Since Toyota pulled the curtain off the GR Corolla this past March, enthusiasts have been eagerly awaiting the hot hatchback. While the GR Yaris wasn’t homologated for the United States (we have vastly different safety requirements to the rest of the world), the Gazoo Racing (GR) brand took the spirit of that car—along with the engine—and injected it into the Corolla platform. The result is a spritely vehicle that celebrates the art of driving. Simple acts like turning the steering wheel and shifting gears provide so much more connection between car and driver in the GR Corolla.

→ The new turbo 1.6-liter, three-cylinder engine is surprisingly strong.
→ The torsen limited-slip differential at both axles finds traction from simply nothing.
→ The manual gearbox feels heavy without being uncomfortable, with shifts feeling notchy and inspiring confidence.

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  • Base price: $35,900
  • Engine: Turbocharged 1.6-liter three cylinder
  • Horsepower: 300 hp
  • Torque: 273 lb-ft
  • 0-60: 4.9 Seconds
  • Transmission: Six-speed manual (no automatic option)
  • Drivetrain: All-wheel drive

What You Should Know

Here in the States, car enthusiasts have been kicking and screaming for Toyota to bring its compact GR Yaris hatchback across the pond. However, rather than altering the Yaris to comply with U.S. safety requirements, Toyota opted to add a stripped-down, pumped-up version of its Corolla hatchback. Now called the GR Corolla, the vehicle will be available in three different flavors:

  • Core: $35,900 MSRP
  • Circuit: $42,900 MSRP
  • Morizo: $49,900 MSRP

Unfortunately, the Circuit edition will only be available for the 2023 model year.

I recently flew to Salt Lake City, Utah, to drive the new GR Corolla on track at Utah Motorsports Campus.

GR-Four All-Wheel Drive

Toyota’s GR-Four all-wheel-drive (AWD) system is one of the clear focal points of the GR Corolla. The Core (with the optional performance package), Circuit, and Morizo editions all come with torsen limited-slip differentials at both axles; these clever diffs send more torque to the wheel with the most grip and are much quicker than a viscous-type limited-slip differential. It almost feels as if the differential sucks the car into the apex of the turn, making the hot hatch feel spunky unlike anything I’ve ever driven. The improved traction was very confidence-inspiring but definitely forced me to get more comfortable with how much more speed I could carry through the corners.

front wheel of toyota gr corolla
Matthew Crisara

Toyotas reps were vocal about the adjustable torque splits made possible by the GR-Four AWD system. This means that it can adjust the percentage of power that goes to the front and rear wheels between three settings: 30/70, 50/50, and 60/40. The aim is to affect the handling characteristics, but I didn’t really understand the different modes in dry conditions. The 50/50 felt fantastic, offering up an ultra-solid front axle that allowed me to tip the car into any corner at simply hilarious speeds. However, moving more torque forward or backward just made the car worse, introducing more understeer. Ironically, I would only ever use the rear-biased mode in wet conditions to allow the back end of the car to kick out a bit.

side of toyota gr corolla
Matthew Crisara

To keep things equal, I drove all three different trim levels in the 50/50 torque split to get a good base feel of the car. In this setting, I was impressed with the crisp direction changes and playful handling. Even in the most basic Core model, the GR Corolla was incredibly forgiving given just how much grip it had. This meant that, by the end of the day, I was scaring even myself with the cornering speeds it was capable of.

Three Cylinders, 300 Horsepower

New for 2023, the GR Corolla has the same turbocharged, 1.6-liter, three-cylinder engine as the GR Yaris. Despite some bottles holding more soda than the engine displaces air, the Corolla’s powerplant feels strong. Pumping out 300 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque, it’s not going to set the world alight. But wow, is it a peppy engine.

toyota gr corolla on track
Matthew Crisara

Peak torque is delivered fairly low down between 3,000 and 5,000 RPM. That might sound quite high up in the revs, but there’s actually quite a lot of meat in the middle of the power range. With Utah Motorsports Campus’s mix of medium and high-speed corners, I could leave the GR Corolla in third gear—sometimes shifting up into fourth—and it had plenty of pep to pull me through some of the corners. That’s not to mention that we were at 4,400 feet of elevation, which is not insignificant when it comes to impeding engine power.

The three-cylinder engine features three exhaust tips at the back that actually play a supporting role in delivering this amount of power. Along with giving such a small vehicle a big car noise, the exhaust system features a trick set of valves that reduce back pressure to optimize power delivery. Too much back pressure generally leads to decreased exhaust flow and, therefore, slightly less power output. That’s not to mention that the triple exhaust just looks fantastic; aesthetically, three exits are better than two and funkier than four.

Shifting Gears Yourself

One of the big marketing initiatives with the GR lineup (GR Corolla, GR 86, and GR Supra) is that all three vehicles are available with a manual transmission. However, the GR Corolla is unique in that it’s the only one of the trio available with only a stick—meaning it needs to be good.

gear stick of toyota gr corolla
Matthew Crisara

I’m happy to report that the gearbox in the GR Corolla is sublime. The throws between gears are weighted very nicely, with the gearstick making a satisfying thunk as it moves into position. Toyota also opted to disable its intelligent manual transmission facility by default. This automatically matches the engine revs when you’re downshifting through the gearbox, and in my eyes is more annoying than it is good. Thankfully, the vehicle doesn’t need it because it’s already well engineered.

Next to the knockout manual transmission, I was overjoyed to see that Toyota kept a mechanical handbrake. Why the excitement? It’s all in the sacred art of executing a perfect handbrake turn (in a safe and legal area, of course), a maneuver that’s simply impossible to do with an electronic handbrake. Along with appealing to everyone’s inner high-school teenager, the mechanical e-brake adds to the analog feel of the car.

Driver-Focused Interior

The GR Corolla’s cockpit was a comfortable and exciting place to be—even in the most basic Core trim level. The seats were well bolstered, holding me tight while giving the hot hatch a workout at the race track. These form-fitting seats are important for high-performance driving, as poorly designed buckets force you to support yourself with your knees to turn the wheel properly. Being a rather small human being, I’m generally thrown around quite a lot driving on the track. But the GR Corolla’s seats kept me in place.

interior of toyota gr corolla
Matthew Crisara

Having said that, I’m very keen to to find out what these seats (and car) are like to live with on a weekly basis. The Core trim comes with fabric upholstery, which isn’t terrible but also doesn’t feel the most premium. Shelling out the extra $7,000 for the Circuit edition gives you suede- and synthetic leather-trimmed sports seats with red stitching and GR badges in the headrests.

front seats of toyota gr corolla
Matthew Crisara

All three grades receive standard aluminum sport pedals, which look and feel like they belong on a proper sports car. Pedal placement was equally positive, making heel-toe downshifting possible for a weekend warrior like myself.

The Verdict

There will always be car enthusiasts looking for an affordable all-wheel-drive car. The default option has long been the Subaru WRX—the latest iteration starting at $30,000. That leaves the Volkswagen Golf R (starting at $44,090) as the only other AWD hot hatch that’s brand spanking new. The GR Corolla fills the price gap between the two vehicles at its modest $35,900 for the most basic Core trim. If it can stay immune to dealer markups, the sporty GR hot hatch can definitely do some damage in its segment.