There have been numerous times when someone will tell me that I have a dream job when they find out that I write about cars for a living. For the most part, I tend to agree. But there’s a lot that most people don’t see about this gig. There are the days when I’m starting at my computer screen for over 16 hours, the fact that I, as a freelancer, don’t have a 401k, don’t have a retirement plan, can’t afford any of the cars I get to drive, and don’t have a backup plan. Unlike most auto writers, freelancing is my full-time job and has been for nearly a decade. There’s nothing else for me.
Then, there’s the pay. Even after 10 years in the industry, pay ranges from $0.10 a word to $4 per hour. For some outlets, there is no exchange of money and my work is done for free. While I get how some people would look at my job a being a dream one. Take a second and think about your dream job. Would you do it for free? Probably not. Especially not when cage-free brown eggs are $7 a dozen. And yet, it’s something I’ve been doing in some capacity or another for over a decade because I genuinely love cars. And yet, despite all of the downsides to having my dream job, the 2023 Toyota GR Corolla makes it all so freaking worth it.
Toyota doesn’t make fun cars. That’s not its thing. The Japanese automaker is synonymous with reliability, affordability, safety, and simplicity. You don’t buy a Toyota because it’s more enjoyable to drive than a Honda, Nissan, Chevy, Ford, or Subaru. You buy one because you know it will outlive and be more reliable than your ex. So, when Toyota introduced the GR Corolla, it was such an out-of-character car for the brand that enthusiasts couldn’t help but swoon. The GR Corolla feels like a car that comes around as often as Halley’s Comet. It tingles the senses, creates joy, and inspires one to believe. If there was ever a car that solidified my love and passion for cars, it’s the GR Corolla.
That freaking design. Oh my gosh that freaking design. It’s haunting, like a villain chasing down the blonde teenager on a desolate farm in a horror movie. Menacing, deranged, aggressive. The design of the GR Corolla is so out of character for Toyota and so different from the regular Corolla hatchback that many people will think they’re two separate models. That’s because they basically are.
By now, I’m sure you know all of the GR Corolla’s specs, so I won’t rehash what Toyota’s done to transform the pedestrian Corolla into the GR Corolla, but even geneticists will have a hard time discerning how Toyota actually changed the DNA of the Corolla so much to create the GR Corolla.
The only way I can make sense of the dramatic change is to look at the regular Corolla as Bruce Banner and the GR Corolla being the Hulk. I think the GR Corolla looks fantastic. A true Hot Wheels come to life. It also manages to straddle the line the last-gen Honda Civic Type R and the new-gen Civic Type R seems to be flirting around.
Meant For Those Looking To Have Fun
I love the Civic Type R. Honda hasn’t let me drive the new model or the new Acura Integra Type S, but I loved the las-gen Civic Type R. If there’s one piece of criticism I can attach to the Civic Type R is that you have to be going really fast to have fun. It’s just so capable that the fun doesn’t start until well past the speed limit.
It’s the opposite with the GR Corolla. It’s fun at any speed. Whether you’re going to get groceries, absolutely zooming down your favorite road, or heading to the DMV, there’s nothing that really gets in the way of fun in the GR Corolla.
The turbocharged 1.6-liter three-cylinder engine oozes character. It’s a mighty little powerhouse that puts out mighty figures of 300 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque. In true enthusiast fashion, a six-speed manual is the only gearbox available. Unlike the beloved Civic Type R, the GR Corolla comes with Toyota’s GR-Four all-wheel-drive system. The GR Corolla is quick in a straight line, like sports car quick. And it sounds fantastic, too, with a growl and low-end snarl that’s all its own.
Feel The Rallying Background
I could write an entire thesis on the GR Corolla’s AWD system, but for the sake of time and your sanity, I won’t. One great thing about the GR Corolla’s GR-Four system is that it allows the driver to change power distribution between front and rear wheels. And they actually result in a dramatic change that you can feel. Standard is 60/40, 30/70 allows for sharper turn in and some slight rear-end rotation, and 50/50 is when you’re chasing after a sports car on a windy road. The settings feel different and actually result in a hatchback that feels different to drive. You’re not getting three different cars, but you do get a car that can handle corners in three different ways. It also gives the GR Corolla something that few cars on the market have – the ability to be catered to the driver instead of the driver having to appease the car.
The GR Corolla that Toyota kindly lent me for a few days was the Circuit Edition. It’s the one to get, if you can find one – more on that later – as it comes with a host of extra goodies over the base Core. More important, the Circuit Edition adds front and rear limited-slip differentials into the mix as standard equipment. These, along with the GR Corolla’s firm suspension, short wheelbase, and sticky Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tires result in a sharp hot hatch that grips the road. It’s not as agile or sharp as the Civic Type R, that hatchback is competing in a higher league, but the GR Corolla can handle just as well as some sports cars.
The thing I really love about the GR Corolla is that it feels like a rally car that’s been tuned for the road. It translates its body movements, you can feel the AWD system clawing as it searches for grip, and the steering wheel feels nicely weighted and direct. The physical handbrake – yes!, there’s a physical handbrake – disconnects the rear wheels for nifty J-turns on snow or dirt. We tried it. Hell yeah it works.
The GR Corolla’s performance will blow most people away. Especially people that think of Toyota as being a brand that’s become a powerhouse by not ruffling features. But what really makes the GR Corolla feel unlike anything else is because it feels special. It tingles of a limited-edition car that Americans usually miss out on. From behind the wheel, it excites and eggs you on. It’s like Rocket Raccoon from Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s raw, untamed, and unapologetic.
But Can You Live With The GR Corolla?
As with most performance-oriented cars, at least the good ones anyway, Toyota has poured all of its resources into things that really matter. So, the suspension, engine, transmission, design, and AWD system are the best that Toyota could fit into the budget. The highly limited and expensive Morizo Edition is a different story. Unfortunately, this means that Toyota didn’t touch the Corolla’s interior.
The GR Corolla suffers from a lot of the same issues that the regular Corolla has. The interior is cramped, rear legroom is tight, cargo capacity is limited, and interior materials leave a lot to be desired. The interior is dark, drab, and dreary. There’s not a lot going on in the inside of the GR Corolla to let people know that it’s a special car. The seats are fine, but not as heavenly as the Civic Type R’s and the cabin gets loud on the road.
If you’re getting this car going into it knowing that performance is what you’re after, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. But if you have a significant other, a dog, or a child that’s going to ride in the car regularly, they’re going to be upset when they have to ride in the car. At least you can get heated seats and a heated steering wheel, which aren’t available on the Civic Type R.
The interior is a real downer and I suspect it will be the true motivating factor to push people toward the Civic Type R. Another large thing that may have people leaning toward the Honda is the GR Corolla’s suspension. Toyota doesn’t offer the GR Corolla with adaptive dampers. In a nod to the old-school way of doing things, the GR Corolla is available with a standard suspension system you’re going to hate for daily use. The hatchback has a rough ride that somehow manages to get even worse on rough roads. Your non-car-enthusiast significant other is going to hate the ride quality and dread every trip in the car. But at least you’ll be grinning away like a fool.
The 2023 Toyota GR Corolla isn’t for everyone. It’s for people that love driving, that want a car that feels special from the first moment you look at it to when you’re pulling a rally drift on a gravel road. Few cars have brought me as much joy as the GR Corolla, which is saying something. It’s plenty fast, plenty capable, and plenty usable, just don’t expect it to coddle you with luxury or be comfortable for passengers.
Let’s be honest, you’re not going to cross-shop the GR Corolla against anything else. You’re just not. The Honda Civic Type R is for people that make more money, want something with more polish, and are more grown up. The Volkswagen Golf R is for people that want a high-performance car in a luxury package and are willing to pay a luxury price tag for it. The Hyundai Elantra N is for shoppers on a budget that are fine with giving up performance to save a whole lot of money. The GR Corolla is the black sheep with a background that’s steeped in rallying.
The one major issue with the GR Corolla is availability. Dealers have crazy markups on the hot hatch and Toyota isn’t doing a damn thing about it. Come on, Toyota. You made an amazing car. Let enthusiasts buy it at MSRP. Put your foot down, do something about your dealer network, and bring prices down. You deserve to sell these and enthusiasts deserve to be able to drive them. Because at the end of the day, the GR Corolla feels like a special driver’s car from the past that enthusiasts in the U.S. usually miss out on.