Say you’re at a dinner party, and the subject of conversation turns to the Toyota Corolla. Unless there are pizza delivery persons or Uber drivers in your midst, eyes will inevitably glaze over and bright smiles will fade slightly. That’s understandable because unless you find yourself tasked with slinging pepperoni pies or taking inebriated clubgoers home, the Corolla doesn’t exactly light the fires of automotive enthusiasm. The venerable Corolla is the best-selling car of all time (50 million sold and counting) not because it sets the heart aflutter but because it is as dependable as the tides. It ensures that millions the world over get to school on time, enjoy that long planned epic road trip without issue and fetch that carton of eggs from the store in a pinch.
The Corolla does all the ‘real car stuff’ exceptionally well. But what if Toyota turned up the heat on Ol’ Faithful?
Those that have a wisecrack about the Corolla achieving the same level of sportiness as a beige pair of chinos, zip it. Toyota, always well known for building durable and reliable products, issued a promise years ago that they would make fun, exciting cars like they did in the not-too-distant past. The Celica, the MR2 and the OG Supra exist as evidence in the history books that Toyota is capable of engineering some seriously cool cars. Even the staid Corolla got an approachable jolt of zestiness in the XRS model from eighteen years back that featured a high winding four-cylinder screamer (8,200 rpm redline!) mated to a snappy close ratio manual gearbox.
While those cars are firmly in the rear-view mirror nowadays- pun intended- there is still much to celebrate in the present tense. Gazoo Racing (or GR for short) is Toyota’s nascent in-house performance skunkworks whose focus isn’t on the longevity of a door hinge or hose clamp but rather delivering on the all-important metric of smiles-per-kilometer. To whit: the GR86 and A90 Supra have been earning mad props from the enthusiast community for a few years now and even the trucks and SUVs are getting in on the action with their TRD Pro models. Let us take a moment to celebrate how incredible it is that Toyota is genuinely making good on their promise.
Let us also celebrate the GR Corolla’s metamorphosis from vehicular wallflower to hot hatch powerhouse. There was no lead up with a bump in power here and a sharpening of handling there. It just kind of happened overnight and BAM! The next thing you know, buyers considering Civic Type R and VW Golf R are all of the sudden clamoring for Toyota dealerships to take their money. Just look at this thing- all ate up with massive fender flares, gaping triple exhaust outlets and chunky Michelin performance tires, it is truly a sight to behold and one that caused the swiveling of many heads over the course of our time spent with it. On at least three different occasions, passersby stopped to talk and kick tires…yes, on a Corolla. See what we mean?
You don’t have to have hi-test petrol coursing through your veins to know that this isn’t no run of the mill Corolla. The massive fender flares and exhaust outlets are the most obvious tells, as are the 18” Enkei wheels that showcase stout braking hardware mounted behind them. Overall, the GR looks more pissed by a factor of 10 over the most aggressive but more pedestrian types of Corolla. Normally, we shun cars painted white because it seems like such a boring choice, almost appliance like. However, wouldn’t you agree that the GR wears it well? Contrasted with the black wheels and the steroidal styling, its badass quotient is undeniable.
Step inside and you know immediately that this Corolla is not messing around, and not just because there’s a manual gear lever or a rotary dial to control the AWD torque split on full display. There’s a stern, businesslike feel to the proceedings and you get the sense that those who engineered this car were laser focused on delivering maximum driver fulfillment. The relationship to the controls is spot on, and the seats are like that of its crosstown rival in Honda’s magnificent Civic Type R- all day comfortable yet generously bolstered to hold you firmly in place in the bends; as a bonus, they are also heated for frigid mornings. There’s a no-nonsense digital dash that offers a good degree of customization and Toyota’s latest generation of infotainment tech presiding over most of the interior’s functionality. The latter is especially welcome- the last time we flogged a Corolla, the infotainment was hard to look at a chore to interact with. Rear seat room is decent and so is the cargo capacity beneath the hatchback. It has all the virtues of the same Corolla that delivered your sushi, but with a massive performance upside.
At the centre of it all is the GR Corolla’s drivetrain. Yes, the customizable AWD and crisp manual gearbox are highlights, but the engine deserves its own pedestal. Pop the hood and the diminutive 1.6 litre 3-cylinder engine looks almost laughably small- until you show it some throttle. It has impressive low end response for a little wee mill and the wave of thrust grows as the tachometer races to redline- that’s what happens when you cram 26 pounds of boost down the throat of a little screamer. The soundtrack that accompanies is a manic, thrumming three-cylinder blat that you’ll never tire of hearing. This engine makes an astounding 100 horsepower per cylinder and easily qualifies for one of the most power dense mass produced engines on sale today. Then, when the adrenaline seeps out of your system and its time to head home and make dinner, the three pot quiets down and even gets pretty great fuel economy.
Clearly, there’s much to get excited about here and little to complain about- but you know us and our legendary capability to find things that draw jeers rather than cheers. The list for the GR Corolla is exceptionally short on this front. The only thing (and we do mean only) that irked us is the pedal spacing. In a car that exudes driver focus from every control and every millimetre, the gaffe committed by spacing the brake and throttle in an unfavorable manner for heel and toe downshifting is called more starkly to question because everything else is so good. Toyota does make good somewhat by having a conveniently located switch the left of the steering wheel that will allow you enjoy full rev matching courtesy of the cars electronics, but those who prefer the real deal will need to seek out alterative pedal solutions from the aftermarket- a cursory Google search confirmed that we aren’t the only ones who’d choose a similar path. There were a few people who balked at the GR’s price tag, but those folks never actually drove the thing- if they had, they’d surely reverse course on the GR’s value proposition, never mind the specialness that you get access to driving one of these.
Even if your love for the idea of such a wild conveyance is sting and you have the money, chances are you are too late in getting your hands on one. Dealerships are all clamouring for stock by the fact is that Toyota is not building these things in the same numbers as say, a hybrid Corolla SE. Plus, the Corolla holds a distinct advantage over the GR86 and Supra it shares the stables with because it is a totally in house Toyota special, unlike the Subaru co-engineered 86 and the Supra which is more BMW than Toyota, but we digress. But keep up the pressure and who knows? Maybe your luck will turn, and you’ll get an allocation. Toyota is aware at how mad we all got when they confirmed the GR Yaris would not make it onto our shores and the GR Corolla makes for a great make up present. We not even mad anymore, Toyota.
Whatever your emotional state is towards the car- awe, love, seething at the lack of product against a huge tide of demand- you must admit that the fact that this car even exists is irrefutably sensational. Thank you, Toyota. You made good on a promise no one thought you’d keep.
So, how’s the next gen TRD Camry shaping up?
2023 Toyota GR Corolla Core - Specifications
- Price as tested: $47,378
- Body Type: 4-door, 5 passenger sedan
- Powertrain Layout: Front engine/all-wheel drive
- Engine: 1.6 litre turbocharged inline 3-cylinder, 12 valves, DOHC
- Horsepower: 300 @ 6,500 rpm
- Torque (lb-ft.): 273 @ 3,000 rpm
- Transmission: 6-speed manual
- Curb weight: 1,483 kg (3,269 lbs)
- Observed Fuel consumption: 11.2L/100km (21 mpg)