One Year Later, the Toyota GR Corolla Still Lives Up to the Hype
And so Toyota said: FOMO no mo’.
Being a car enthusiast means getting used to the idea of missing out. When Toyota—buttoned-up, Camry-peddling, SUV-loving Toyota—announced the GR Yaris for other markets a few years ago, there was a collective sigh out of Canada and the US.
Then the Japanese company dropped a bombshell: it would be swapping the pint-sized homologation special’s wicked powertrain into the larger Corolla and selling that here. Even better, this wouldn’t be some wholesale heart transplant, either: the G16E-GTS three-cylinder engine would get a boost up to a full 300 horsepower.
Reviews came out exactly one year ago today. As luck would have it, we found ourselves back behind the wheel of a 2023 GR Corolla Circuit Edition—this time on our local roads instead of a prepped race track—which made it the perfect opportunity to look at how Toyota’s hot hatch has fared in the last year.
What We’ve Said
“ Worth the wait” was the verdict from yours truly 365 days ago. Sure, the Utah Motorsports Campus wasn’t the best test of the GR’s road manners, but the track session proved this was a serious hot hatch competitor. Toyota let us loose in all three trims: the no-nonsense base, the well-rounded Circuit, and the stripped-out, special edition Morizo.
It was the latter that impressed most on-track, and why wouldn’t it? Toyota yanked out the rear seats, bumped up the boost, shortened the gear ratios, and hung stickier rubber at all four corners. Far from a stickered-up special edition, the Morizo was a noticeable step up from the regular car’s performance. It’s edgier, grippier, and quicker. But only a few would get the opportunity to drive this $50k two-seater: Toyota built just 200 for America, and just 10 came to Canada.
Our next experience with the GR ‘Rolla wouldn’t happen until this past spring. Managing editor Mike Schlee and contributing writer Jeff Wilson had the totally unenviable task of gathering the Toyota up against its natural competitors: the Honda Civic Type R, Volkswagen Golf R, and Hyundai Elantra N. Not only did this four-way battle happen on the road, they took them all to the track to get a bead on how they all perform at the limit.
“ This is easily the most approachable car to drive at speed,” said Schlee, finding the fiesty four-door friendly. “There’s a minimal learning curve, and it does not require the finesse or precision needed to drive some of the other cars as quickly. We feel so confident driving it around the track, tossing it through the corners with ease. The small radius steering wheel and quick ratio steering only add the responsiveness and fun.”
That wasn’t enough to earn the win, though: the GR Corolla placed second in this quartet, losing out to the Honda Civic Type R, which also saw a whole new model launch for 2023.
What We Love
While Schlee and Wilson had to make do with the base model this spring, the Circuit Edition I have adds in some much-appreciated creature comforts. There are heated seats—not that they’re needed in September—and the seats themselves are grippy faux-leather-and-suede. My wife tends to dislike the heavily bolstered seats of modern performance cars, but she has no complaints with these ones even after a road trip. And when I’m on my own later that night, on a familiar backroad having fun, they still do a great job holding me in place.
The Torsen LSDs (standard on the Circuit) make it sharper in the corners, while the upgraded brakes—14.0 inches with four-piston calipers up front, and 11.7-inch discs with a dual-piston setup out back—prove indefatigable on the road. Toyota could’ve fit enormous rollers here for style, but stuck with modest 18-inch wheels, no larger than a regular Corolla's. The result is a ride that is firm, but not stiff. That's one of the GR's great strengths: on the highway, outside of some added bass from the three exhaust tips, it's as easy on the highway as any one of its brethren.
This powertrain is excellent. In the spirit of the hot hatches of the '80s, the three-cylinder engine is very boosty: not a whole lot going on before 2,500 rpm, then a shove of torque. The six-speed is malleable enough that it's happy whether you're casually shifting through the gates, or rushing through them. The clutch pedal is friendly and progressive. When you want to hustle, the GR is right there with you, able to be as precise or as frisky as you'd like.
The GR-Four all-wheel drive system makes this a more all-weather ally than the front-drivers, too. An unmaintained gravel road isn't limiting in the Corolla; it's a promise of WRC-style rally antics. It's that every-situation readiness—another Corolla attribute, really—that makes the GR so appealing.
What the GR Corolla Misses
Okay, maybe it’s just a little too much like a regular Corolla. At least inside, anyway. Beyond the new instrument cluster, the drive mode dial, and those sweet seats, the GR's cabin is positively pedestrian. And the back seats are certainly tighter than most other five-doors this size. A hot hatch needs to be useful, after all, and the GR 'Rolla can't match others there.
If I'm being really nitpicky, I don't love the shifter. There's a bit of rubberiness to its up-down movements that dulls confidence. Unfortunately (for Toyota), it's made a car that lines up with the Civic Type R, a car blessed with one of the finest three-pedal shifters in the land.
There's also the matter of availability and markups, but that's not the GR Corolla's fault.
Verdict: 2023 Toyota GR Corolla Circuit Edition
There’s a long-held belief that the truly great cars are that way because they aren’t perfect. They have flaws, personality quicks—character.
The GR Corolla sure qualifies. It isn't as sharp as the front-drivers from Honda and Acura, but that doesn't make it worse; it makes it different. This is a car that puts approachability and easy-access performance above all else. The GR is a riot on a good road, able to be picked up and tossed around by the scruff of its neck. Essentially, Toyota has built the WRX STI that Subaru wouldn't—or couldn't—build, an everyday hero. 365 days later, none of that shine has worn off.
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