2023 Toyota GR Corolla Review: A Daily Love Affair

  • 1.6 turbo engine is punchy and potent
  • All-wheel drive can be fun or focused
  • Low starting price
  • Styling is memorable but not ridiculous
  • Only the manual-capable are invited to play
  • Sober cabin feels left out of the fun

You expect mischief from the GR Supra and GR 86. You don't expect it from the Toyota Corolla, but perhaps that's only because we never let the affordable little hatchback break loose and strut its stuff. Witness, by way of example, the 2023 Toyota GR Corolla: or, what happens when you hand the keys of an urban runabout to the Gazoo Racing division, and tell them the goal is to break out in smiles, not break the bank.

The result is silly but in the best possible way.

The standard Corolla hatchback is already a fairly handsome little fellow, and the underlying GA-C platform is unexpectedly spritely. To that, Toyota adds a rear lip spoiler, side rockers, and chunky fender flares. The result plays just on the right side of silly, and the reduced color palette — white, red, and either gray or black depending on trim — suits it well.

18-inch gloss black 15-spoke alloy wheels are standard; the headline Morizo Edition trim — of which only a few hundred will be built — swaps them for 18-inch matte-black 10-spoke versions. LED headlamps and taillamps, and a triple exhaust system are standard. Higher trims get a forged carbon-fiber roof and a hood bulge with gloss black air vents.

Small price, punchy engine

Membership in the GR Corolla club starts at $35,900 (plus destination) for the Core trim; a Circuit Edition steps up to $42,990, while the flagship Morizo Edition is $49,900. That's the theory, anyway. The reality is that dealers, blessed with a limited inventory vs. high-demand model, are doing their darnedest to apply as much in the way of "market adjustment" as possible. The chances of paying the list price for this appealing Toyota are exceedingly rare.

All three trims get the same 1.6-liter inline 3-cylinder gas engine, along with GR-FOUR all-wheel drive and a 6-speed manual transmission. It's a stark lesson in not letting what's on paper (or, more likely, on the screen) color your opinion before you've experienced something yourself. After all, a mere three cylinders might put you in mind of a cheap urban runabout, and yet that's absolutely not what the GR Corolla delivers.

The turbocharger helps squeeze 300 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque out of the diminutive engine, while the standard all-wheel drive ensures as much of that power makes it to the asphalt. A dial in the center console allows the power split between the front and rear axles to be adjusted, meanwhile, an attempt to pacify those who like their sports cars to be rear-wheel drive. If you can't handle three pedals, though, Toyota won't help: there's no automatic option, here.

Unexpectedly civilized

You might assume, as a result, that the overall GR Corolla experience is an uncompromising one. After all, hot hatches may nod to practicality with their cargo space (and, generally, their overall scale), but they're often aggressively tuned and with stiff to back-damaging suspension. Happily, Toyota isn't quite so sadistic.

The tuning is firm, but not outrageously so. There's still enough compliance that trips to the grocery store needn't also involve a stop at the chiropractor. "Road-legal go-cart" is a cliché, but like the best four-wheeled playthings, there's definitely a sense of speed without excess body roll. The electric power steering is never going to be as communicative as a mechanical system would, but I had no issues placing the car, and it's pleasingly swift. 

The least practical is the GR Corolla Morizo Edition. Along with an extra dollop of torque — taking it to 295 lb-ft — the most expensive variant also drops its rear seats (among other things) in the name of extreme light-weighting for the track.

Tail wagging or track trouncing

Your preference for the all-wheel drive's power split will come down to how serious you are about lap times. By default, 60% of the power heads to the front wheels, and the remaining 40% to the rear. Twist the knob, though, and you can upend that, pushing 30% to the front and 70% to the rear.

Finally, Track mode locks in a clean 50/50 split, on the assumption that you want the minimum of tail-sliding drama. The 30:70 setting, in contrast, allows the GR Corolla to wag more enthusiastically, though even with its rearmost bias things still feel confident and surefooted. Don't assume — or fear — that the back end is suddenly going to turn into a wiggly worm without some intentional provoking.

Drive mode is independent of power split, and is a simple quartet of Normal, Sport, Eco, and Custom. A button alongside it allows the traction control to be disabled, while another button toggles the iMT "intelligent Manual Transmission" mode on and off. That's Toyota's rev-matching system, adjusting engine speed for smoother shifts.

A recipe for genuine fun

You don't really need it, though. The GR Corolla's stick isn't quite as sublimely slick as, say, the manual in an MX-5 Miata, but it has a short throw and is as straightforward to manage in city traffic as it is when whipping around backroads. Your left foot and right hand will be working regularly, though, as the GR Corolla really needs to be kept in the right rev range to maintain its fizz and pop.

In fact, that's arguably the charm of the little Toyota, and there's a genuine sense of delight when you nail the balance of gear, throttle, and steering angle. The GR Corolla certainly helps there, seemingly never lacking in grip and gently assistive even if you miscalculate a corner. As the Miata has long demonstrated, on a day-to-day basis there's far more charm in a moderately powered car you need to wring hard to get the best from, versus being able to rely solely on a big engine's grunt to vanquish any situation.

Straight line speed is punchy — Toyota quotes 4.99 seconds for the 0-60 mph run, from both the Core and Circuit Edition trims — but like any hot hatch, that doesn't seem the GR Corolla's primary goal. Instead, it's about squirting you from one playful corner to the next, and there you have a choice.

Options that are nice to have, but not essential

Toyota has front and rear Torsen limited-slip differentials (LSD), but they're only standard on the GR Corolla Circuit Edition and above. The base trim gets 4WD open differentials as standard, but you can add the Performance Package to the Core to get the LSDs. It's a $1,180 option and brings the Core to $37,080 before destination.

Basically, an LSD distributes the torque more usefully from left to right. With an open differential, the wheels on each side of the car can rotate at different speeds; an LSD reacts to the grip on each side so that if one wheel is spinning the power can be diverted to the opposite wheel and hopefully maintain traction.

Does the GR Corolla need that? Certainly, it's not essential: there have been plenty of exceedingly fun hot hatches (and other sports cars) over the years that lack a limited-slip differential. Figuring out how to work around the vagaries and inherent personality of your car to wring out the best from it is a big part, I'd argue, of the fun of enthusiast driving.

Year-round entertainment

All the same, a GR Corolla with the LSDs is definitely better than a GR Corolla without them. More tractable, more predictable, and — if you're taking your spritely hatchback to the track, which you probably should, even if just to hone your driving talents generally — helping carry more speed into the corners and squirt you out at the other side. At its core, speedy driving is about the efficiency of getting power from engine to road, but an LSD can help rescue a wagging tail (whether you provoked that intentionally or otherwise).

The tech also pays dividends if you're treating the GR Corolla as a year-round daily driver, helping ply its AWD icy conditions. Sports cars aren't generally associated with winter, especially in cold weather states, but only the 5.3 inches of ground clearance (or 5.1 inches on the Morizo Edition) would stop me from happily rolling this pocket-sized Toyota out for a blast in the snow.

Along the way, I wouldn't argue with a little more soundtrack. The triple exhaust certainly stands out visually, with three gleaming tailpipes poking from the GR Corolla's reworked rear valance, but it lacks the outraged snort and gurgle you might expect. Handy for early suburban starts, yes, but falling short on melodrama by the time things have heated up.

A solid, sober cabin

Given all that Toyota has heaped on, here, in terms of performance, it's perhaps no surprise that the budget ran out elsewhere. A selection of hard cabin plastics is probably the most obvious result, and while the GR Corolla's interior is fine, it's never going to be mistaken for special.

Core trim gets solid and serviceable black fabric sports seats, with gray stitching and GR badging to the headrests. Circuit Edition cars step up to Brin Naub faux-suede and synthetic leather sport seats with red stitching; the GR Corolla Morizo Edition gets semi-bucket sports seats instead, plus a red seatbelt. Both higher-end trims also have Morizo signature shift knobs.

Automatic climate control, a 12.3-inch driver display, and aluminum sport pedals are standard, as is an 8-inch infotainment touchscreen — on the small side, yes, but running Toyota's newer (and vastly improved) software — and two USB charge ports. Wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard on all trims as well, while the heated front seats and a heated steering wheel that the Circuit Edition trim gets standard, are options on the Core trim as part of the Cold Weather package.

A little extra reassurance

A Technology package for the Core trim adds JBL audio and a wireless phone charging pad. Both the Core and Circuit Edition trims have 17.8 cu-ft of trunk space with the rear seats up, a solid amount for a hatchback of this scale. The two-seater Morizo Edition has a cavernous 36.6 cu-ft.

Toyota's healthy level of standard safety equipment on the Corolla is also carried over to this GR flavor. Toyota Safety Sense 3.0 includes pre-collision assistance with pedestrian detection, lane departure alerts with steering assist, lane-tracing assist, and adaptive cruise control. Blind spot warnings with rear cross-traffic alert are also standard across the board.

Another reassurance is Toyota's warranty, though there's some GR-specific small print to bear in mind. The basic warranty is 3 years or 36,000 miles, while the powertrain is covered for 5 years or 60,000 miles, but if you run into issues after taking your GR Corolla to the track, Toyota won't outright promise to fix them. Instead, it'll consider things on a case-by-case basis.

The hot hatch rivals

Honda's Civic Type R has the same length of coverage, though both it and the Toyota fall short of Volkswagen's 4-year or 50,000-mile basic warranty on the Golf R. All three throw in two years of scheduled maintenance. With a limited competitive landscape, attainable performance fans aren't exactly spoiled for choice when it comes to options, although the shortlist has some gems on it.

The Golf R is a familiar quantity at this point, though no less alluring for that. Starting at $44,740 (plus destination), it combines 315 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque with a six-speed manual transmission and standard all-wheel drive. One of its biggest strengths is its duality: hot hatch plaything one minute, and capable family hauler the next.

As for the long-anticipated 2023 Honda Civic Type R, that pipes its 315 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque to the front wheels alone, with a particularly charming six-speed manual transmission. Its $42,895 (plus destination) sticker lines up with the GR Corolla Circuit Edition — though commands a healthy premium above the base Core trim — but, as in Toyota's dealerships, strong demand means you stand very little chance of finding a car at list price.

Toyota GR Corolla Verdict

That price gouging stands out as the most frustrating part of the GR Corolla experience is, frankly, a huge win and an embarrassment for Toyota. Certainly, the automaker can't force its dealers to sell cars at the price they're advertised at, but value for money is a key part of this hot hatch premise. The GR Corolla is meant to be a gateway to giddiness, after all.

That's why the idea of GR Corolla's being stockpiled among those looking to cash in on cachet, rather than actually enjoy their pocket rocket, is so galling. With Morizo Edition cars so vanishingly rare, I suppose I can understand the allure of keeping one box fresh. More generally, though, while it's a fancy example of the breed, the GR Corolla is still a Corolla. It's made to be used.

For much the same reason, I think the sweet spot here is the Core trim with the Performance Package. That gets you the key mechanical magic but — in theory, at least — also keeps you well under the $40k mark. At that point, the 2023 GR Corolla feels like a bonafide bargain, and something well worth celebrating every day.