2023 Toyota GR Corolla First Drive Review: The Hot Hatch That Left Us Trembling

First Drive / 9 Comments

Seriously, the GR Corolla was THAT good.

We stepped out of the 2023 Toyota GR Corolla after our first lap of the Utah Motorsports Campus, grinning from ear to ear. That smile grew bigger driving the Circuit Edition, a more well-equipped, sportier version. Then we hopped in the Morizo Edition, a limited edition lightweight special. By that third stint, our hands were trembling. Yeah, it's that good.

For anyone wondering why we are mentioning a Toyota Corolla and a race track in the same sentence, let us familiarize you with Gazoo Racing and its latest creation.

Gazoo is Toyota's motorsports arm, responsible for race cars like GR010, which competes in Le Mans, and road cars like the GR Yaris, which has received worldwide acclaim, and this: the GR Corolla. Toyota took the same racing-inspired G16E-GTS engine out of the Yaris and stuck it in the larger Corolla so Americans would consider buying it. Then the engineers jacked up the power of the 1.6-liter three-cylinder engine - the one that's smaller in displacement than a regular Corolla's.

But don't let the displacement fool you because this little mill produces 300 horsepower going out to a trick all-wheel-drive system.

The GR Corolla is gunning after the new Honda Civic Type R and the Volkswagen Golf R, and based on our experience with the car, Toyota came to win.

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A Rally Car Exterior

The GR Corolla is based on the Corolla Hatchback, but even non-car people won't struggle to tell it apart from the base version. Flared fenders give the Corolla a wide stance, with those arches filled by 18-inch wheels shod in 235/40R18 Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tires on the Core and Circuit Editions, while the Morizo gets wider, stickier 245/40R18 Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 rubber. But the coolest exterior gubbins are to be had on the Circuit and Morizo, like a prominent rear wing and hood vents. Without those, the GR Corolla looks like a slightly buff sleeper of a hot hatch, albeit one with three exhausts.

This isn't a car that will sell in massive volumes, so Toyota kept the color palette relatively limited. The Core grade comes in Ice Cap or Black as no-cost options or Supersonic Red (pictured above) for $425. Stepping up to the Circuit Edition adds Heavy Metal for $425. As for the Morizo Edition, it comes in Windchill Pearl (white) for $425 or Smoke (a matte grey) for $1,645.

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A True Toyota Powertrain

Unlike the GR Supra, which uses an engine from BMW and a transmission from ZF, the GR Corolla is all Toyota. Its 1.6-liter three-pot engine delivers 300 horsepower and 273 lb-ft (295 lb-ft in the Morizo) thanks to 25.2 PSI of boost (26.3 on the Morizo), which is more than the Hyundai Elantra N but admittedly less than the Type R and Golf R. Just remember, the Corolla is smaller and lighter than the Golf, and will likely be close to the Type R due to its all-wheel-drive system. Speaking of which, the GR Corolla's GR-Four system can split the power differently depending on your driving. It can divide the power 60:40, 50:50, or 30:70, front-to-rear for some tail-happy slides.

If everything listed above still isn't exciting enough, Toyota decided to only offer the GR Corolla with a six-speed manual transmission. The throws are short yet engaging with a satisfying feel. It features Toyota's iMT rev-match technology, making the car easier to downshift on the track without heel-toe shifting.

Toyota estimates a 4.99-second 0-60 mph time for the lower two grades, while the lighter, torquier, and stickier Morizo can make the sprint in 4.92 seconds. Fuel economy is a reasonable 21/28/24 mpg city/highway/combined.

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A Giddy Driving Experience

Our time in the GR Corolla was exclusively spent inside the Utah Motorsports Campus, lapping it around a race track. Here, the car shined, showing off Toyota's dedication to building a true driver's machine. The steering is sharp and transmits feedback from the front wheel, inspiring confidence to clip the curbing on apexes and control the car with telepathic ease. There's a slight amount of roll through the corners, but not enough to make the car feel sloppy. We were worried Toyota would make the suspension obnoxiously stiff like the Corolla Apex Edition, which is one of the most uncomfortable cars we've ever tested. As far as we could tell from driving the GR Corolla on some roads within the Motorsports Campus, this car doesn't suffer from the same brutal ride, but we'll need time on the streets to say for sure.

That little three-pot engine is a superstar, delivering responsive power and a pleasant buzzy exhaust note. For the purists out there, the GR Corolla doesn't have any synthetic engine noise pumped into the cabin; it's all real.

We love the transmission on the race track, thanks to positive engagement levels and a short throw. Missing a gear is tough, and the rev-matching function works a treat.

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Playing with the drivetrain is the most entertaining part of the GR Corolla driving experience. In 60:40 mode, the car pushes wide on corners but keeps the car stable like the easy mode on a racing video game. We recommend it for wet weather driving. Toyota recommends 50:50 mode for the track, as it keeps the car balanced without inducing too much slip. In this mode, the GR Corolla feels almost infallible, as if there's no corner too daunting to conquer. Then there's 30:70, a mode that seems exclusively designed for fun.

The addition of the 30:70 power split makes the GR Corolla handle like a completely different vehicle with a new character. The rear end steps out with ease, and the front end feels lighter and more responsive, as if a burden has been lifted from it. We only drove the car with the front and rear limited-slip differentials, which are standard on Circuit and Morizo but optional on the Core grade, and allowed us to pull tremendous slides, then reel it in by feeding in the throttle and relying on 30% of the power going to the front.

Even a driving novice can become a drift master in the GR Corolla.

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Morizo Changes The Game

We noticed some slight differences between the Core and Circuit Edition grades, mainly relating to the latter's forged carbon fiber roof. But then we hopped into the Morizo Edition, and our expectations were vastly exceeded. The Core and Circuit made me smile, the Morizo left me trembling. Named after Akiyo Toyoda's racing pseudonym, this is the most track-focused GR Corolla available.

Changes to this model include the carbon roof, a vented bulge hood, rear lip spoiler, increased torque and boost, additional strut braces that also serve as a tire rack, stiffer suspension, wider Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires, and lower gear ratios. It's also around 100 pounds lighter (3,186 lbs) thanks to forged wheels, a rear seat and rear wiper delete, and fewer speakers. These may not sound like revolutionary changes, but they stack up to make a world of difference.

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The weight savings might not be noticeable, but the extra torque and grip are. We could carry more speed through the corners and reach them quicker on the straights. The steering feels even sharper on the Morizo, something we didn't think would be possible after enjoying the Core and Circuit grades.

Those Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 are no joke, keeping the GR Corolla planted to the road like a thousand-year-old pine tree. Combined with the weight savings, the sticky tires allow the car to change direction in a hurry, responding to driver inputs with no delay.

Though it's far less livable as a daily driver, the Morizo Edition might be the best hot hatchback we've ever driven. It serves as proof that Toyota is still capable of building a world-class driver's car, and if you can snag one of the 200 units that will be built for the 2023 model year, we can't recommend it highly enough.

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A Focused Interior

Some drivers will scroll past this and read about the GR Corolla's price, then come back to scoff about the relative "cheapness" of the interior. But that would be missing the point. This cabin is unapologetically based on a Corolla, a frugal commuter car built to a budget. Though the GR Corolla is built to a considerably higher budget, most of it was spent on that fancy engine and all-wheel-drive system. That's not to say the GR's cabin isn't nice.

All grades include Toyota's latest infotainment system housed on an eight-inch touchscreen. It's linked to six speakers on the Core, eight speakers are part of a JBL system on the Circuit, and only two front speakers on the Morizo to save weight. An additional 12.3-inch digital gauge cluster gives a high-tech vibe from the driver's seat.

As for the seats, they are more heavily bolstered than a standard Corolla and hold occupants nicely on the track. Core grades get basic cloth, while the Circuit and Morizo step it up with Brin-Naub suede that classes up the cabin. Both the Circuit and Morizo also receive a special shift knob, wrapped in leather or suede, respectively.

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Practicality & Cargo Space

As for what's behind the front sport seats, don't expect much luxury in the GR Corolla's back seat. Legroom is scarce at just 29.9 inches, an issue it shares with the standard Corolla Hatchback. As for the trunk space, the Corolla is not among the largest hatchbacks on the market, with 17.8 cubic feet behind the second row. To put that into perspective, the Civic Hatchback offers 24.5 cubic feet, and the Golf has 19.9. With the seats folded, the Corolla's trunk opens to 23 cubic feet.

Hardcore track nuts will opt for the Morizo Edition, which completely deletes the rear seat to save weight. This turns the five-door Corolla into a two-seater, a sacrifice most buyers will not be willing to make. But as we learned from driving the Morizo, it's a worthy trade-off if you want the sharpest GR Corolla - and arguably the most practical one if you regularly carry large items instead of children. Just watch out for the rear strut brace.

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Price & Verdict: You Can't Put A Price On Fun

The GR Corolla is not what we'd call a "cheap" car, but given the performance and standard features, the pricing seems fair. Toyota priced the base Core Grade at $35,900, about the same price as a mid-level Golf GTI or Subaru WRX, though the former is only front-wheel drive. This grade is available with a $1,180 Performance Package (limited-slip differentials and larger brakes), a $770 Technology Package (navigation, JBL audio, and a wireless charger), and a $500 Cold Weather Package (heated seats and steering wheel). Even fully loaded, the GR Corolla rings in under $40,000. Comparatively, a Golf R starts at $44,290 and is nowhere near as fun.

The Circuit Edition, which is only available for the 2023 model year, costs $42,900. Unless you really want the carbon roof and interior upgrades, we think the Core is better value. The Morizo is limited to only 200 units per year, each priced at $49,900. That's a huge amount to pay for a Corolla, but we promise the driving experience is worth the price. A six-cylinder GR Supra starts at $52,500, and we had more fun driving the Morizo, which is also a two-seater.

If you are in the market for a hot hatchback, the GR Corolla is currently at the top of our recommendations. Now, let's see if Honda can strike back.

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