From the November 2022 issue Car and driver.
For a long time, Toyota proudly wore the stench of the transport of household appliances. Reliability is neither sexy nor fun – unless you’re into actuarial science, in which case are you reading the right rag? But the past decade has been different for Toyota. It introduced two rear-wheel-drive sports cars – Subaru’s GR86 and BMW’s Supra, both Top 10 winners— plus a rally-inspired GR Yaris for overseas markets. Now we have the Yaris’ big brother, the GR Corolla. Are we crazy, or is Toyota the leading enthusiast brand of the day?
The GR Corolla is an absolute beauty. It is capable of developing such a speed that everyone should feel comfortable driving on public roads. The 143 mph governor is attainable on the street, but if you’re going that fast on two-lane roads, you’re probably in a cage.
We tested the mid-range Circuit trim, which starts at $43,995. The base Core model costs $7,000 less, with a $7,000 two-seater Morizo coming later in 2023.
The heart of the GR Corolla is a 1.6-liter inline-three, a cheeky little mill that also powers the GR Yaris. With a 10.5:1 compression ratio and tiny turbo pushing up to 25.2 psi on Core and Circuit models, it’s not without lag — the GR Corolla’s 5-60 mph time is 6.4 seconds — but it’s not even the slightest bit offensive. A balancer shaft eliminates the triple’s inherent imbalance, and the passenger-side powertrain mount is filled with fluid for further vibration damping.
If you’re hoping for the wild three-cylinder howl of a Yamaha motorcycle or snowmobile, you’ll be disappointed. Despite the presence of a two-stage intake and exhaust system and the occasional whistle of the exhaust valve, the engine sounds perfectly normal. It looks more like a four than any other car three in recent memory—the BMW i8, Mitsubishi Mirage, or Smart ForTwo. When Toyota developed this engine for the Yaris, three teams of engineers in the United States, Germany and Japan worked together using automated machinery to produce a working prototype in six months, roughly half the normal development time. In Corolla Core and Circuit models, it makes 300 horsepower at 6,500 rpm and 273 lb-ft at 3,000 rpm. The torque curve remains flat up to 5,500 rpm. The Morizo edition takes the average up to 295 lb-ft thanks to a bit more boost.
The very strong transmission seems impervious to all the engine’s efforts to destroy it. The all-wheel drive system and transmission, borrowed from the similar special GR Yaris, were designed with private rally teams in mind. Following the recommendations of Toyota R&D, we produced the GR as a rally car with lots of clutch slip. The GR Corolla absorbed all the abuse we could throw at it, and we didn’t even smell the awful stench of vaporized clutch material.
For best starting, keep the revs near the limiter and make sure the engine doesn’t drop below 4000rpm. But the transmission was not designed to reach 60 mph in second gear. So the 4.9-second 0-60 mph time doesn’t fully reflect the speed of the car off the assembly line. Throw out the gearshift and the GR is faster than the manual hot hatch leader Volkswagen Golf R with its 4.7 second sprint. The GR makes some quarter-mile time, tying the VW with a 13.3-second run. The prototype we tested came out right after the media launch, and the second- and third-gear synchronizer was easily surpassed. We are confident that our next attempt at GR will produce even more impressive test results.
And it would be better, because 300 horses is the starting rate in this segment. The Golf R and Honda Civic Type R achieved this, albeit with larger displacement engines. The Corolla makes up for its lack of knockout punch by maintaining mass. The standard Circuit forged carbon fiber roof helps the Toyota provide all-wheel drive at a curb weight of 3,269 pounds. The front-wheel-drive Type R, due any day now (returning next month), is about 100 pounds lighter.
Standard front and rear Torsen Circuit differentials ensure maximum traction. Drivers can select one of three torque splits for the clutch pack’s central clutch, with 70, 50 or 40 percent of the available torque driving the rear axle. Toyota claims that the best performance is achieved in 50:50 Track mode.
Acceleration alone does not make this car great. Even better is its compliance on Michigan’s carpet-bombed roads. Fixed-rate dampers provide a handling balance reminiscent of a 90s BMW. There are no electronic crutches to switch the suspension from soft to firm, but the jerk is never so sharp as to throw your head around too much. The choice of spring and bushing seems to go perfectly with the Econocar’s reinforced one-piece body.
To bring the Corolla’s body up to GR status, Toyota adds nine feet of structural glue and a whopping 349 additional spot welds, not to mention additional floor mounts. The result is a strong, but not too rigid structure. Compared to the Audi RS3, it seems like granite. There’s a little, tiny, subtle chassis flex—not as much as the Mazda Miata—that’s nice to feel. Throw the GR into a corner and you can practically feel the load moving up the road from the tire’s contact patch.
The Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tires, not the 4S, deliver 0.94g of grip and healthy cornering on the slick, though they’re stickier on the road and the car is more neutral. Other manufacturers should check out this brake pedal: it’s firm and responsive to small changes in pressure. Stopping from 70 mph in 167 feet isn’t great for this segment, but at least there’s no fade.
One of our few gripes is the placement of the pedals. With such a firm middle pedal, the accelerator is almost out of reach for easy downshifts. Fortunately, a modified pedal is the easiest modification an owner can make. There’s an iMT button hidden behind the wheel that activates rev-matching, but why confuse this car with a computer?
Other complaints are more aesthetic. The interior is the interior of a car that starts at $22,645. There is no central armrest. The infotainment screen is barely larger than some smartphones, and its interface appears to be PalmPilot-inspired. But it does have wireless Apple CarPlay and an inductive phone charger. And how many rally cars have a heated steering wheel?
Probably the worst news for potential buyers is that Toyota only plans to produce 6,600 GRs for the US market in its first year. The car has already achieved cult status and has not even left the showroom. You might not get it the first year, but eventually you will. It’s worth waiting.
At one point I wanted a 1988-1989 Mazda 323 GTX something tough. This rally-inspired car was based on the lowly Mazda 323, but cost twice as much as the regular 323 hatch. It had a 1.6-liter turbocharged engine, a five-speed manual transmission and an all-wheel drive system with a locking center differential that provided 50/50 torque distribution. The GR Corolla follows a similar scheme, but with much more power and refinement. Driving the Gazoo is an awesome time and I’m determined not to miss out on another one. — Dan Edmunds
I always thought the latest Corolla had a decent chassis. What made it uncompetitive with the Civics and Mazda 3s of the world was pretty much everything else, but mostly the powertrain and interior. Now that the folks at Gazoo Racing have installed that high-strung turbo triple, I don’t really care for the grain of the plastic. The GR is pure fun thanks to its lively throttle response, eagerness to change direction and superb grip. It’s remarkable that such a purposeful machine exists at all, let alone that it was born from such humble origins. -Joey Caparella
2023 Toyota GR Corolla Circuit
Vehicle type: front engine, four-wheel drive, 5-seater, 4-door hatchback
Base/As Tested: $43,995 / $44,420
Options: Heavy Metal paint, $425
turbocharged and intercooled inline-3, aluminum block and head, port and direct fuel injection
Displacement: 99 inches31618 cm3
Power: 300 hp. @ 6500 rpm
Torque: 273 lb-ft at 3,000 rpm
Suspension Front/Front: Strut/Multilink
Brakes, Front/Rear: 14.0-inch Vented Grooved Disc/11.7-inch Vented Grooved Disc
Tires: Michelin Pilot Sport 4
Wheelbase: 103.9 inches
Length: 173.6 inches
Width: 72.8 inches
Height: 57.2 inches
Passenger volume: 85 feet3
Cargo volume: 18 feet3
Curb weight: 3,269 lbs
C/D EXAMINATION RESULTS
60 mph: 4.9 sec
100 mph: 12.1 sec
1/4 mile: 13.3 seconds at 105 mph
140 mph: 29.7 sec
The results above are omitted 1 foot deployment 0.3 sec.
Start from 5–60 mph: 6.4 sec
Top Gear, 30–50 mph: 8.5 sec
Top Gear, 50–70 mph: 7.1 sec
Top speed (gov ltd): 143 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 167 feet
Braking, 100–0 mph: 329 feet
Road grip, 300-foot pad: 0.94g
C/D FUEL ECONOMY
Observed: 20 mpg
EPA FUEL ECONOMY
Combined/city/highway: 24/21/28 mpg
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