Both hot hatchbacks can be raucous and refined, but which should you live with every day?
Not too long ago, Toyota was best known for robustness and reliability, and boredom. The process to change that image began with the first 86, which was then followed by the astoundingly versatile and infinitely tuneable GR Supra. The reimagined GR86 then came along, but its thunder was stolen by the motorsport-bred missile that is the GR Yaris in foreign markets. Now, we have the 2023 Toyota GR Corolla, and it's been revealed as a 300-horsepower hot hatch with real rallying pedigree and a serious all-wheel-drive system. In a market saturated with software-based systems that can make even a novice look like a hero, the mechanical nature of the GR Corolla is a true breath of fresh air. But can the new arrival compete with longtime darlings of the segment? We pit it against one of the most popular to find out.
The Toyota GR Corolla's appearance screams its intent. There's no part of this vehicle that suggests a tepid experience awaits those who climb in. At the front, a special grille with a subtle GR badge sits below a pair of sharp LED headlights that are capped by a vented hood (on the top Circuit Edition; the Core gets a regular hood). More vents and badges can be found on the swollen front fenders while the rear arches have also been pumped up to accommodate a wider track. At the back, an aggressive diffuser houses a triple-exit exhaust with one oval pipe in the center and a pair of circular exits on each end. LED taillights and another GR badge can be found on the hatch, while 18-inch wheels sit in front of four-piston front brake calipers and two-piston rear calipers. The roof is also noteworthy, as this is constructed of forged carbon fiber on the Circuit Edition, leading to a large roof spoiler. Core models get a color-coded roof and a smaller lip spoiler. Whichever model you pick, this Corolla makes a strong statement.
The Volkswagen Golf R also makes its intentions known through its styling, but the appearance of the German hatchback is much more restrained. LED lighting features here too, with a thin DRL strip connecting the two clusters. A large grille appears on the Golf R, but it's far less aggressive. Subtle fender badges and contrasting silver mirror caps, along with 19-inch wheels, are the most aggressive touches in profile, but all but the most hardcore VW fans would simply see another dime-a-dozen hatchback and move on. At least the rear of the vehicle has some enhancements; a quad-exit exhaust has been neatly integrated into a faux diffuser while a roof-mounted spoiler and a solitary R badge centered on the tailgate add a touch more menace. A panoramic glass sunroof is added too, pointing towards luxury over focus.
While the Golf has a fake diffuser and adds a heavy glass roof, the Corolla has no fake vents or aero additions and reduces weight with carbon fiber. The Golf R is certainly classier but the GR Corolla provides excitement before you even push the engine start button, and isn't that what a hot hatch should do?
The GR Corolla is exclusively available with a manual gearbox, for the time being at least. Thus, you get cool aluminum sport pedals, a "Morizo" signed shift knob (Akio Toyoda's racing pseudonym), push-button start, and a thick-rimmed steering wheel with contrast stitching and a GR badge. The contrast stitching is also seen on the door cards and the seats, with the latter sporty items that boast Brin Naub suede and synthetic leather upholstery with red stitching, mesh inserts, and GR motifs on the Circuit Edition. The Core model gets fabric with gray stitching, and both options look athletic yet comfy. However, we can't help but notice the abundance of plastic.
As for tech, Toyota provides an eight-inch infotainment screen with a physical volume knob and a 12.3-inch driver info display. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, wireless charging, navigation, and an eight-speaker JBL sound system are all optional while dual-zone climate control, again with physical knobs and buttons, is standard.
The Volkswagen is far techier inside. Brushed stainless steel sport pedals add to the occasion, as does a 10.25-inch driver info display with a matching touchscreen infotainment display. A heated steering wheel, ambient lighting, and wireless charging are offered here, along with Nappa leather-trimmed sport seats. It all looks pretty good, but there are many ergonomic challenges here, not least of which is the fact that the steering wheel, infotainment, and climate controls all feature touch controls with no actual buttons, which makes adjusting anything on the fly a risky endeavor. Worse still, everything besides the steering wheel comes without backlighting, making nighttime adjustment nearly impossible. If that's not bad enough, the media system takes forever to respond, and despite more upmarket features like a Fender audio system and climate-controlled seats, the Golf R has taken a steep downturn in overall quality.
We'll have to wait to experience the GR Corolla firsthand to tell if the Golf R is still more premium inside, but the Japanese car is certainly more ergonomic. Furthermore, we can accept average quality in an affordable Japanese hot hatch, but not in something that pretends to be an Audi S3 rival.
If you're still of the belief that having fewer cylinders makes you less virile in some unfathomable way, you need to catch up with the times. Despite only three cylinders in the GR Corolla's 1.6-liter turbocharged engine, you get 300 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque, which is channeled to all four wheel's via a six-speed manual gearbox with rev-matching. Open differentials are standard, but one can have Torsen front, center, and rear diffs. Regardless, the GR-Four AWD system allows you to split torque between the axles in a front-rear split of 60-40, 50-50, or 30-70 for the smoky burnouts and donuts you see here. As we mentioned earlier, big brakes add to the car's capability as the four-piston calipers bite down on 14-inch discs in front and two-piston calipers grab 11.7-inch rear rotors. Most importantly for the hooligans among us, the GR Corolla has a mechanical handbrake lever that will make rotating the vehicle much easier.
Volkswagen uses one cylinder more in its 2.0-liter turbo-four. This generates 310 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque, all of which goes to the front axle until it starts to slip. No more than 50% of the torque ever goes to the back. Despite this, the Golf R offers a drift mode with power sent to the outside rear wheel and uses this same system for torque vectoring. The German hot hatch comes with a six-speed manual as standard with an optional seven-speed DCT automatic. Braking performance is courtesy of two-piston aluminum calipers in front, which speaks to its less aggressive focus. Another factor that highlights this is the decision to go with an electronic parking brake.
At 3,100 pounds, the Golf R is lighter than the 3,249-lb GR Corolla and will likely be quicker in a straight line, even without the DSG gearbox, but we wouldn't bet our entire mortgage on that and fully expect the GR Corolla to surprise us. Due to the VW's digital design and dreary indifference to true hardcore performance, the GR Corolla will be the enthusiast's choice while the Golf R is for those who want a friendlier feel on the daily drive.
Pricing for the all-new 2023 Toyota GR Corolla remains a mystery, however, we do know that the Circuit Edition is a one-year-only limited edition, so it will command a premium price and will likely be sold out almost as soon as it becomes available. We're expecting the Core model to start at a base price of around $35,000, which would make it cheaper than the $44,000 Golf R. But which should you pick?
Well, despite Toyota not revealing acceleration or top speed figures, or indeed any sort of timed performance claim, it's clear from the facts and figures that the GR Corolla will be highly engaging to drive, command attention from any angle, and simply feel special. As much as we love the practical Golf with its 19.9 cubic-foot cargo area (around 2.1 ft3 more than the Corolla's), clean design, and slightly upscale badge, it looks premium but feels cheap. The GR Corolla, on the other hand, was made to satisfy car lovers, not accountants, and that's all we've ever asked for in a hot hatch - a simple recipe, an affordable asking price, and a touch of that cool factor. Sorry, VW, but you've fallen a long way.