Not too long ago, the thought of Toyota building a car like the GR Corolla would have been unthinkable. Now, though, this hardcore hot hatch is very real – and, most importantly, very brilliant.

Akio Toyoda, grandson of the founder of Toyota, may have stepped down from his position as the company’s CEO in April after 14 years at the helm, but the man who promised to make Toyotas fun again bestowed us with one last gift before relinquishing control – the GR Corolla, which is quite simply the maddest hot hatch to hit the market in some time.

It’s just the latest addition to Toyota’s Gazoo Racing line of hot models following the BMW-derived GR Supra and WRC-bred GR Yaris, but this widebody, all-wheel drive, turbocharged version of the quirky yet humble Corolla hatchback might just be the division’s finest effort yet. At a time when even the Hyundai i30 N has been dialled down from the brash and noisy skunkworks project it launched as to a softer and more mellow facelifted model – and while many companies are abandoning hot hatches all together – this thing is ripe to bring some unhinged fun back to the segment.

Two versions are available in Australia, with the one the majority of people will end up buying being the GTS variant tested here which comes priced from $62,300 before on-road costs. Positioned above it is the hardcore Morizo Edition – named after the pseudonym Akio Toyoda raced under at the 2009 24 Hours Nürburgring, Morizo Kinoshita – which adds more torque and more lightness by ditching the back seats and speakers and adding a carbon-reinforced plastic roof among a host of track-read upgrades. Priced at $77,800, just 25 lucky Aussies will have the chance to buy one, so this standard GTS variant is the far more relevant of the two to cover here even though just 500 examples of this version will be available during its first 12 months on sale.

Where the GR Yaris proudly touted its rallying pedigree, the GR Corolla takes a different approach – think of this as being built for tarmac rally stages, whereas the Yaris was built to tackle gravel. Certainly, that’s the instant vibe you can pick up from its lower ride height, ground effects, and super glue sticky Yokohama Advan Apex tyres which are a major upgrade over the lacklustre Dunlop treads fitted to the base GR Yaris.

Having started out with the rather funky bodywork of the current Corolla hatch, the GR Corolla wears its noticeable widebody kit and bulging vented bonnet well, while its squared-off grille suits the already aggressive nose of the Corolla. Despite these larger proportions, along with an additional 349 spot welds and 2748mm of structural adhesive added to the chassis, the use of thinner bumpers, lighter suspension components, and a reduction in sound deadening has saved 13kg from the weight of the body. 18-inch Enkei cast alloy wheels are fitted as standard and also fit the look perfectly, especially with a set of red brake calipers peeking out from behind them, while at the rear its odd set of three exhaust pipes – two round and one rectangular – somehow manages to suit it as well.

Inside, there are plenty of upgrades to be spotted over your average top-spec Corolla, the most obvious being the sportier GR-branded heated steering wheel and heated suede bucket seats. Like the top-spec ZR model there’s a 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster, although it adopts a completely different look with a central tachometer and customisable side items including a G-meter and boost gauge, along with an 8.0-inch infotainment system (which admittedly looks a bit undersized given the big bezel around it) with wireless Apple CarPlay, wired Android Auto, and the latest infotainment system software shared with Lexus. There’s also a wireless phone charger to keep iPhone users’ batteries topped up when using CarPlay.

What’s particularly impressive is the array of driver assistance technology, which I was rather surprised to see in a hot hatch with a manual gearbox. Some of it obviously caters to those looking to push the GR Corolla to its limits – such as the drive modes, all-wheel drive system controls, and auto rev-matching, all of which I’ll hone in on later – but Toyota has seen fit to give it a comprehensive array of active safety tech including lane centring, adaptive cruise control with turn signal-linked control for overtaking, autonomous emergency braking, intersection collision avoidance support, emergency steering assist, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, and safe exit assist. Seven airbags, front and rear parking sensors, and a reversing camera are also standard.

As you’d expect, there’s a mixed bag of materials inside with some large plastic sections on the dashboard and door cards contrasting the more premium leather and suede finishes elsewhere, but in typical Toyota fashion the build quality is top-notch with a distinctly solid and long-lasting feeling to everything in this cabin.

Although the Corolla is on the small side, the ergonomics in the front seats are right on point. The wheel is the perfect size, the seats are supportive when you’re pitching into corners, and the shifter is ideally placed. Perhaps the greatest interior improvement this offers compared with the GR Yaris is its lower seating position, with the smaller GR hatch’s lofty seat base pleasantly contrasted by a lower-slung driving position in the Corolla.

Of course, the back seats are on the smaller side – something clearly demonstrated by the lack of rear door pockets, although there are some well-positioned cup holders – but there is still a centre armrest and enough room to give your friends a lift in a pinch. Boot space remains unchanged from the dismal 213 litres of the standard Corolla hatch – a good 100 litres off what would still be considered an undersized boot in this class – but it’ll at least handle the weekly shopping and is somewhat more forgivable in this hotted-up version.

READ MORE: Is the new Subaru WRX better with a manual gearbox?

The GR Corolla might be packing all of the above, but we still haven’t gotten to the fun bit yet – what’s hiding underneath its wider and more rigid new body. Although it uses the same 1.6-litre turbocharged three-cylinder petrol engine as the GR Yaris, power has been increased in the GR Corolla GTS to 221kW at 6500rpm, a boost of just over 10 percent, while it makes the same 370Nm across a broader 3000-5550rpm plateau.

GTS variants use the same six-speed manual gearbox as the GR Yaris but with a different final drive ratio to strike a balance between suitability for track driving and the daily commute, while the Morizo Edition adds revised first and third gear ratios along with an extra 30Nm of torque with its focus aimed squarely at track driving.

Unlike the last hot Corolla we got, the mid-2000s Sportivo which shared its 2ZZ engine with the Lotus Elise – and which is a car I once owned briefly – this doesn’t spin all its power away through the front wheels alone. Instead, both GR Corolla variants come as standard with the GR-FOUR all-wheel drive system with front and rear Torsen limited-slip differentials – something previously limited to the GR Yaris Rallye.

With the tweaks Toyota has made to its furious little three-pot masterpiece, this engine feels far more polished in the GR Corolla. Smoother at lower revs and fuller through the mid-range, were it not for the angry-bee soundtrack you’d never know it only had three cylinders. It might not have the outright heave of something like the Golf R’s EA888 mill, but for a car that only tips the scales at 1470kg it’s easily enough to have some real fun with.

The way the all-wheel drive system channels this power to the road, though, is what gives the GR Corolla its character. Unlike in the Yaris, the all-wheel drive system can now be controlled separately from the standard drive modes, meaning you can take your pick between a 60:40, 30:70, or 50:50 power split at your leisure whether you’re in Eco, Normal, Sport, or Track mode. The change in feeling is so noticeable between them, it’s almost like having three cars in one. The 60:40 split feels the most balanced and natural for a hot hatch, while the rear-biased 30:70 gives you that shove in the back that a rear-wheel drive car would.

Throw it into its most hardcore settings, however – that being Track mode, which brings up a horizontal tachometer in the gauge cluster, with the 50:50 power split – and the grip on offer is face-melting. It holds its line through corners like it’s on a Scalextric track, the firmer suspension, precise steering, sticky Yokohamas, and its equal power distribution as you plant its aluminium loud pedal into the carpet working together to make it one seriously thrilling experience. If you really love driving, this is the car for you.

Further bolstering that point is the fact there’s no automatic transmission of any kind available, meaning that even while only five percent of Aussies buy a car with a shifter and three pedals now, 100 percent of GR Corollas will come with one. It’s a fabulous transmission as well thanks to the shifter’s snappy throw, its iMT auto rev-matching which is a game-changer on a backroad or in traffic, and the fact Toyota seems to have eliminated the crunchy feel when shifting into second that’s present in the Yaris.

Of course, there are still some compromises that a car this hardcore necessitates. For the feint of heart, it’ll make the daily grind just that thanks to the rigid suspension and noisy cabin. I’m sure a few will also be put off by it being a manual-only proposition, but in my eyes that’s one of its main drawcards.

At least it won’t hurt your hip pocket too hard at the bowser, as the miracles Toyota has worked on this engine has not only made it more powerful but also more economical. Over the course of 414km which included plenty of foot-flat action, I saw an indicated 8.9L/100km – not much more than the official 8.4L/100km claim. By comparison, I saw 9.7L/100km in the standard GR Yaris on the roads of Victoria and 9.6L/100km in the Rallye on the same Adelaide Hills roads I tested this Corolla on. Considering a near 200kg weight penalty in the bigger Corolla, and that result is quite remarkable.

As with all Toyota models, the GR Corolla is covered by a five-year unlimited kilometre warranty. There’s also capped price servicing that sees the first six visits capped to $300 a pop. However, servicing is required every six months/10,000km and servicing costs do jump up after those first three years.

As a consumer hot hatch, the GR Corolla isn’t going to be the next Golf GTI – the sort of car you could recommend to almost anyone. Quite frankly, it’s not trying to be the next anything. This is a car that’s clearly treading its own path with no intention of appeasing focus groups or everyday consumers. This is a proper enthusiast’s hot hatch – just like Akio Toyoda no doubt intended for it to be.

Some may baulk at the $62,300 price tag for a Corolla, but then this is no limp-wristed attempt at making a hot hatch like the old Sportivo was, and it’s also a car without much competition. It’s smaller and faster than a Subaru WRX, it’s all-wheel drive unlike an i30 N, and it has more specialised engineering in it than just about any other hot hatch out there. Some may wish to mention the Honda Civic Type R at this point, but that costs another ten grand, making this look like a bargain by comparison.

Exclusivity is something that adds value, though, and both in supply and in target market, the GR Corolla is aiming small. When you consider what this car is aspiring to be, it’s hit the target right on bullseye.

2023 Toyota GR Corolla GTS List Price: $62,300
  • 9/10
    Performance - 9/10
  • 9/10
    Ride & Handling - 9/10
  • 9/10
    Tech & Features - 9/10
  • 7.5/10
    Practicality - 7.5/10
  • 8/10
    Value for Money - 8/10

Pros: More powerful and refined three-cylinder powerhouse of an engine, face-melting grip through the corners, snappy manual gearbox, there’s a serious amount of engineering to be appreciated here
Cons: Noisy cabin, firm ride for daily driving duties, hilariously undersized boot

Full Disclosure: The vehicle tested here was provided by Toyota Australia for six days with a full tank of fuel.

Patrick Jackson
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