The Toyota GR Corolla took the world by storm when it made its debut – and for good reason. In a world that’s increasingly electrified and automated, Toyota – of all car brands in the world – decided to go against the grain and give enthusiasts what they’ve been asking for: a manual hot hatch that won’t murder your bank balance.
It’s a car that makes no sense (for a car company) in today’s automotive market, and its sole existence is down to one man – then Toyota president and CEO Akio Toyoda, who proudly proclaimed “no more boring cars” all the way back in 2011.
True enough, every Toyota model since then – from the humble Vios to even the tree-loving Prius – have made progressive improvements in their driving dynamics. But it was when the company formed its Gazoo Racing (GR) division that truly caught enthusiasts’ attention.
It was a true passion project for Toyoda, born out of the company’s renewed involvement in motorsports – which he himself even participated in as a driver under the pseudonym Morizo. But racing alone wasn’t enough for Akio-san. He wants to make cars – “ever-better cars” that are built using their experiences at the racetrack.
So they did, starting with GR versions of their existing cars, then eventually GR-specific models like the GR Supra, GR Yaris, and GR86 – all of which personally signed-off by Toyoda himself, and championed by fans and enthusiasts worldwide (including us, with the Supra and Yaris both included in our AutoBuzz.my Best Cars of the Year awards in 2019 and 2021 respectively).
And now, the latest entry in the celebrated Toyota GR line-up has finally made its way into Malaysia, taking what it has concocted for the limited-run GR Yaris, and stuffing it into a Corolla hatchback – all while spicing everything up by a notch.
But with the rally-derived innards now in a more civilian suit, will the Toyota GR Corolla still live up to the mythical standards set by the homologation special?
The daily-able hot hatch
Step into the driver’s seat, and you’ll quickly notice just how easy it is to drive this thing. Despite its hearty exhaust note, you get a sense that there’s still a very normal Corolla hiding behind the fancy bodywork – not that it shares much underneath.
First, there’s the driver’s seat. It’s unique to the GR, and has all the support you’d expect from a sports car. But since it’s still a Toyota Corolla after all, you’re also still sitting relatively high off the ground, giving you perfect visibility to manoeuvre the car around tight city streets.
Then, there’s the manual gearbox, which, despite being purpose built for the GR Yaris and Corolla, still has a fairly light clutch pedal and forgiving bite point. There’s even a built-in auto-blip function, called i-MT, to help make every downshift buttery smooth – even in day-to-day driving.
And when you pair all of those to the familiar – if not a little underwhelming – cabin, and even a laundry list of advanced driver assist tech, the Toyota GR Corolla really does feel like a car that you can easily live with every day, even if you have to sit in the daily KL standstill traffic jams.
Mature looks, but still young at heart
But you see, while it can behave like a full-grown adult, the Toyota GR Corolla only really shows its true personality when it’s allowed to stretch its legs and let loose at the playground. It’s not just a car that can go fast, it’s a car that demands to.
You feel it in every facet of its drive; from the relentless acceleration, its unflinching chassis, to even the physical feeling in the shifter. But most of all, it’s the mind-numbing amount of grip that’s allowed by the GR-Four all-wheel drive system and standard-fit twin LSD set-up.
It sucks you in, and begs you to give it more beans. And no matter how much you throw at it, the GR Corolla still remains completely unfazed, without even a hint of complaint. If it was easy to get comfortable in the GR Corolla, it’s perhaps even easier to go fast in it.
Sounds like the perfect car, then? Well, not quite – for me, anyway.
A different kind of fun
The Toyota GR Corolla, in almost every measure, is unquestionably a technical triumph. It’s composed through the bends, quick on the straights, and it even has the world’s most powerful three-cylinder engine in production – making some 300 hp from just 1.6 litres of displacement.
But in spite of all that, it’s also just lacking that last bit of sparkle to make it truly special – that emotional connection to the car that makes you smile every time you unlock it.
I truly wanted to love the GR Corolla, and in theory, it does sound like the perfect recipe for the ultimate hot hatch. In reality, though, its greatest accomplishment is also – unfortunately – its biggest downfall. Because while it may be an unstoppable rocket on the racetrack, when it comes to the twisty back roads, it’s just not a car that really wants to dance with you.
The GR Corolla doesn’t really come alive until it’s pushed to its limits, and chances are, you’re never getting anywhere near that on public roads. On weekend drives, the Toyota GR Corolla just feels perhaps a little too effortless to pilot – and as a result, it somehow loses out a little in terms of the whole “fun factor” – the active and playful driving engagement feel that the GR86 does oh so well.
It’s akin to buying the latest copy of a difficult video game, but opting to play through the entirety of it in the easiest setting. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, though – for some people, that might be exactly what they’re expecting from a hot hatch.
But if you’re like me, a little simplicity – and a little less hand-holding – can sometimes go a long way.
Toyota GR – for the enthusiasts
The good news is that we’re not short for choices, even just from Toyota. Want a more back-to-basics experience? There’s the GR86. A more laid-back grand tourer that’ll still wag its tail when you want it to? The GR Supra fits the bill.
No matter what sort of driving joy you’re after, Toyota has you covered – and we enthusiasts only have one person to thank: Akio Toyoda.
We’re truly living in amazing times – who would’ve thought that in 2023, it’s Toyota that would be at the forefront of enthusiast machines?
|Engine||1,618 cc; turbocharged inline-three, petrol|
|Driveline||GR-Four full-time AWD with adjustable torque split|
|Max horsepower||300 hp @ 6,500 rpm|
|Max torque||370 Nm @ 3,000-5,500 rpm|
|0-100 km/h; Top speed||5.3 seconds; 230 km/h|