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2023 Toyota GR Corolla Core review

Jul 29, 2023

Considering the popularity of pickups, SUVs, and crossovers it could be considered a major automotive miracle that sporty hatchbacks even exist, let alone a new one poking its head from the garage.

Toyota, it of the reliable, affordable family hauling lineup, introduces its new GR Corolla. The name sounds familiar and family oriented, but don’t let it fool you. GR Corolla is a whole new kettle of burnt rubber.

GR is Toyota’s nomenclature for fast, like M for BMW, AMG for Mercedes and N for Hyundai. GR is short for Gazoo Racing, Toyota’s sports car race team. And while there’s no number or sponsorship stickers on a GR Corolla, one can imagine them, or add them later.

The Supersonic Red ($425 extra and worth it) test car was a sporty hatchback in search of an autocross track. It’s a toy for those whose blood pressure rises when they hear the guttural sounds of a high-revving turbo pumped through three (yes, three) exhaust pipes.

In the recent past, fanatics of burnt rubber were served primarily by Subaru’s WRX, Honda’s Civic Type R, VW’s Golf R and Hyundai’s Elantra N. There are a few others, but not many churning 300 horsepower like the Corolla.

Say what?

That’s right, this edgy looking Corolla hatch features a powerful 1.6-liter 3-cylinder turbo borrowed from its GR Yaris, which is sold overseas where small cars still are in vogue because they generally use less gas.

This turbo cranks 300 hp and in the Circuit Edition (mid-level) the GR Corolla is quicker than the Civic Type R and Golf R, says throttle-happy Car and Driver testers, and who’d argue with them? They say the GR Corolla will do 0-60 mph in 4.9 seconds. It’s quick and punches one back into the seat.

Adding to the fun and games is an easy shifting 6-speed manual gearbox and there’s no option for an automatic. Nope, if you want to have fun in your sporty hatch, you will learn to drive stick shift. Yet, even with the GR’s standard AWD it’s possible to chirp the tires on occasion.

One reason is the GR4 AWD system that is adjusted via a dial on the black plastic-trimmed console. In standard mode, the power is delivered 60% to the front and 40% to the rear wheels. But a track mode can change that to an even 50/50 split, or a drifting mode puts 70% of the power to the rear wheels. I think I smell the Michelin Pilot Sport ZR18 tires melting?

There even are four drive modes, which is not unusual even on compact sedans these days. A Sport mode snugs up the steering wheel, so response is near instantaneous. If it firms the suspension I couldn’t tell as the car always exhibits a harsh ride.

I was hoping Comfort mode would soften that stiff ride some, but instead it just lightened the steering feel, which was fine around town. But if engineers can adjust suspension and steering via electronic widgets via a console toggle, well, really soften it up in Comfort. As is the wise driver may want to invest in a mouth guard for teeth protection.

Not to dismiss the GR Corolla because of that ride. Its competitors are mostly a dentist’s dream. If you’re racing or auto crossing, then this is the car you want. Around town, maybe not so much.

Braking is super quick too with big discs, as one expects in track-oriented cars. That was aided on the base GR Corolla Core model I tested by the addition of a $1,180 performance package. It upgrades to front and rear Torsen limited-slip differentials, and brands the sturdy red brake calipers with a GR.

You’ll notice a fair amount of engine growl when starting the GR and some as you drive too, but that adds to the fun. Road noise is noticed, but not as bothersome as one might think. I could hear music on the 8-speaker JBL stereo ($770 extra tech package), but discerning newscaster words was a bit of a strain.

Not much was strained inside though.

The seats are a wrap-around race-oriented style with substantial side bolsters to hold front seat folks in place. There’s a rear seat that’s flatter and moderate legroom in back, so this could haul four adults if needed, with decent cargo space behind the split fold-down rear seats.

GR Corolla’s interior is nothing fancy though, no doubt keeping costs down while also accentuating that this is a driver’s car. Exterior for show, engine for go!

The seats are black cloth with gray stitching and the dash top is a soft rubbery material, but door tops are hard black plastic with cloth-covered armrests. Naturally, the wheel is leather-wrapped.

The digital instrument panel gauges are simple to see and there is some adjustment there while the info screen mid-dash is just eight inches, but simple to use and see. That allows the driver to concentrate on shifting and steering.

Two knobs help with climate temperature controls, but the tiny climate directional buttons are a bit too wee.

A reasonable $500 cold weather package adds heated front seats and a heated steering wheel, much needed in the upper Midwest. Oh, and a wireless phone charger comes with the tech package that adds the nice stereo too.

Toyota wisely doesn’t scrimp on safety equipment as this is a performance car. So, Toyota Safety Sense 3.0 is included. That features smart cruise control, pre-collision detection, including pedestrian spotting, lane departure with steering assist, automatic high beams and sign detection and lane tracing assist.

Toyota, like many others now, also insists on letting you know there may be something in the back seat by messaging you on the digital cluster in front of the driver once the ignition is off. It also loves to sound an annoying chime and deliver the message that your windows are down, as if you couldn’t tell. Hey, it’s summer.

The gas mileage was disappointing, but you’re not buying a sporty 300-horse hatch to impress. The EPA rates the GR Corolla at 21 mpg city and 28 highway. I was on the low end at 19 mpg in about 70% city driving, with just a few spurts on the freeway.

So, what’s it cost, low-end like an entry-level Corolla sedan?

No way, the base Core is mid-level with a $36,995 starting price with delivery. This snuck up to $40,159 with options. The Circuit Edition includes that performance package limited-slip differential and all as standard, plus fake suede leather seats instead of cloth. It lists at $44,000 while a very limited edition Morizo Edition goes for $52,000. It sports Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires, a racier suspension and lightweight forged alloy wheels. I image that’s mostly for racers and car collectors.

If performance matters, but ride doesn’t the GR Corolla would be a fit for you!

Hits: Sporty hatch, great color, superfast, racy 6-speed manual, sports car handling, plus GR4 AWD and 4 drive modes. Heated seats and wheel, comfy sport seats, good standard safety features, fine info screen that’s easy to use, wireless charger, good cargo space, smart cruise. Gutsy exhaust tone via 3 pipes.

Misses: Harsh ride, road noise a bit high, small buttons for climate directional, annoying chime if window left down and ignition off.

Made in: Aichi, Japan

Engine: 1.6-liter turbo I3, 300 hp/273 torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual

Weight: 3,252 lbs.

Wheelbase: 103.9 in.

Length: 173.6 in.

Cargo: 17.8 cu.ft.

MPG: 21/28

MPG: 19.0 (tested)

Base Price: $36,995 (includes delivery)

Invoice: $34,698

Major Options:

Cold weather pkg. (heated front seats & steering wheel), $500

Special color, $425

Performance pkg. (front & rear Torsen limited-slip differentials, red GR calipers), $1,180

Technology pkg. (premium JBL audio w/8 speakers & amp, wireless charging), $770

Cargo mat, $110

Carpeted floor mats, $179

Test vehicle: $40,159

Sources: Toyota,