2023 Toyota GR Corolla | PH Review

If the GR won't come to us, we'll go to it

By Mike Duff / Saturday, 17 September 2022 / Loading comments

Although PH’s petition to get the Corolla GR sold in Europe hasn’t had its desired effect, we have managed to score a drive in the Yaris GR’s bigger brother in the US. To cut straight to the chase, you can rightly feel miffed that it doesn’t seem destined to make it here.

It’s hard to argue with success, and Toyota’s no.1 global status means there must be some internal logic to the creation of two closely related but separate models, each one aimed at different sides of the Atlantic. If the GR Yaris was just a turned-up version of the standard car that would make sense, the supermini no longer being sold in the ‘States. But the Yaris actually sits on a bespoke platform which uses a significant amount of Corolla underpinnings. Similarly the Corolla is far from just a bodykit and big engine – the shell has substantial amounts of additional bracing and has been modified to carry what is basically the GR Yaris’s suspension. 

Anyway, onto the basics. The Corolla is obviously bigger and heavier than the Yaris, its 4410mm overall length a substantial 415mm increase – just over four fag packets in the old vernacular. The difference in wheelbase is much smaller, with the Corolla’s axles sitting 80mm further apart with 2640mm between axle centres, giving the bigger car much more substantial overhangs. On Toyota’s numbers the Corolla is also 200kg heavier. The big difference to the regular Corolla is width, with the GR’s 58mm increase in track covered by plastic arch extenders. (These look a bit stuck-on up close.) Up front the toothy radiator grille looks great, giving a view of the intercooler that sits behind it. At the back, it gets a bit silly with the improbable sight of three distantly spread exhaust tailpipes, two smaller ones on each side and a larger one in the middle.

But while the GR Yaris is effectively a 2+2 frankencoupe, with rear access both tight and limited, the GR Corolla remains a five-door Corolla, with a cabin very nearly as practical as lesser versions. It feels similarly sensible, too – with the same dark, durable plastics common to pretty much everything else Toyota has ever done. Beyond bespoke GR graphics for the digital dashboard, and the new powertrain selection controller, the most noticeable differences are Alcantara sport seats and the same lather steering wheel as the GR Yaris. 

While the base powertrain is the same in both cars, the Corolla gets more power. Toyota has increased the boost pressure for the 1.6-litre three-cylinder turbo up to make a peak of 25.2psi – making 300hp, accompanied by 273lb-ft of torque. (The forthcoming hardcore Morizo version will get even more puff to increase torque output to 295lb-ft). That’s a serious specific output for any engine – 185hp/ litre – and there is never any doubt of the forces involved in getting so much out of such a small engine, with a buzzy, off-beat idle and lots of induction noise and wastegate flutter.

Power reaches the wheels through the exact same transmission as the GR Yaris, a six-speed close-ratio manual gearbox with a torque splitting coupling varying the amount of effort sent to both axles, this adjusted by the small circular controller next to the gearshift. The standard split is 60:40, but the rotary controller in the centre console allows the balance to be (more than) reversed to 30:70, while pressing it to select the Track mode turns the split to 50:50. Front and rear limited-slip differentials are optional on the U.S. spec base model, and standard on the more senior Circuit edition which I drove in the ‘States.

The engine is as fizzy and exciting as it is in the Yaris. There’s lots of lag, unsurprisingly given the boost pressures involved. Carpet the throttle below 2,000rpm and you can count the time it takes for boost to build in Mississippis. But revs turn it good, and the GR is one of those cars that is always egging you to push harder, snarling harder as its gets to higher revs. It starts to feel a little tight just before the 7,200rpm limiter, but is still happy to run to this. The lowness of the gearing also contributes to the speed at which ratios get devoured: second runs out just past 60mph. Despite the extra mass, Toyota claims the Corolla is slightly quicker, quoting a 5.0-second 0-60mph time. 

A couple of foibles from the GR Yaris have also made the transition to the new car. The Corolla’s accelerator and brake pedal are poorly positioned for the sort of heel-and-toe rev matching this sort of car is surely built to celebrate. Granted, there is a switchable auto-blipper system called i-MT and activated by a button tucked away on the lower dashboard. It works cleanly and well – but it would be nice to also get the chance to do it yourself.

Subjective call, but I also emerged from my drive wishing for a little more natural feedback from the steering. The rack is lower geared than most darty hot hatches, although the Corolla’s reactions are keen and linear once a bit of lock is applied. Once loaded up in a corner the steering feels properly dialled in, sticking to the position of the front wheels even as slop angles start to build. But there is very little of the sort of off-centre chatter that something like the previous generation Civic Type R excelled in. Driving the GR back to back with a Golf R – the Volkswagen rarely noted as a paragon of steering feel – proved that the R was definitely richer in sensation.

But that clears the deck of substantive criticism. The rest of the GR driving experience is spot-on. It is definitely better thought of as a hot hatch with all-wheel-driven superpowers rather than a modern equivalent for earlier rally reps like the Lancer Evo or Impreza STI. The Toyota’s Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tyres generate big grip, but even with the maximum amount of torque sent to the back the handling balance always felt front biased on dry roads. 

It’s definitely not one of those Velcro performance cars. Pushing hard in the GR tips it into mild understeer, even in faster corners. But this is just an opening gambit – easing the throttle slightly immediately tightens the line, and a bigger lift can get the back end nudging wide. At this point, in a longer or tighter corner, it’s possible to get back on the power and start to use the accelerator to tweak and tuck the attitude of the car. This is short of exuberant oversteer – the only place I got the GR to properly drift was on gravel. But it does make the car feel involving and exciting – both edgy and secure at the same time. 

Suspension settings are also very pliant for such a senior hot hatch. The Corolla stays impressively flat under even big cornering loads, but it also uses its suspension travel to absorb bumps well. Even being chucked down a rough and heavily cambered road didn’t faze the dampers, which kept the GR’s body mass under tight control. It actually seemed to ride slightly better than my memories of the lighter Yaris GR. While composed chassis compliance might not sound particularly exciting, the engine brings more than enough sound and fury to compensate. It also means the Corolla copes with cruising speeds well.

Toyota’s logic in keeping an ocean between the GR Yaris and GR Corolla suggests they think the two cars are too close together to share the same market, despite the clear differences in both size and dynamic purpose. With the proviso that I don’t work in automotive product planning, I’m honestly wondering if that is really the case: I think the Corolla GR could easily appeal to a different demographic in Europe without cannibalising sales of the smaller car. 

Even with the near-historic lows of the pound against the dollar, the GR Corolla also looks like good value. The base car is $36,995 in the ‘States before sales taxes (which vary state to state), the Circuit adds a carbon fibre roof, bigger rear spoiler and the clever diffs for an extra $7,000. And the Morizo, which will be stripped out and lose its rear seat to save 45kg will be $50,995 and limited to an initial run of just 200 cars. All of those prices are almost guaranteed to have additional dealer markups ladled onto them, something permitted in the US. Don’t be surprised if the first Morizos change hands for north of $100,000.

But regardless of all that, the obvious point needs to be made again – it’s not too late, Toyota. Bring it. 

Specification | Toyota GR Corolla Circuit Pack

Engine: 1618cc three-cylinder, turbocharged
Transmission: Six-speed manual, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 300 @ 6500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 273 @ 3250rpm
0-60mph: 5.0-sec
Top speed: TBC
Weight: 1465kg 
Price: $43,995 (£38,550)

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