Expert Reviews

2023 Toyota GR Corolla First Drive Review

Affordable adrenaline.

That’s what brought me to Vancouver Island in the first place. OK, it was actually a chance to drive the 2023 Toyota GR Corolla that did it. This is a car that’s been stirring nervous excitement in me since the first rumours of its existence began to show up online. I couldn’t wait to get behind the wheel.

But if I was going to fly to the far side of the country to drive a weapons-grade Corolla, it only made sense to up the adrenaline ante with the help of one of my favourite hobbies – and one of my favourite friends. So I hatched a plan to hitch an early flight out west where I’d spend the weekend shredding a beehive of mountain biking trails in the Comox Valley before hitting the track.

An Epic Steed

More than just the logistics guru at Cumberland, B.C.-based Forbidden Bike Co., Marc Nadeau is a wizard on two wheels. Pick your adjective – faster, stronger, grittier – and no one I know does it better, hence his move to the mountain biking capital of Canada to begin with. And with invites to visit dating back to the Before Times, I was finally ready to experience the sorcery I’d heard about for years – as in the “high-pivot witchcraft” this brand of bikes has been hocking since 2019.

Making me look good while bombing up, down, and around Cumberland Forest was the Druid GX, Forbidden’s full-carbon trail bike with a mixed wheel setup. Colloquially known as a mullet bike, combining a 29-inch front wheel with a 27.5-inch rear one results in a rig that can roll up and over obstacles with ease while remaining incredibly quick in the corners. Now add in the high-pivot rear suspension that uses an idler pulley to reduce dreaded pedal kick-back while remaining impressively composed over rough terrain, and this bike is the definition of business in the front and party in the back.

Tearing up trails with names like Blue Collar, Kitty Litter, and Climax, the Druid GX delivered a confidence-inspiring experience time and again. An upright riding position made climbing a breeze, while the rear suspension’s high pivot point made quick work of rocks, roots, and ruts whether descending hills or traversing twisting single track. Two days in the saddle made me a better rider, full stop.

An Incredible Car

Alas, it was time for work – not that a day at the track is particularly taxing, and especially not behind the wheel of this maniacal new Corolla. As crazy as a 300-hp three-cylinder engine stuffed under the hood of an all-wheel-drive car that weighs less than 1,500 kg (3,307 lb) might seem, its execution is incredibly civilized.

But first, let’s cover the Corolla this hot hatch is based on. It’s not as if it could be described as sporty, at least not in a conventional sense, but there’s always been something of a playful side thanks largely to its short wheelbase and flex-free chassis. In short, the performance potential has always been there. What’s been missing is actual go-fast goodies – and that’s exactly what the mad scientists at Toyota’s Gazoo Racing division have added here.

It starts with the stuff you’d expect, like a turbocharged engine and all-wheel drive. In terms of the former, a 1.6L three-cylinder engine is nestled between the front fenders, while the latter can divide torque any one of three ways. There’s a front-biased 60/40 setting, an even 50/50 divide for track use, or a 30/70 split in favour of the back wheels for a little more tail-wagging fun.

Now, about that torque. The Core and Circuit versions generate 273 lb-ft of it, while the limited-run Morizo Edition has had the boost dial cranked up just a touch for a total of 295 lb-ft of the good stuff. Either way, getting it all to the wheels is a six-speed manual transmission with selectable auto rev-matching, although the Morizo Edition is of the close-ratio variety. Meanwhile, every Canadian car also features limited-slip differentials at both axles.

And while the regular Corolla hatch rides on an already rigid platform, the performance aspirations of this GR model called for a little something extra. That’s why it features 349 more weld points than the regular car, while four chassis braces all but eliminate any perceived flex when pushed hard, particularly on the track. On top of all, the Morizo Edition features a trio of additional body braces, plus more than six metres of extra structural adhesive.

A Monster on the Track

If ever there was a car seemingly tailor-made for Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit (VIMC), the 2023 Toyota GR Corolla is it. With a footprint of roughly 33 acres – compared to the more than 260 acres the grand prix circuit at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (CTMP) occupies – the tight and technical track features 19 corners and tons of elevation change across its 2.3 km of asphalt. It’s the perfect playground for such a tiny and tossable car with all-wheel drive and a high-revving engine.

Climbing the first hill towards turn three, and in hot pursuit of a manual-equipped Toyota Supra, the punchiness of the turbo motor became immediately apparent. Any apprehensions about the robustness of a three-cylinder engine that makes 300 hp melt away the moment the boost pressure builds and the GR Corolla rockets ahead with purpose.

Steady throttle through that 90-degree section and it was time for the quick quartet of turns four through seven – a combination of up and down corners with a little off-camber action thrown in for good measure. It was here I had to back off the throttle in the Morizo Edition I was driving, with the light and lively hot hatch bearing down on the Supra’s back bumper. Even when getting a little overzealous with the throttle, there’s barely a hint that the limited-slip diffs are working their magic while the tacky Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires grab at the asphalt.

On that note, more than the extra boost pressure – and the torque that comes with it – or the missing back seat that’s part of the weight reduction effort, it’s the tires that make the most noticeable difference between the ultra-exclusive Morizo and the Circuit trim it’s based on. It’s not as if the latter’s Michelin Pilot Sport 4s are bad tires by any stretch – the Cup 2s are just better. Even on the morning tarmac that was slick from unseasonable snowfall, the Morizo managed to corner that much more tightly while easily clambering out of them and towards the next.

Playing Within the Rules

It’s not often a car as purposeful as this one can maximize its potential for fun on public roads – at least not legally. Not even this car’s coupe sibling, the Toyota GR86, has the same ability to playfully bounce around backroads without breaking the law. The last car I can remember feeling so fun while staying on the right side of the speed limit was the short-lived but simply spectacular Ford Fiesta ST.

Yes, it’s still easy to wind up in trouble when driving with too much enthusiasm; but with the manual transmission’s short gearing, it’s possible to rewardingly run it up to fourth gear while staying this side of, say, 100 km/h. Better still, it doesn’t feel like you’re leaving much on the table in the process, while the auto rev-matching system makes even mundane corners feel more exciting than they should. And with just the right amount of softness dialled into the suspension, the ride is comfortable, too.

Challenging Affordability

At $45,490 before freight and tax, the entry-level Core trim is priced competitively within the small segment it competes in. There’s the all-wheel-drive Volkswagen Golf R that starts at $47,495 ($1,300 more for the optional automatic transmission), plus the Honda Civic Type R that’s been overhauled for 2023; that’s priced at $50,050. There’s also the Hyundai Kona N or its sibling Elantra N sedan. The latter is the most affordable of the bunch at $37,499 ($39,099 for the automatic), while the auto-only Kona is $40,299.

Where the GR Corolla starts to pull away from the pack in terms of pricing is with the Circuit trim that gets more performance and comfort features than the Core – carbon fibre roof; vented hood; suede upholstery; heated steering wheel – but rings in at $53,990 before freight and tax. Then there’s the Morizo Edition that features a whole bunch of deleted parts (rear seats, door speakers, and window motors, plus no heated front seats or steering wheel) and adds forged alloy wheels, those sticky tires, and an extra serving of torque for its $59,990 asking price.

Final Thoughts

Of course, affordability is all relative. An $8,400 mountain bike might seem expensive at first blush, but then it’s built to perform at a level one that costs a quarter as much simply can’t. Likewise, $60,000 for a Toyota Corolla might be shocking, but all the go-fast goodies put it in an entirely different strata of cars. So, too, does its exclusivity, with just 10 of the Morizo Edition models earmarked for Canadian customers and, according to Toyota, some 2,500 applicants vying for the chance to own one.

Regardless of how it’s packaged – and maybe even how it’s priced – the 2023 Toyota GR Corolla is everything you, me, and everyone else was hoping for. Fast, fun, and forgiving, there’s plenty of room to play with this hot hatch on both the street and the track. Like that mullet bike from Forbidden, its ability to carve corners might be its finest attribute, and yet it manages to remain balanced and poised in spite of that liveliness. Just as high-pivot witchcraft hits different, so does the black magic of a 300-hp three-cylinder powering an all-wheel-drive hot hatch through off-camber corners with precision and poise.