There's a line of thinking that says the Dodge Challenger is the only true remaining muscle car. The Ford Mustang and Chevy Camaro, while wonderful in their own ways, have become too well-engineered, too good at handling, and too competently luxurious to really feel like the chest-beating, widow-making, American street sledgehammers of yesteryear. The 2023 Toyota GR Corolla fills a similar niche for the old-school hot hatch.
Nobody else is doing a hatch like this anymore. Compared to this thing's spiritual ancestors from the '80s, '90s, and early-'00s, the current Honda Civic Type R, Hyundai Elantra N, and Volkswagen Golf R may as well be luxury cars. They're refined, full of tech, and soft on the inside. The GR Corolla isn't like that. It's loud, rough, spartan, and its eight-speaker JBL audio system is OK at best. But, thankfully, it also has the accessibly nutty performance and scrappy on-road personality to back it up and make it all worth it.
|2023 Toyota GR Corolla Specs
|Base Price (Canada-spec Circuit Edition as tested)
|$36,995 ($56,134 CAD)
|1.6-liter turbocharged three-cylinder | 6-speed manual | all-wheel drive
|300 @ 6,500 rpm
|273 lb-ft @ 3,000-5,500 rpm
|17.8 cubic feet
|EPA Fuel Economy
|21 mpg city | 28 highway | 24 combined
|A stellar hot hatch for the nostalgists.
Who Hurt You, Toyota?
Viewed straight on from the front or back, the GR Corolla looks deliciously aggressive. It looks angry and brooding, especially in this Circuit Edition's shade of Don't Mess With Me Gray, and triple exit exhausts will never not be cool. Adding to the base Core model, the Circuit Edition comes with a much bulgier hood with vents you can see from the driver's seat, a rear spoiler that makes it look less bald, red brake calipers, "GR Four" subtly peeking out from between its teeth, and a roof made of a sort of chopped carbon that brings to mind the rear wing of a Lamborghini Huracán Performante. In short, the Circuit Edition looks way cooler than the Core and is the one I'd have for that reason alone.
Style-wise, GRC looks as if Toyota's designers sat down and were forced to hear, in succession, every single instance somebody ever used the word "Corolla" as a byword for boring. Fueled by rage and vengeance, they came up with this. You weren't hot before, Corolla. You are now, though, and we see you.
It's Just a Corolla In There
Inside, however, you're greeted with what I deem to be the strongest case against the GR Corolla. Yes, the seats are adequately sporting and bucketed, there's a fancy "Morizo"-signed shift knob in the Circuit car, and the GR-specific, gear-indicator-big digital instrument layout is vaguely rally car-esque. But by and large, it's just a Corolla in there. Climate control is single-zone, the tops of the doors are clad in hard plastic even up front, the door handles feel like they could snap off in your hand if you tug too hard, and there's a, uh, mass-produced frugality with which most of the knobs move. As a thing to be inside and live with, the GR is easily the most basic compared to its rivals in the Civic Type R, Elantra N, and Golf R simply because the compact cars those guys happen to be based on are also nicer than the regular Corolla.
Not only is the GRC the least appealing sport compact entrant when it comes to luxury, but it's also among the least spacious. A lot of modern "compact" cars do this thing of actually being quite big in the rear, rivaling the interior space offered by midsize cars from not that long ago. The current-gen Corolla doesn't really do this, with rear headroom feeling especially tight to me. I'm not a particularly tall man, but the way the rear door is shaped meant I had to duck to get back there without hitting my head. Just eyeballing it, the 17.8 cubic foot cargo area also feels straight-up small for the class.
The interior parts that hot hatch drivers really care about, though, are decent. The steering wheel is different from the regular Corolla. It’s thin-rimmed and I enjoy the way it looks and feels in the hand. Just like in the GR86, there's no driver's center armrest. Instead, the manual handbrake is the armrest. Very rally. Very sport. One qualm, however, is that the driver's seat doesn’t adjust far down enough to make you feel like you’re hunkered in and driving something truly special. If I am going to drive the Gazoo Racing Corolla, I want to assume the Gazoo Racing position.
In short, sitting in a stationary GR Corolla mostly feels like, well, sitting in a stationary Corolla. Fire up that three-cylinder, though, and things get a little more special.
Just as its relatively low-rent cabin might suggest, the GRC is less refined to drive than pretty much all of its rivals. It’s loud, the ride sucks, and there's a cobbled-together quality to the whole thing that is, like, endearingly unbecoming.
Under the hood is a rambunctious 1.6-liter turbocharged three-cylinder making 300 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque being sent to all four wheels. Toyota claims five seconds to 60 mph (4.99 seconds, to be official and precise), and by the seat of the pants, it feels mighty and completely sufficient for the class. The way it builds that speed is scrappy and fun in spirit. I straight-up giggled the first time I floored it. This car's status as a three-cylinder definitely ups the offbeat-on-paper cool points, although I’m personally not that big of a fan of how it sounds.
It’s bassy and boomy at low revs, buzzy at high ones, and simply a bit too loud around town. Although the turbo whooshes and hisses that can be heard if you turn the stereo off and listen carefully are pretty neat in a your-buddy's-old-and-slammed-Civic kind of way. For better or worse, there are no preprogrammed exhaust pops or bangs. That silliness remains the domain of the competing Hyundai.
Also seemingly reserved for Hyundais are automatic transmissions because the GR Corolla is manual-shift only. And I wouldn't have it any other way because the six-speed used here feels quite good. A world more mechanical feeling than the Golf R's manual, more tactilely satisfying than every BMW stick I've operated, but still not quite as weapon-like as the one found in the rivaling Honda (to be fair, not much is). GR delivers a hefty, satisfying gear change that’s right up there with the manual Elantra N and Mazda MX-5 shifters.
Gear ratios are well thought out for public road, mid-speed hoonery while a long sixth gear is useful for keeping road trip fuel costs down. Auto rev-matching works well enough but, par for the course, must be turned on with a little button behind the steering wheel every time you start the car. The clutch is fairly friendly with a bite point that’s not too high nor too low.
Its humble Corolla roots mean urban maneuvering and outward visibility is perfectly fine, but it’s also one of those cars I found myself swerving to dodge potholes in. And, unlike the competition, its dampers aren't adjustable. The tradeoff, of course, is massively impressive handling. A little "GR-Four" knob lets you toggle between a 60:40 front-rear torque split or a four-wheel-drift-ready 30:70 setup. You’d think the latter is more fun, but after trying both on the street, the former felt a little more planted and more suited to this car's accessible hot hatch aura.
Cornering speeds are appropriately high and highly impressive. Steering is quick and quite precise but comes with a very Toyota-typical softness in its movement. Where the Honda Civic Type R's steering rack feels sharp and pointy, this is a little more rounded and friendlier in calibration. Where the steering isn't as friendly is in its texture. It likes to chatter, sending every pebble's presence up through the rim and into your palms. Ventilated and slotted brakes are solid, too. Livable, responsive to micro-adjustments in pressure, and attached to a pedal that feels reasonably short and serious.
Driven in anger on a twisty road, the GR Corolla is a very satisfying raw corner carver. Not that the Corolla itself is physically very big and needs to do this, but the GR does that thing of shrinking around you when you’re in the zone at speed. The way the shifter feels, the way it tips into a bend, the way the turbos sound when you let off the gas, it’s all very rowdy and very rally car.
That rowdiness, however, does mean that it is one of those performance cars that likes to make sure you know you're driving a performance car at all times. To me, a hot hatch should be unequivocally viable as a daily driver—Swiss army car, ultimate one-vehicle solution, whatever you wanna call it—and, you could daily the GR Corolla, I guess. But, to be honest, I'm not sure I'd want to. The ride is hard, as are the interior materials, and its entire vibe can be described as "hooligan." And perhaps that's exactly what you're looking for; in which case, the GR Corolla is a sport compact for the ages.
Out of all of the cars in this segment, the Toyota feels the most slapdash. It gives the least fucks. It doesn’t care that its three-cylinder voice isn’t very smooth or pleasant because smooth and pleasant are for the weak. GR Corolla just wants to go fast and have a good time, cramped rear seats and single-zone HVAC be damned.
Other cars in this class operate as if every facet of their drives—every input, g-force, torque shuffle, and mm of suspension travel—was scrutinized by squads of ex-race car drivers and engineers at the top of their game. And that’s great! The GR Corolla, however, feels like Toyota took the smallest car it sells in this country, shoved its most hilarious engine in there, gave it AWD, two LSDs, and stickier tires, and hoped for the best. It feels less produced. It feels like a simpler car.
Dumb luck or not, it turned out pretty great.
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