They say one's trash is another's treasure. And while at least my own life experience has proven that to bear out across a wide breadth of subjects, I feel it especially rings true for cars. I'm not entirely certain why. Maybe because cars are inherently complicated manifestations of design and engineering. Functional, yet emotional; machines we deeply feel but can't always know every detail of.
As a critic, I reckon it also has to do with the inability of the vast majority of people to try these products themselves and formulate their own opinions about them. Hell, I get to drive plenty more cars than the average person, but there are still so many I'll never have the chance to. So I may as well buy those old Top Gear talking points about old Alfa Romeos being unreliable but imbued with "passion," or the R35 GT-R being supremely capable but numb and clinical. Not like I have any firsthand experience to contradict them.
It's with these ideas swirling 'round my brain that I reflect on the car I recently bought, a 2024 Toyota GR Corolla. Yes, I adore it, even if I had my fair share of post-purchase anxiety. But one of the things I expected not to adore, but rather merely tolerate, was the hot hatch's interior. I did get some seat time in the GR Corolla right around when it first reached dealers, and about a month or two later I had occasion to sample the new Honda Civic Type R. I've also lived with the latest Volkswagen Golf R for a week. So I wasn't totally in the dark about the Corolla's appointments, but I hadn't experienced them day-to-day either, so I kind of just bought the story that I was setting up for an experience more penalty box than plush.
Today, it's been over a month since the GR's become mine, so I'm pretty confident I've worked it out. Obviously no Corolla's interior can be described as anything approaching luxury, even one that costs in the low-to-mid $40K range. But if you spring for at least the new Premium spec for just under $42,000, as I did, it's nice. It's not stunningly beautiful, but it's quality and, frankly, it's totally within reason for a hot hatch in the category.
I think we as car people tend not to discuss interiors with a fine enough vocabulary. What's a nice cabin to you? Is it designed attractively? Is it intuitive? Is it luxurious? Or is it just well screwed-together? These are four very different things, but they get totally steamrolled when we defer to "good" and "bad."
Sure, if I had to choose one interior in this class, it's be the Civic Type R's without even thinking, for two reasons. First, red seats and carpet. Second, it's very pretty. I am a sucker for Honda's ornate, art deco climate vents; they look phenomenal. That said, the Civic doesn't set bars for quality or luxury that other $40K performance cars don't match. Aside from the way it looks, the only obvious advantage it has is ergonomics and usability over the Golf R specifically, because the Golf R has a screen and four touch-sensitive buttons that freak out if you breathe on them. Thank goodness that's changing.
I'm arriving at my Corolla from a Fiesta ST. It's fair to assume a cheap Ford owner's bar for interior quality is lower than most drivers'. But that also means I don't take anything for granted. Nothing rattles in this hatch, and its plastics seem durable and solid, while the dash is soft to the touch. You get every physical button you could want, which I like, and the suede-ish seats offered on the Premium and Circuit Edition trims are really, really good. Everyone sings the praises of the Fiesta's Recaros, and they worked for me, but these are actually more supple on long journeys and accommodate people with kidneys.
I do take issue with the center touchscreen's massive bezels relative to its only 8 inches of size; it seems the completely empty area to the right of it used to be occupied by more buttons that are no longer necessary for Toyota's latest infotainment system. But I'll tell you, I actually don't miss having a center armrest as much as I thought I would. It's weird it isn't there, yeah, but it's something you get used to.
Really, the only complaint often lobbed at this car's interior that I definitely agree with is its packaging, which almost defies physical logic. You know how the Honda Fit was always celebrated for its TARDIS-like ability to inexplicably swallow items much larger than it? The GR Corolla is actually impressive for how inefficiently it manages its own footprint. You'd expect more legroom for rear-seat passengers, and that's disappointing. But I don't spend a lot of time back there, so that admittedly kind of slips the mind. The space behind those seats, though, is where any expectation of hauling things dies.
See, Toyota relocated the Corolla's battery to the trunk for the GR version, for weight distribution reasons. That's cool, sure, but it kind of stops being cool when you learn that this was achieved by mounting the battery where the load floor would typically be, and raising the entire floor up above it. While I appreciate the foam cubbies so thoughtfully provided to make the surrounding space a bit more usable (gee, thanks for that tube of Fix-a-Flat), I'd rather the battery take a rectangular bite out of the trunk space, like an old subwoofer or something, because verticality truly comes at a premium here.
So no, the GR Corolla isn't truly a no-compromise compact in the way many hot hatches are. It's not the greatest at doggin', for example. But it fits my life well enough. And I promise, it can be nice, if you need it to be.
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