2023 Toyota GR Corolla Vs 2023 Volkswagen Golf R Comparison

Mike Schlee
by Mike Schlee

Two Different Approaches to the Hot Hatch

Co-Written by Jeff Wilson

Here are two of the hottest hatches on sale today, the Volkswagen Golf R and the Toyota GR Corolla.

Both drive all four wheels, have five doors, six manual gears, and at least 300 horsepower. But the similarities end there. The GR Corolla is rally-inspired and puts performance above all else, while the Golf R is a more premium, track-tuned compact. Both approaches are fun, but which is better?

To find out, we’ll spend hours driving the cars on the track, city streets, and twisting country roads. As a follow up to our Best Performance Car AutoGuide Shootout brought to you by WeatherTech, once again, we’ll spend plenty of time at Toronto Motorsports Park. The ultimate goal? To see which car puts a bigger smile on our face, and more importantly, keeps it there after a day of driving.

2023 Toyota GR Corolla

The GR Corolla is the anthesis to the Golf R. It’s the raw, rambunctious counterpoint to the sophisticated, posh Volkswagen. If the Golf R is a classically trained concert pianist, the GR Corolla is a self-taught punk rock guitarist.

This small hatchback is unusual in that it uses a turbocharged 1.6-liter three-cylinder that makes a lot of power for its size, 300 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque to be exact. That’s nearly as much torque as the Golf R despite the Volkswagen having a larger engine.

The GR’s engine is a very rev happy and makes most of its power at the top end. Once power builds, it accelerates with more authority than any three-cylinder should. On the longest straightaway, the Toyota and Volkswagen are reaching roughly the same top speed.

Greats Sounds, Mechanical Feel

The GR Corolla has a triple exhaust set up with two conventional exhaust tips at either side and a larger, oval tip dead center. They let out a throaty burble that’s unique in sound and grows as the rpms build. When driving, there’s a lot of audible turbo noise which, frankly, just sound cool.

The Toyota’s clutch is light and easy to engage, with more travel than found in the Golf R. The Corolla’s six-speed manual transmission is precise in engagement, but very mechanical in feel and not as refined as that found in the Golf. There’s a decidedly more resistance when engaging each cog in the Corolla’s transmission compared to the Golf. The GR Corolla does allow a bit more flexibly though, as the driver can enable rev-matching down shifts if inclined, unlike the Golf R.

The GR Corolla has a traditional pull lever parking brake with a meaty handle that is perfectly placed beside the driver. We’re doing everything we can to resist the temptation to pull it for some quick handbrake turns. The Golf R has done away with the manual parking brake, replacing it with an electronic one.

Looks Cool, But Space is Limited

Stylistically, the GR Corolla features a widebody exterior, which gives it a bit visual distinction from other Corolla hatchbacks. But without the circuit edition and its carbon fiber roof and larger rear spoiler, the GR blends into the crowd quite easily. Maybe not as easily as the Golf, but it’s still subtle in its styling.

Despite being a larger car in terms of length, the Toyota has less headroom, legroom, and cargo capacity. That said, I’m about six feet tall and I easily fit in the front seat of the car with a lot of headroom to spare. The front seat itself is supportive and comfortable enough. It might not be as fancy or covered in as nice of materials as the Golf’s seat, but it gets the job done and supports me well. There’s also upgraded seats in the GR Corolla Circuit which should offer a nicer finish and greater support.

When it comes to the rear seats in the Corolla, they offer little space and is the domain of smaller humans only. Headroom isn’t too bad, but legroom is lacking. The GR Corolla is not about hauling people or stuff though, it’s all about the massive amounts of fun behind the wheel.

Fun Inc.

Both cars are easily approachable to drive at high speeds. There’s hardly any learning curve with either and we feel so confident driving them around the track almost immediately. But the Golf R isolates us more from what we’re doing. We know it’s going fast and it’s hooking up to the track incredibly well, but we don’t feel the sensation of speed as much in the VW as we do in the GR Corolla.

We feel more connect with the Toyota, like more of what we’re doing is having a direct effect on the car’s behaviour. The small steering wheel with a quick ratio turn-in gives a lot of feedback and makes the Corolla feel more agile even if it is not.

Another big reason for this feeling has to do with the all-wheel drive system. It defaults to split power front to rear at a 60/40 ratio. Drivers can manually switch it to 30/70 for a more rear-wheel drive bias or use the track mode which gives a 50/50 split. During our time with the vehicle, we mostly have it in the 30/70 split and that, combined with the standard Torsen differentials front and rear, provide all the grip we need.

Then There’s the Interior

Now on to the weakest part of the GR Corolla, the interior. Inside, the Toyota is full of non-premium materials, with a design that lacks any sort of flair. It’s a complete contrast to the elegant, well appointment Golf R interior.

There are a lot of dated materials in the GR, like the shiny plastic doors, toggle switch heated seats, and fuzzy roof liner. For nearly $40,000, we expect a bit more finish inside a car. It feels at least a class below the Golf R in terms of premium fit and finish.

Feature wise, the GR Corolla Core can’t really match up to the Golf R either. But we do have most everything we need in a performance hatch, like a customizable digital gauge cluster, buttons to control the drive modes and center differential, automatic climate control, and large infotainment screen.

The Conclusion

It’s clear Toyota put all the money in the GR Corolla into the mechanical bits and we’re so glad the brand did. The combo of a small wheelbase, great all-wheel drive system, quick steering, and rev happy engine leads to a lot of fun.

Compared to the Golf R, the GR Corolla is unrefined, unsophisticated, but a lot more analog and in our opinion, more fun. Yeah, it’s the irrational choice here and is not as well-equipped, functional, or premium feeling compared to the Volkswagen. But as tested, it’s also priced over $7,000 lower. That’s a good chunk of money that might be the deciding factor alone.

2023 Volkswagen Golf R

Volkswagen’s Golf R has always done a good job balancing high performance capability with subdued styling and overall sophistication. With this current generation, that remains the case. Next to the raucous little Toyota, the Volkswagen is the more mature choice.

Fire up the 2.0L turbocharged 4-cylinder engine and it purrs smoothly, with most of its sound kept at bay behind more insulation than in the GR Corolla. Stab the throttle a few times and it’ll growl, but in a restrained way. Even in its most aggressive drive mode, it only makes a few flatulent pops when decelerating abruptly.

Sophisticated in All It Does

This subtlety and smoothness define the Golf R, whether cruising around on-road, or being flung into corners on a track. It maintains its cool composure, even when driven in a ham-fisted way, using its all-wheel-drive traction and the grip from its sticky summer tires to rocket out of corners with gusto. Volkswagen has incorporated a trick new electronic differential that’ll send more of the R’s thrust to the rear tires, enabling a drift mode of sorts, but that’s a quick way to vaporize tires.

The ride from the adaptive suspension is compliant, making it easy to live with day-to-day, but on the track, it rolls and dives more than the GR Corolla. Still, the Golf R is easy to get in and drive hard; it’s just that a driver won’t feel as connected with the VW’s less communicative steering, and its brakes that don’t offer the same bite as the Corolla’s.

Punchy Power

At 315 horsepower, the VW betters the Toyota by only 15 ponies, and its 280 lb-ft of torque are a virtual wash to the GR’s 273 lb-ft, but the Golf weighs in roughly 150 lbs more despite being shorter and narrower than the Corolla. In terms of acceleration, the VW and Toyota feel similar, but the Corolla needs more revs to get the job done, while the Golf’s meaty mid-range thrust helps propel it with less effort.

Of the two, the GR Corolla is unquestionably more engaging and frankly more fun to drive, especially on the track, where the Toyota’s sounds and raw connection excite a driver more. But, when choosing a performance car, it’s easy to put too much emphasis on emotion or strictly on the numbers a car delivers without really considering what it’s like to live with every day.

Better Suited for Daily Life

Most people don’t get to spend as much time doing laps on a racetrack or competing in autocross events as they’d like. Instead, a lot of the day is spent sitting in traffic on the daily commute, or taking clients to lunch, or just picking stuff up at Home Depot. In those scenarios, Golf R is smoother, quieter, more comfortable, and better suited to real life for most of us.

The Golf R is not only more subdued, but also more luxurious, due in no small part to its great leather covered seats. They’re heated (like the steering wheel) and cooled, and offer good support for high-speed corners, as well as long-distance road trips. There’s a nice, big sunroof, a head-up display and a really decent sound system, along with some better material choices than found in the Corolla’s bargain-bin interior.

While the digital gauge display is well-executed, and the 10-inch infotainment touchscreen has bright, crisp graphics, and good responsiveness, the dependence on the infotainment screen for far too many controls becomes tedious, quickly. Worse still, the decision to adjust volume and temperature via a touch-sensitive panel directly below the screen (where one might brace a hand when trying to work the touch screen at speed) is beyond frustrating, as are the haptic controls on the steering wheel that take too much focus away from driving.

Spacious, Mature, Boxy

Volkswagen has certainly used the Golf R’s dimensions better than Toyota did. The rear seat, for instance, has 5 inches of more leg room than the GR Corolla, plus it’s a lot easier to get in and out of the Golf R with its taller, boxier profile. The cargo area offers roughly 2 ½ cubic feet more space, too.

Those are the practical application of the Golf R’s boxy shape. While less extroverted than the bulgy Toyota, it still looks serious and aggressive. Its face features a thin grille and squinty headlights that help emphasize the front end’s width. The 19-inch wheels look well-proportioned for the car, and from the rear, there’s an extended roof-line spoiler and four tailpipes that identify this is as VW’s sportiest car, otherwise, it’s refreshingly restrained.

Without being overdone like the competitors in this segment, it won’t make middle-aged owners look like they’re going through a mid-life crisis, and is bound to still be stylishly handsome, even ten years from now – especially in this shade of blue.

In Conclusion

Volkswagen is no stranger to the hot-hatchback segment so it only stands to reason that the Golf R holds court as the elder stateman. It’s a swift, smooth, and stylish choice when all the competitors are brash by comparison.

All that suave sophistication comes at a price and the Golf R rings in a few grand more than the basic GR Corolla. It’s not a cheap car, but with its refinement and amenities, it feels like you get what you pay for.

Toyota GR Corolla vs Volkswagen Golf R: The Verdict

So, what’s the better car to drive? The choice is clear; the raw, rally-inspired Toyota GR Corolla. But it comes with plenty of drawbacks and compromises that not everyone is willing to live with.

The sophisticated, track-tuned Volkswagen Golf R may give up a bit of connection to the driver, but it’s the better car to be in the other 95% of the time one is not doing hot laps or autocross. It’s the sensible choice. The mature choice. The rational choice.

But the GR Corolla is so much irrational fun, and it’s more affordable.

Basically, the choice between the 2023 Toyota GR Corolla and 2023 Volkswagen Golf R comes down to three factors. One’s budget, mindset, and wants. Even here at the AutoGuide offices, we couldn’t all agree on one winner. Such is the spoil of riches we have right now when it comes to the hot hatch segment.

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Mike Schlee
Mike Schlee

A 20+ year industry veteran, Mike rejoins the AutoGuide team as the Managing Editor. He started his career at a young age working at dealerships, car rentals, and used car advertisers. He then found his true passion, automotive writing. After contributing to multiple websites for several years, he spent the next six years working at the head office of an automotive OEM, before returning back to the field he loves. He is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC), and Midwest Automotive Media Association (MAMA). He's the recipient of a feature writing of the year award and multiple video of the year awards.

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Join the conversation
  • Rockybudgeboa Rockybudgeboa on Aug 04, 2023

    One is A LOT more reliable than the other, whether or not the interior sucks. Regardless, both are nice and REAL cars that YOU can drive and that do not drive you :)

    • Jeff Jeff on Aug 27, 2023

      Your assuming the Toyota will be more reliable. Fact is that 3 cylinder is completely new so it's up in the air. The Toyota looks cheap for the money. Here are facts where i live. I can get a Golf R with DSG for the price of a mid model GR. Mark ups for the GR are ridiculous. The Golf R is more refined, more comfortable in the "real" world and actually looks like what it costs. I get the whole GR mantra ive heard it before. Ive owned 4 Lancer Evo's over the years so i get it, but Toyota showed up 15 yrs too late with this GR. Its real rally competition have all been retired. So in the end? Buy whatcha like. For me? I'd pass on both and look for a good used Focus RS😎

  • SSXT SSXT on Aug 05, 2023

    One is for one-car garage; the other for two (or more) spaces.