, I revved the GR to 2,500 rpm or so and waited.
“3…2…1…go!” I dumped the clutch, stood on the throttle, and the GR shot forward, putting power down remarkably well as I neared redline and went for second. The course was fairly technical, with some banked turns that helped cars rotate. Not that the GR needed much help; with the all-wheel drive set to 50:50 “track” mode, it was all too easy to make the car pivot with my right foot.
Gearing was perfect for the course, and there was enough torque down low to dig the car out of slower corners. I honestly didn’t miss the limited-slip differentials in this scenario as I was plenty fast without ‘em. They’re a nice-to-have but I wouldn’t call them mandatory. As with highway driving, a softer suspension would’ve been more ideal as I blasted through the course cut into a field.
Otherwise? 10/10 no notes. This would be a monster on some proper rally tires.
It’s easy to compare the 2023 Toyota GR Corolla to the Honda Civic Type-R, VW Golf R, and Subaru WRX (or more accurately, the prior-gen STi). On paper, that’s valid. In practice, it’s a totally different car. It’s more eager, more tossable, and more outright fun than either. The others are better on the highway, they’re more grown-up overall. But that can be… a little boring.
I had a friend in college who had an early “bugeye” Subaru WRX, which later became a “hawkeye” STi. The GR Corolla embodies those cars more than anything. It’s a hot hatch that will never ever sit down and shut up. And as Laurel Thatcher Ulrich famously said – well-behaved women rarely make history.