2023 Toyota GR Corolla First Drive Review: 300 hp, 3 cylinders, 3 tailpipes

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ERDA, Utah – The 2023 Toyota GR Corolla manages to wring out 300 horsepower from three cylinders. Even a guy who got a C+ in Algebra II can tell you that means 100 hp per cylinder, which is just loony tunes for a car that shares its name with grandma’s gold-painted grocery getter. You see, other members of that 100:1 horsepower-to-cylinder club include the Dodge Challenger Super Stock (née Demon), the Porsche 911 Turbo S and the Bugatti Chiron Super Sport. If that isn’t enough to get you giddy for a spin in this little hatchback with the bloated fenders and three pipes at the back, car enthusiasm probably isn’t for you.

Pop open the door for that spin and at first glance you’ll find an interior that’s unmistakably a Corolla, which admittedly isn’t such a bad thing these days. Climb in, though, and your butt will be greeted by huggier seats while your eyes center on a 12.3-inch digital instrument panel with readouts and graphics specially created for the GR Corolla. The bespoke efforts definitely don’t end there. The car itself is so different that it’s produced at its own, separate GR Factory in Japan complete with automated robots that move each car from station to station rather than down the usual conveyor belt.

Why is such specificity needed? Well, the GR is significantly stronger than the usual Corolla hatchback thanks to 349 additional spot welds and nine additional feet of structural adhesive that increase the joint rigidity between component parts (like adding more cartilage in your knees). The hardcore Morizo Edition gets 20 more feet of adhesive and additional structural braces, including two across where the backseat is usually found. In other words, this isn’t just a matter of popping on different brakes or installing a bigger engine as would happen on a typical assembly line where different versions of the same model are manufactured.

Glance down at the center console and more differences appear. There’s a big, honkin’ emergency brake perfect for hand-brake turns and parking like Ace Ventura. A six-speed manual transmission is mandatory, and for 2023, getting a GR is the only way to get a row-your-own Corolla. Ah shucks, best get the GR, then. Like the pre-’23 manual-equipped Corolla Hatchback, the GR gets the iMT auto-rev-match downshifting feature standard. Brake into a corner, depress the clutch and the car will automatically blip the throttle in anticipation of your downshift. It’s well done. Purists will appreciate that it’s also switched off by default. Just make sure to remember that fact when getting back into the car after turning it off – expecting an auto rev-match and not getting one isn’t quite “I forgot to pack the parachute,” but it’s not great.

At the same time, those same purists may lament that the pedals are way too far apart (pictured below left). Rather than the simple left-right roll that allows the ball of your foot to contact brake and then accelerator simultaneously, you have to do the full, ankle-contorting, literal heel-toe downshift. No thank you. The GR86 and GR Supra (below right) are not like this, but then, they’re not really built by Toyota. The GR Corolla is, and it has the pedal spacing of a Tundra as a result. That isn’t hyperbole. The gearbox itself also feels more Corolla than GR. The throws are a tad long, and slotting into gear isn’t definitive enough. It could feel more mechanical … or like the GR86.

Aft of the shifter comes better news. A big ol’ knob lets you twist the all-wheel-drive system into different front-rear power distributions, and represents what is arguably the GR Corolla’s coolest and most distinctive feature. Developed in collaboration with the Toyota Gazoo Racing World Rally Team and apparently tuned with feedback from WRC drivers, the GR-Four all-wheel drive therefore isn’t just some off-the-rack system from a RAV4 and absolutely drives like it. You can feel the differences engaged with each turn of the dial (or push of the Track button), and appreciate how they might be appreciated in different driving scenarios and surfaces.

The default is “Front” at 60:40. Although we briefly sampled it and didn’t find anything to dislike, we were also only driving on a track, so moving on. Next up is “Rear,” which can send upwards of 70% of available power and torque rearward. Shut all the nannies off, nail it just right and find yourself on some sort of slippery surface, and the GR Corolla can embark on some tail-out hijinks. May visions of snowbound parking lots dance in your heads. It’s not a 0:100 Drift mode, though, and it honestly didn’t feel that much livelier on good pavement. Maybe driving it on real roads might demonstrate some added driving enjoyment, but as we were confined to the Utah Motorsports Campus this time around, the slightly looser “Rear” mode just seemed like a good way to go slower.

Thankfully, Track mode exists, and it delivers as promised. Although the torque balance actually adjusts in every mode based on driver inputs, vehicle behavior and road conditions, this one stays as close to 50:50 as possible. The GR Corolla was notably more controlled in this mode, lines were kept with greater precision and speeds were greater as a result. There are also front and rear Torsen limited-slip diffs – standard in the Circuit trim and Morizo Edition, optional on the Core trim – that no doubt contribute to your ability to steer with the throttle and keep the power applied through corners.

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To that end, the GR Corolla also features track-tuned coil springs, shocks and stabilizers to go with all that extra structural rigidity. The Morizo Edition then gets a stiffer spring rate, which was definitely noticeable on the handful of bumps purposely driven over to confirm that the hardcore GR Corolla (Hardcorolla?) may be a tad unpleasant on real roads. On the track, however, the Morizo Edition is unquestionably a superior car. I was consistently going faster at various points on the track, and everything just feels tighter. And for good reason.

Besides the tauter springs, added bracing and 20 feet of extra glue, the Morizo Edition goes on a 100-pound diet. The back seat, rear wiper, rear speakers and rear window motors are chucked. Cast alloy wheels wearing Michelin Pilot Sport 4’s are swapped for lighter forged wheels wrapped in stickier Pilot Sport Cup 2’s. The Core model’s steel roof is replaced with a very cool forged carbon fiber roof (as opposed to the typical woven carbon fiber you see). The brakes are painted red, but otherwise go unchanged – fixed-caliper, four-piston 14-inch ventilated and slotted rotors up front with fixed-caliper, two-piston 11.7-inch ventilated rotors at the back.

The Morizo Edition, which is named after Toyota Chairman Akio Toyoda’s racing pseudonym/nickname/alter ego, also gets functional brake ducts, a bulge hood with more functional ducts, red interior details and synthetic suede/leather upholstery in place of the Core trim’s cloth. The GR Corolla Circuit trim level effectively gets all of that, plus the carbon roof, without the additional weight savings, strengthening and suspension tweaks. It’s basically the happy medium, but unfortunately, it’ll only be sold for 2023.

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There’s one other element that differs between the Morizo Edition and the other two GR Corolla trims: the “G16E-GTS” 1.6-liter inline-three tuned by Toyota Gazoo Racing engineers. A single-scroll turbo blasts 25.2 PSI worth of air into it in the Core and Circuit, resulting in that magic 300 hp and 273 pound-feet of torque between 3,000 and 5,500 rpm. The Morizo pumps it up to 26.3 PSI, resulting in a peak 295 lb-ft between 3,250 and 4,600 rpm. This is noticeable on the track as the Morizo feels just a little more eager to respond to your throttle inputs (although the actual throttle feel and response could be better in every GR Corolla). All then benefit from the three-pipe exhaust – the center pipe opens while idling and up to 20 mph, and then reopens when engine RPM crests 4,500. This is a big reason for the little triple’s ability to produce so much power. Toyota went out of its way to note that there’s no artificial engine noise piped into the cabin, but then I was wearing a helmet the whole time, so I have no idea what it sounds like at full whack.

What does it feel like, though? The 0-60 time of around 5 seconds certainly seems accurate. The acceleration won’t blow you away by 2022 standards, and despite that 100:1 ratio and all-wheel-drive grip, the GR Corolla isn’t some drag strip star. It’s more of a well-rounded athlete, largely thanks to that brilliant GR-Four all-wheel-drive system. The primary controls could all be just a bit sharper, though. The steering is a non-factor and not especially memorable either way. The clutch engagement is oddly high, the throttle a bit mushy and the gearbox just OK. A little Mazda-style finesse would put this car on a pedestal.

As it is, though, the Toyota GR Corolla sure seems worth the anticipation and, sure, giddiness that welcomed its arrival into the world. The “seems” is key, though, since we never actually drove it on public roads. Would you want to daily drive it? For now, we can only answer “maybe?” Pricing starts at $36,995 for the Core, with an additional $1,180 needed for the Performance pack you definitely want/need. The GR Corolla Circuit is an extra $7,000, and as it’s one-year only, it’s the one to get if you plan on hanging on to your GR Corolla for a while. The Morizo Edition is then another $7,000 more, cresting $50,000, which starts to seem a bit nutty for something with a rigid suspension that doesn’t have a back seat. Would you want to daily drive that? Ah, maybe not.

All those prices might sound steep, but remember that a Golf R starts at more than $45,000, while the next-gen, front-drive-only Civic Type R will almost certainly be closer to $40,000. They’re bigger, arguably more refined … and you know what? Let’s just stop with the dollars and sense for a minute and just appreciate that they all exist. Cars like the Toyota GR Corolla are the reason many of us became car enthusiasts in the first place. Did it matter that we couldn’t actually afford (fill in the blank)? No it did not. So, for the kid reading this who hopes to buy a somehow-gently used GR Corolla in five to 10 years … go ahead and save those pennies. You’ll love it.

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