Toyota GR Corolla

A highway marauder

Settle in if you like your performance shaken, not stirred, as we got our hands on the key fob to the latest member of Toyota’s Gazoo Racing performance family, the Toyota GR Corolla GTS, for an extended play date.

Not one to shy away from attention, with its muscular bodywork and an energetic personality amplified by its authoritative deep baritone growl, it certainly won’t go unnoticed.

Joining the spirited GR86, voluptuous GR Supra and dynamite GR Yaris, this robust corner-carving road demon, finished in GTS trim, carries a premium price tag just north of seventy thousand dollars.

It’s certainly not for the fainthearted, but those with an adrenalin addiction who revel in thrilling performance won’t be able to resist.

Like most performance vehicles, production numbers aren’t excessive. But Toyota Australia was able to snag 700 examples of the GR Corolla GTS for its debut year, giving passionate car-lovers a great opportunity to secure one. GTS models come in four exterior colours, including Glacier White, Ebony, Liquid Mercury metallic and Feverish Red mica metallic.

Building on the popular Corolla hatchback, the renowned TNGA-C platform supports the GR Corolla with significant upgrades for optimum sporty driving.

But, rest assured, the GR badge signifies this vehicle is no mere fancy dressed styling exercise. The driveline reads like the parts list from a high-performance elite tuning house catalogue. And that’s probably because it is…

Dubiously approaching the GR to avoid startling it, I gently lifted the bonnet, hoping it wouldn’t bite me! From every angle, this road-legal gym junkie has the chiselled form of a street fighter and the looks to match.

Beneath the lid sits a familiar sight. The GR Corolla has a high performance 1.6-litre turbocharged three-cylinder engine like the one squeezed into the GR Yaris. Only this time it’s been tickled and tuned to yield an eye widening 221kW at 6500rpm and 370Nm of torque across a broader and very responsive range from 3000 to 5550rpm. Just to clarify, that’s 300hp from a 1.6L 3 cylinder, which is staggering because it equates to roughly 188hp per lire. To put that into perspective, the breathtaking Ferrari 488 Pista produces similar figures.

For those who glaze over at technical specs, you can safely skip a few paragraphs. But if you enjoy the technical jargon, I’ll provide a brief insight into this amazing little engine’s design criteria.

All this rewarding goodness comes courtesy of some impressive cutting edge modern engineering. The engine block is cast aluminium for weight savings with an open deck design enabling improved cooling under duress. This also contributes to lower combustion chamber temperatures and more even temperatures between cylinders, resulting in the ability to run higher compression ratios and therefore improve both power and torque.

Like the Supra’s leveraged BMW B58 inline six, the three cylinder motor also uses a crankshaft main bearing girdle as opposed to the traditional end caps found in most closed deck blocks. This helps reduce flex and maintain block rigidity under extreme loads. Modified induction and exhaust ports, expanded valve seat diameter, an altered injection spray pattern and angle, along with changes to the combustion chamber have all improved efficiency and combustion speed, liberating every available Nm for a strong powerful response to driver demands.

There’s also an internal balance shaft to offset the inherent rocking motion typically experienced in a three-cylinder design because of the uneven number of pistons. Toyota has used hydraulic-type engine mounts to reduce idling vibrations and lateral engine roll during hard driving. Leveraging high pressure fuel delivery via the 6-hole direct and 10-hole port injectors, the engine’s response from low to midrange and even during higher rpm is smooth and builds with a strong assertive delivery that’s both predictable and controllable, allowing you to orchestrate the GR’s talents rather than wrestle it for dominance.

What better way to fill and flush the indomitable GR’s lungs by rapidly evacuating spent energy than through the triple rear exhaust? Not only does it create a signature rear-end look, it helps minimise exhaust back pressure via an exhaust valve and actuator enhancing power output.

Oh, did I forget to mention it also creates a deep gratifying growl unique to a three-cylinder configuration that will have your ears enchanted whilst painting a dumb smirk across your face?

Toyota decided to have the system activate the tri pipes at start up, idle and light throttle low cruising speeds, creating an almost demonic purr alluding to the GR’s true nature. The first 40 times is a giggle, but there reaches a point of too much of a good thing. In slow-moving traffic, with patience frayed by arrogant drivers whose delusional Mario Andretti driving skills make them impervious to the road rules or courtesy to other drivers… then the constant drone became annoying. Having the ability to turn if off would be appreciated – so you could enjoy the full audible experience and the entertainment factor when the time was right.

The 1.6 punches well above its weight, delivering the sort of strong torque and acceleration you expect from a much larger engine. More impressively, with a little technique, as you get used to the 1.6’s temperament you can tap into its rich torque curve quickly generating brisk acceleration and strong power delivery through each successive gear change without the need to chase the tacho needle relentlessly into the red. The more I drove this engine, the more I appreciated just how damn good it was. Strong, willing, and tractable; get the right combination of rpm, gear selection and road speed, and it never failed to impress.

Toyota indicates a drinking habit of only 8.4L/100km and I’m sure that’s perfectly achievable if you drive it like a standard Corolla. Which you won’t… because it isn’t!

Let’s be honest, you’ll purchase a GR because you’re an enthusiast! You enjoy manually stirring the gears, you like a double expresso dose of kW’s, and four paw grip to carve through corners and to be first off at the lights every time.

How much you re-write that consumption figure will be proportional to how far your New Balance FuelCell sneakers sink the go pedal and just how wide you want that smile on your face.

The GR’s exterior charisma is echoed inside, with alterations to the interior showcasing the GR’s personality and soul as a genuine hot hatchback. All versions are provided with a special gear shift, centre console, manual parking brake for added functionality, read improved fun factor. There are the obligatory go-fast aluminium pedals and a grippy leather-wrapped steering wheel adapted from the plucky little GR Yaris.

Whilst impressively quick, the $70K+ GR is more than a stripped-out race shell. Toyota has made sure that driver and passengers will be comfortable when not capitalising on the GR’s herculean attributes. GTS variants come equipped with a range of self-indulgent features, such as heated front seats and multi-function steering wheel, the pleasure of which should never be underestimated on a cold winter morning.

There’s wireless charging, dual-zone climate control and an eight-speaker JBL audio sound system, which is average, but does come in handy once you get over driving with all the windows down to enjoy the angry Teddy Bear exhaust growl.

Sports seats are upholstered in suede and synthetic leather nicely highlighted by contrast stitching with a GR logo central of the head rest. They’re firm yet with sufficient squish that they’re not bone jarringly hard. I liked the amount of lateral support for cradling you through the corners, without being so restrictive that broader drivers can’t get comfortable.

And they didn’t hamper the practical necessity of being able to get in and out easily—important if this is both every weekday transport and weekend fun machine.

An 8.0-inch touchscreen adorning the centre of the dash displays the latest Toyota multimedia system, along with Toyota Connected Services. It has the now usual suspects of Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, with DAB, plus its own satellite navigation.

There’s improved capability and usability incorporating dynamic voice recognition, which comes in handy when rowing your way through the gears.

But my favourite piece of tech was the crisp, customisable 12.3-inch driver multi-information screen with colour head-up display providing me with easy and quick reference to a comprehensive range of vehicle information.

From an outright practicality standpoint, the GR’s based on the venerable Corolla hatch. If you intend to haul passengers regularly and need plenty of storage spots and space, the Corolla Cross will suit you better. Rear seat room is acceptable, and if you drop the rear seats, there’s a reasonably sized flat floor that will accommodate shopping bags, smallish boxes from IKEA or getting your fur kid to the park. Growing active family friendly? The GR-olla suitability is not so much.

The GR is rewarding of good driving technique, offering the fun of exploiting its potential without feeling intimidated. This is a vehicle that will happily doddle around in city traffic all day, for an effortless drive thanks to the rich torque curve, or engage with you willingly and responsively for those times you want to play.

Press the start button and the GR grumbles into life. The first thing I noticed is, that for a hot hatch, the clutch operation is unusually easy and fluid. It’s almost buttery at the meshing point, feeding power in for a brisk take off is ridiculously easy. A dual mass flywheel helps dampen the engine’s power pulses for a smooth torque delivery whilst requiring less effort to overcome inertia, achieving improving engine response at any throttle opening.

Push firmly into the rev range and each shift glides through the gate in an almost seamless transition. Utilise the rev matching and you’ve got to be doing something pretty dumb to get it wrong.

So, how does this feisty GR harness a monumental flood of torque and urgency and plant it firmly on the ground without wasting time creating a flourish of white smoke and the smell of expensive burning rubber? I’m so glad you asked.

With a wider track front and rear, the GR is also equipped with Toyota’s sophisticated GR-FOUR four-wheel-drive system. By running Torsen limited-slip differentials on both the front and rear axles, torque is distributed to achieve responsive manoeuvrability and cornering agility.

It’s aided by a close-ratio six-speed manual transmission, along with intelligent rev-matching technology to maximise driver engagement and provide silk smooth downshifts as you wash off speed to pick your entry point and chosen line to carve your way through the next series of bends, You’ll quickly appreciate the benefits of the GR’s sporty suspension calibration offering sure footed grip over undulating surfaces and crisp stable response to directional changes.

The torque delivery of the 1.6 is almost intoxicating and ranks highly on the giggle factor; you just want to slow down for any excuse to open the taps and let the GR flex its muscles, pushing you back in the seat for a gratifying surge before grabbing the next gear to repeat the process.

Have at it, and the GR’s all-wheel drive system will bite down hard on the black top to haul in the 100k marker in around 5s. In fact, it feels quicker.

Select sports mode and, pushing through tight bends, the steering is responsive to small inputs and directional changes. 

Electronically assisted, it retains a nicely weighted feel with a linear turn into corners inspiring greater confidence in the GR’s minimal body roll and flat cornering stance. The suspension is firm but not jarring, compression and rebound control keep the GR settled and focused on the task at hand without wallowing or crashing and banging through dips or over bumps, whilst assisting all-wheel drive to keep the rubber firmly on the ground, letting you put its lusty kW resources to good use.

Braking is strong and assured thanks to the 4 pot callipers taking firm grip on the large 356mm front rotors backed by twin pot callipers and 297mm rotors on the rear, allowing you to modulate braking response to rein in the GR’s momentum quickly, when needed.

The GR’s sophisticated GR-FOUR all-wheel-drive system provides impressive tenacity for maintaining grip as you launch off the line to haul in the horizon. Plus, you can fine tune the driveline’s balance with the simple twist of a dial. By default, the system allocates torque in a 60:40 biased split front/rear for a comfortable blend of handling and cornering stability.

But this is where things get interesting, rotate the dial and you can influence how the vehicle prioritizes the distribution of torque, to provide a rear-biased driving experience by varying power delivery up to a maximum 30:70 allocation favouring the rear, ideally suited for exploring winding back roads and generating responsive steering through subtle oversteer.

Track mode evenly splits front/rear torque distribution at 50:50 to maximise traction in situations where vehicle load regularly shifts between the front and rear axles. Toyota advise Track mode is also best suited for driving on dirt or low-traction roads.

Those craving a little more performance will want to get their hands on an exclusive Morizo Edition. It increases the turbocharged engine’s torque output by almost 30Nm, bring its total to 400Nm from 3250-4600rpm, whilst gear ratios have been optimised to take full advantage of the additional torque. Fuel consumption of 8.6L/100 has the same caveat as above.

With pure driver exhilaration as the focus, the Morizo’s athleticism is further enhanced thanks to additional weight savings, sharper suspension geometry and structural reinforcements. The standard split-folding rear seat has been eliminated with the addition of a carbon-fibre reinforced polymer (CFRP) roof, reducing the car’s loading and centre of gravity.

Adding to the Morizo’s uniqueness, front bucket seats have contrast red stitching and red seatbelts, plus suede accents on the steering wheel, gear shifter and brake lever. The centre marker of the wheel is coloured in crimson and alumite red decorates the shift knob to add some spice to the cabin.

Running on handsome 8-inch BBS forged, dark silver alloys covered in sticky Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres, you can order your Morizo in either Frosted White pearl, Tarmac Black metallic or the menacing Matte Steel.

The GR Corolla is not only exhilarating to drive, but it also has a comprehensive set of Toyota Safety Sense active safety measures that will give you peace of mind. Thanks to enhanced camera and radar sensors, intersection turn assist is now available alongside improved motion detection of objects and 3D motion, extending the range of cameras and radars even further.

The GR won’t be for everyone… it’s not cheap, is a little boisterous inside and somewhat firm over less maintained bumpy roads. The interior is perfectly suitable for the task at hand, but you can’t call it lavish for the 70k price tag. And it might not be as refined as some competitors’ offerings when you dissect the smaller details.

But it’s what the GR Corolla does differently that makes it so good. The GR Corolla is more than the clinical sum of its parts – it’s fun, energetic, engaging and rewarding to drive. This raucous little 3-cylinder upstart has a heart of goliath, is eager to please, and the trick all-wheel drive system knows just how to extract the maximum giggle factor from each and every gear change.

The GR stands well apart from the Corolla line up with distinctive front and rear bumpers to accommodate its broader shoulders resulting from its much wider track. The large supplementary air ducts important for improving aerodynamics and cooling, with a raised hood and specially crafted 18-inch alloy wheels fitted with high-performance Yokohama tyres, add verve to the GR’s bad boy appeal. And let’s not forget the eye-catching sight of not twin but triple exhaust outlets, regularly responsible for rubber necking muscle strain as onlookers faces display a perplexed stare of WT?

Plus, there’s the reassuring confidence this pint-sized highway marauder is backed by a trusted brand name with a huge loyal fan base.

For me, the GR delivers what driving enthusiasts want and enjoy. The right balance and combination of a powerful engine, manual transmission, all-wheel drive in a compact and nimble package.

Toyota has done a superb job on delivering exactly what’s needed and avoided spoiling an entertaining recipe with superfluous BS and unnecessary flashy window dressing.

Vehicle: 2023 Toyota Corolla GTS

Price: $71,245 (at time of writing)

  • Engine: 1.6-litre three-cylinder turbo-petrol

  • Output: 221kW/370Nm

  • Transmission: Six-speed manual

  • Fuel: 8.4L/100km

  • Safety rating ANCAP 5 Stars.

Toyota Warranty Advantage provides up to 5 years of unlimited kilometre coverage, even extending that protection for the engine and driveline for 7 years. A capped-price service schedule with services at 6-month/10,000km intervals and costing $300 per time applies during the first three years/60,000km.

Drive Editor - Ray Cully
Drive Editor – Ray Cully

About our Motoring Editor: Ray has been passionate about all things automotive since he first started collecting Matchbox and Hot Wheels models when he was five. Since leaving his executive role at General Motors (GM), he’s been sharing his driving experiences with Australian audiences for nearly 20 years, commencing his automotive journalist career with a popular WA-based magazine and was writing his own column in The West Australian for 8 years.

Ray’s strong love of automotive engineering and clever design has seen his articles and photography featured in prominent national magazines in Australia and the UK. He loves sharing his passion with other drivers, including via a long running stint as Senior Instructor for Land Rover Experience, providing training and education for new vehicle owners.

Recently Ray has been presenting on TV shows including Ready for Adventure and the very popular Caravan and Camping WA, to showcase some of the great products, vehicles and companies that make getting out and exploring Western Australia that much more enjoyable.