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2023 Toyota GR Corolla Quick Spin: A Rowdy Runabout

toyota-gr-corolla-2023-01-exterior-front-angle 2023 Toyota GR Corolla | Cars.com photo by Mike Hanley

The verdict: With the all-new 2023 GR Corolla, Toyota is coming in hot to the hot hatchback class with a feisty performer that’s a blast to toss around a racetrack.

Versus the competition: The GR Corolla has all-wheel drive like Volkswagen’s Golf R, but it’s more similar to the now-discontinued Subaru WRX STI. Whereas the Golf R is slick and refined, the GR Corolla has the kind of raw, unfiltered character that’s becoming more uncommon — even among performance cars.

Toyota’s other GR models, the GR Supra and GR86, are the result of partnerships with BMW and Subaru, respectively, but the new GR Corolla is based on Toyota’s four-door Corolla hatchback. That platform is a solid starting point for a performance car, and Toyota’s Gazoo Racing has used it to create in the GR Corolla a car that’s a completely different animal than the regular hatchback. At Toyota’s invitation, we drove the GR Corolla for the first time at Utah Motorsports Campus near Salt Lake City. (Cars.com pays for its own airfare and lodging when attending such manufacturer-sponsored events.)

Related: 2023 Toyota GR Corolla Starts at $36,995, 2-Seat Morizo at $50,995

How Is the GR Corolla on the Track?

The east course at Utah Motorsports Campus is a fun little track with a mix of sweeping and tight corners as well as a bit of elevation change. The straightaways the track does have aren’t especially long, making it well suited to the GR Corolla’s abilities — and those abilities are considerable. In place of the normally aspirated 2.0-liter four-cylinder that powers the regular Corolla Hatchback, the GR Corolla gets a turbocharged 1.6-liter three-cylinder engine that makes nearly double the horsepower and torque: 300 hp at 6,500 rpm and 273 pounds-feet of torque from 3,000 to 5,500 rpm. In the limited-run Morizo Edition trim level, the engine makes 295 pounds-feet of torque from 3,250 to 4,600 rpm.

The turbo three-cylinder is a strong, eager-revving engine that makes the kind of sounds you want to hear from a performance engine, like the turbo spooling up when accelerating and an exhaust note that doesn’t rely on electronic augmentation for its growl. The Morizo Edition, which has different gearing and, with a curb weight of 3,186 pounds is the lightest trim level, pulls a bit harder when accelerating, but this doesn’t translate into significantly different 0-60 mph times: Toyota says the base Core and 2023-model-year-only Circuit Edition trims can get to 60 mph in 4.99 seconds, while the Morizo takes 4.92 seconds.

All versions of the GR Corolla have a six-speed manual transmission (an automatic isn’t offered), and it includes a rev-matching feature that worked great on the track; it automatically blips the throttle when downshifting for a corner to match engine speed to the lower gear.

Another unique characteristic of the GR Corolla is how the power from its turbo three-cylinder gets to the wheels. The car’s standard AWD system includes three driver-selectable front-to-rear torque splits — 60:40, 50:50 and 30:70 — engaged by a console knob. Circuit and Morizo Editions also have front and rear limited-slip differentials, which are optional for the Core.

The AWD system helps the GR Corolla effectively put its power down on the track, but so do the tires — particularly those on the Morizo Edition. The Morizo is fitted with Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires on 18-inch forged-alloy wheels, while Core and Circuit Edition trims have Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tires on 18-inch alloy wheels. The Sport Cup 2 tires are extreme performance summer tires with a 240 treadwear rating, while the Pilot Sport 4 tires are max performance summer tires with a 320 treadwear rating. With a treadwear rating that low, the Sport Cup 2 tires may not last long, but the sticky rubber helps give the GR Corolla a ton of grip when cornering. While the Circuit Edition wasn’t sliding on the track with its Pilot Sport 4 tires, there was a clear difference between them and the Morizo’s Sport Cup 2 tires, which were more willing to dig in and stick in corners. All models have MacPherson struts in front and a double-wishbone rear suspension, but the Morizo gets stiffer springs and monotube shocks.

The GR Corolla’s braking performance also impressed. All versions have 14-inch front discs with four-piston calipers and 11.7-inch rear discs with two-piston calipers, and the setup worked well on the track: Stab the brake pedal before turning into a corner and they bite hard enough to throw you against the seat belt. As a result, you’re able to carry more speed and brake later before entering a corner thanks to their stout stopping power.

Does the GR Corolla Still Have Hatchback Practicality?

The GR Corolla’s hatchback body style means it’s more accommodating and versatile than your average performance car. The manually adjustable front sport seats are comfortable, and there’s enough headroom for taller drivers to sit comfortably — even when wearing a helmet. The backseat is passable for adults, but there’s not much extra space; the lower part of my legs were touching the back of the front seat. The Morizo version deletes the backseat altogether, making it a two-seater, but it adds cross-car bracing where the backseat would normally be for additional structural support. The bracing is also designed to hold an extra set of track-day tires.

The regular GR Corolla has 17.8 cubic feet of cargo room behind the backseat, according to Toyota measurements, which is the same amount of luggage room as in the regular Corolla Hatchback but less than the 24.3 cubic feet that the AWD Corolla Cross small SUV offers. The 60/40-split rear backrest folds flat with the cargo floor, but the cargo floor itself is relatively high for a small hatchback. There are, however, some storage areas under it.

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Should You Buy the GR Corolla?

Most of my seat time in the GR Corolla was on the track, so we’ll need to spend more time with it to see how it handles everyday duties on regular streets. But it’s clear from our time lapping it that you’re in for a thrilling time if you get one with the intention of taking it to track days. It’s quick, responsive, has good steering feel and delivers an overall driving experience that’s endearingly unfiltered.

With a starting price of $36,995 (including destination), the GR Corolla Core is significantly more expensive than a regular 2022 Corolla Hatchback, which starts at $22,260, but its performance capabilities are also significantly greater. Compared with other high-performance hatchbacks, however, the GR Corolla’s base price is significantly less than the well-equipped Golf R’s $45,185 starting price, and it’s also a bit less expensive than the outgoing, front-drive-only 2021 Honda Civic Type R, which had a $38,910 starting price. (A redesigned Civic Type R recently debuted as a 2023 model.)

For decades, the Toyota Corolla has represented efficient and sensible transportation. The debut of the 2019 Corolla Hatchback improved the car’s driving dynamics, and now, with the GR Corolla, Toyota has an impressive high-performance hatchback. It’s not the type of car you might expect from Toyota, but it’s one I thoroughly enjoyed driving.

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