Ever since I got my hands on an early 2000s Subaru WRX STi, I’ve had a special place for all-wheel-drive vehicles that happen to be sporty and have a manual transmission. Since then, after ownership of my 2017 Ford Focus RS, that special place has evolved to fill it with something new that may come along, such as the new Toyota GR Corolla.
The new Toyota GR Corolla has come to inspire enthusiasts and welcome them with a performance vehicle that doesn’t break the bank, with a manual transmission to boot. If you look at the fundamentals of what the GR Corolla is, you can technically conclude that it is a performance version of the current Corolla hatchback but utilizes a turbocharged 3-cylinder engine somewhat similar to what you find in the GR Yaris that’s only available across the pond. The styling is taken up a few notches over the common Corolla hatchback to include fender flares, aggressive side skirts, three-outlet exhaust, and a huge grille and spoiler. There’s no mistaking the GR Corolla as its looks mimic its performance abilities as an all-wheel-drive, manual, hot hatchback.
Hot hatchbacks used to be a common thing as vehicles like the Volkswagen GTI set the tone decades ago. Today, the progression of technology taking a literal front seat in some vehicles tends to rule the world. However, Toyota has been a proven brand for knowing how to build a performance vehicle out of their own house, not just the brand collaborations with folks like BMW. When Toyota commits to doing something in-house, there’s a joyous celebration to be had, which I took part in this week with the new GR Corolla Circuit.
Powering the new GR Corolla is an odd thing, a 1.6-liter turbocharged 3-cylinder engine with 300 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque mated to a 6-speed manual transmission. Such a powertrain is the only way to have a new GR Corolla, leaving you with the choice of three trim levels: the base Core Edition, Circuit Edition, and limited Morizo Edition (2024 model year adds a new Premium trim). The extent of each trim’s differences lies mostly with feature content and a few performance modifications, where the Morizo Edition sports the most aggressive setup, having no rear seats where a roll cage fills the spot along with a slightly different suspension setup and having front and rear Torsen limited-slip differentials as found in my Circuit Edition test vehicle (optional on the Core trim). The GR Corolla Circuit and Morizo Editions both get a forged carbon roof to cut down on weight and lower the center of gravity.
The power from the 3-cylinder turbo engine is strong but oddly not as strong as I thought I would experience. That’s not to say the GR Corolla is slow or a slouch, it basically promotes driving it on the ragged edge, meaning you’ll want to rev this one out into its redline awaiting the blinking red RPM gauge in the digital gauge cluster to alert you to shift. The power band feels linear and mostly consistent, even to redline. At times, you wonder if there will be any extra kick to the power, but there isn’t. In a way, I do wish it had a bit more power. However, the GR Corolla can be quick, you just have to drive it like you stole it and never let up. It’s just one of those types of vehicles.
Fundamentally, the GR Corolla feels more like a perfect mix of the last Subaru WRX STi and my 2017 Ford Focus RS, only with a bit less power than the Focus RS. The way the manual transmission lands in each gear with a direct notch that pulsates through your hand, and then the sound of the turbo 3-cylinder that has hints of the Subaru boxer engine. The 6-speed manual has a nifty iMT (intelligent Manual Transmission) mode that actively blips the throttle for perfect rev-matches on your downshifts so you don’t have to manually heel toe, which is a little difficult because the pedal spacing is abnormally far apart. There’s just a lot of specialness to the GR Corolla apart from how stiff it rides without the option of adjustable dampers. That’s not including how it handles like it is on rails and communicates from its Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires and forged BBS wheels when traction is about to give away but it is easily mitigated with the customizable all-wheel-drive system. That customization allows you to either stick with the default 60% of the power sent to the front wheels and 40% rear. You have the option to switch to 30% front 70% rear, or enable the track mode for a perfect 50/50 split of power. The 30/70 mode was my favorite as I was actually able to kick the rear out just for a second or two, but the rear tires quickly grabbed the soft asphalt in my ‘testing parking lot’ and allowed me to power out of a sharp turn. Point the GR Corolla in a straight line after mastering the clutch engagement and grippy tires, you’ll hit 60 from a stop in as fast as 4.9 seconds. Doing so may take you several tries, but you’ll eventually do it – just trust me on this.
There’s no doubt that the GR Corolla is probably the most fun you can have at the price of its admission. It’s like one of the best rides on four powered wheels you can find right now, and fit your ‘stuff’ in the back hatch for an exciting ‘trip.’ There’s just nothing else like it. Also, it’s much more than just a performance version of the current Corolla hatchback, it feels like more of a cohesive package conjured up by the folks at Toyota, who know a thing or two about performance using parts from their own parts bin. No homework was copied from anyone else here.
Figuring that you’re only working with a 3-cylinder engine that you would have good fuel economy only makes sense. No, no, this turbocharged 3-cylinder is going to make you familiar with your local gas station as it tends to drink a bit more premium fuel than its fair share, only getting up to 28 mpg on the highway, 24 mpg combined, and often getting the 21-mpg city EPA figure when you’re having a ‘little’ fun. The tank is also small at 13.2 gallons, so just be prepared to plan out your stops if you take the GR Corolla on a trip.
There’s something appealing about keeping things simple in a modern-day vehicle. Toyota does so well in many vehicles, and such translates into the GR Corolla. The vehicle controls are all simplistic, there’s a physical setup for the single-zone automatic climate control. The 8-inch infotainment touchscreen runs the same setup as other new Toyota and Lexus vehicles with straightforward operation and the integration of wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
The seating areas are what is found in the normal Corolla hatchback, but you get sporty, heavily bolstered, heated Brin Naub and synthetic leather seats that feel plush and supportive with an adjustable headrest. The seating position is optimal, and thankfully, the driver’s seat can be raised and lowered for taller folks like me at just over 6 feet.
The rear seating area is convenient enough to stuff a couple of friends back there with their stuff piled into the rear hatch with 17.8 cubic feet. Or you can fold the 60/40-split rear seat backs down to open it up to just over 36 cubic feet.
Surprisingly, Toyota offers up a full array of active safety features for the GR Corolla instead of stripping it down to only highlight its performance aspects. The latest Toyota Safety Sense 3.0 has a bevy of features standard, which include blind-spot warning with rear-cross traffic warning, adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist, and forward collision warning/emergency braking.
To not get too carried away with things as this is still a “Corolla,” the GR Corolla is priced just right, in my view, with a starting price of $35,900 for the base Core Edition trim. From there, my GR Corolla Circuit Edition test vehicle jumps to $42,900 before any fees or options, and then $49,900 for the Morizo Edition, which then enters head-scratching territory, considering you’d be paying just over $50K. Still, in the scheme of how few options for a vehicle of this stature with a manual transmission and all-wheel-drive are available on the current market, the GR Corolla is a welcomed option that titillates the senses of real automotive enthusiasts of virtually any age.