We’ve recently tested some interesting high performance vehicles, like the Kia EV6 GT, and Volvo S60 Recharge – all pointing to a direction in the future of hybrid and EV being the enthusiast’s choice, right?
Not so fast. We just spent a week in the Toyota Corolla GR – a fascinating confection of both old-world performance and modern technology, featuring good-old gas fueled technology. And this little car is one of the most thrilling vehicles we have driven in a long time. Yes, a Corolla. Buckle up, we’re going for a ride.
A Corolla on Steroids
We’ve always liked the current gen Corolla, it’s stylish and sporty in a way that people like and doesn’t really offend anyone. Before we go any further, we should mention that GR stands for TOYOTA’S GAZOO Racing, one of the company’s racing arms.
This is one special Corolla – To help meet the performance goals for the GR Corolla, Toyota has established a dedicated GR Factory at its production facility in Motomachi, Japan.
No Corolla has ever looked this aggressive! The front has a massive matrix pattern grille, bracketed by large functional air ducts. LED headlamps and daytime running lights give a menacing frown, while lower LED fogs help light up the way.
The profile is where you really see the difference. The GR’s been to the gym and come home swole up, with wide front fenders with functional air grilles on the back side, as well as massive rear fender flares that help make the Corolla look squat, tough, and mean. That seriousness is enhanced by blacked out 18-inch gloss black wheels with Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tires and monstrous 14-inch 4-piston front brakes, with calipers on both front and rear painted a bold red to stand out.
Function and intent are paid out at the rear, with boomerang style LED taillights resting above a lower fascia with functional air vents, and the GR’s unique calling card – triple exhaust pipes located at the far left, center and far right of the bumper cover. Those in the know immediately get the significance – (hint: one exhaust pipe for each cylinder).
Finishing off our tester was a bold deep red Toyota calls Supersonic, and we loved it. It’s eye-catching though, so those wanting to fly below the radar, there are more subdued choices.
And Yet, Still a Corolla
The inside is less bold and bodacious as the exterior.
Open the door, and the GR looks a lot like other Corollas, with a few notable differences. Let’s start with the good stuff. There’s a supportive sport seat with an embroidered GR logo in the headrest. On higher trim levels, you get a slick Alcantara fabric, but here it looks like standard Corolla cloth, which is…meh. That said, the seats are super well designed, and they excel at both sporty driving and still being every day comfy.
There’s a nice fat 3-spoke leather-wrapped wheel with GR logo, and a fat leather-wrapped shift knob – also with GR logo – that feel great to the hand. And that’s what it’s all about. There’s a useful 12.3-inch TFT display giving you all sorts of info including a digital speedo, a massive tachometer that changes colors as you approach redline (cool) plus other valuable info like gear position, 4WD mode, Turbo pressure and more.
Sitting proudly in the center of the dash is an 8-inch Info-tainment display, and goodies like Wireless Apple CarPlay and a handy wireless charger helps keep the cabin tidy. Best of all, Toyota makes sure you have an actual volume knob! Yay!! The Climate control system is easy to use and follows the basic, nice, no-nonsense design you’d find in any Corolla.
Which is a little sticking point, since a Corolla is not really an expensive car, many of the materials are hard-wearing and durable to be sure, but while you may be laying out the big bucks, you don’t feel like the money was spent on the interior. It actually reminds us of the original Subaru WRX, you knew where the investment was – in the running gear. And like that original Subie, after one lap around the block you wouldn’t care if you were sitting on apple crates – the drive is everything.
Well, not everything. There’s a good side to the Corolla sensibility here, you have a rear seat with room for 3 (it’s snug like all cars in this segment) and a nice-sized hatchback with good cargo space. And real fold-down rear seats for a good cargo hold. Unlike the Elantra N that had structure supports that made folding rear seats pretty useless. One cool thing, Toyota moved the battery to the rear cargo area for better weight balance, so there’s a lift-up floor panel that gives you some extra storage cubbies.
It drives GRRRRRRREAT!
Ok, enough of stowage and storage. How does it drive?
Let’s start with the gem of an engine. The stats alone are jaw-dropping a 1.6-liter, three (yes three!) cylinder turbocharged beast pushing out 300 horsepower, and 273 lb.-ft of torque. This baby loves to rev, and it has an unusual sound – much more like a BMW or Porsche 6 cylinder than anything you might expect.
Part of that sound comes from that unique triple exhaust system – to give some added rumble the center pipe is open at idle (it will wake your neighbors) and up to 20 mph, and then closes. At 4,500 rpm the pipe reopens, reducing back pressure and giving a ferocious lunge to that 7,000 rpm redline. Figure 0-60 in easily under 5 seconds. In a Corolla….
We have to say that in the week we had our GR we never got tired of the deep idle, that sing to redline and the awesome fat powerband. Totally addicting!
Another nice surprise is the 6-speed manual transmission. This is no loosey-goosey econo-car stick. This is a precise, direct, slightly notchy box that positively engages each time you move the lever. Think Miata-good, but maybe a little beefier to handle all that power. And yet despite all that muscle, the clutch is feelsome and light – stop and go traffic is no problem, and you won’t walk out with a Schwarzenegger-sized left calf.
You also won’t have the Austrian Oak’s massive guns, since the GR’s standard 4WD system divvies up the power and gives you point and shoot accuracy. This 4WD is a rally-driver’s dream, with a choice of modes – 60/40 front to rear split for daily driving, 30-70 setting for drifting and hooning antics, and a 50/50 setting designed for use at the track.
Our tester did step things up a bit with the Performance Package, that includes front and rear Torsen limited-slip differentials. We can say that it was phenomenally capable at laying the power down – you go into a turn, stomp on the gas and it just grips and grips and you’re rocketing out as fast as you can unwind the wheel.
The only way to get close to this car’s limits would be at a track or autocross. For the street, it’s incredibly capable and quick.
What it isn’t, is ultra-comfortable. Let’s be honest this is a very, very firm suspension. Even here in super-smooth, So Cal, the ride can easily beat you up in a daily commute. Those with young, strong backs might not mind, but for the rest of us, this is a special toy for weekends, racing, etc. It might be worth the cost of a good Chiropractor to enjoy it every day, though!
How Much for Toyota’s Thrill Ride?
Well, here comes the benefit from building on the affordable Corolla. The Corolla GR starts with the Core model at $35,900, which is really a performance bargain at that price. Our tester had a few tasty options, including Supersonic Red paint ($425), the Performance Package ($1,180) and the audio upgrade Technology Package ($770), Add in carpeted cargo and floor mats ($289), and destination ($1,095) and we rang the bell at $39,659.
The competition would include the Hyundai Elantra N, which is larger, nicer, but certainly slower, and the front wheel drive is a limiting factor. Still at just over $34,000, it is also amazing value.
And you can’t forget the Subaru WRX. At $37,495 you have all-wheel drive, 271 horsepower, and its own enviable rally heritage. It’s a larger car with greater comfort, and less ultimate performance. If we had to have a daily though, the Subie would probably win. But we wouldn’t want to get into a street fight with that Corolla, though.
Incredible performance, incredible value, incredible fun – the 2023 Toyota Corolla GR is…well incredible!
Ben Lewis grew up in Chicago, and after spending his formative years driving sideways in the winter – often intentionally – moved to sunny Southern California. He now enjoys sunny weather year-round — whether it is autocross driving, aerobatics, and learning to surf.